Tracking Changes: Why Process Matters
by Dr. Lauren Upadhyay, Instructor of French
The 2013 film Jobs tells the story of one of the most innovative technology companies of our century: Apple. The creation of the Macintosh computer in the1980s and its mass marketing in the 1990s changed the way we communicate and live, and yet we don’t really see much of that in the movie. The main focus of the movie is what happened before all of that happened, the lead-up to the paradigm shift. The movie gives us a glimpse of something we rarely think about or even care about: the how of the final product. How did Steve Jobs even get the idea to create the Apple computer? It didn’t just come to him in the middle of the night – it was the result of years and even decades of collaboration, trial, failure, and reformulation. It required thinking not just in terms of a final product, but also imagining how to exceed that final product, almost as soon as it was “finalized.” The story of one of the greatest pieces of technology of our era is not the story of sheer, magical genius, but rather of a simple human being and a relentless creative process.
If we don’t keep track of our process, it can be hard to recall how data fits together when dealing with a large volume of information. I learned this the hard way while doing archival research in France. At first, I was so focused on collecting as much archival data as possible that I failed to record the thoughts and ideas I had along the way about the information I was collecting. Oftentimes, after a few days’ or weeks’ absence from the archive, I would return to find that I couldn’t remember where I’d left off. Very quickly, I began to understand the importance of a research journal. I opened up a separate Word file and began to record everything that came to my mind as I was collecting data. I entered the date in bold and underlined it so that I would easily be able to find my thoughts from a particular visit to the archive. I usually didn’t worry about spelling errors or style, just about how the data I was collecting from the archive fit in to my dissertation project and to the research I had already completed.
To my surprise, I ended up using this journal much more frequently than even my transcriptions (my data) while I was writing my dissertation. It was my road map to the more than 1,500 digital pages of archival materials that I transcribed over a four-year period of numerous trips back-and-forth to the archive. Without it, so many of those ideas would have been lost, and I wouldn’t have known how everything fit together because there was no way to go back and re-create the process I had followed.
There is also another reason why it’s important to pay attention to our process, and this is one I’m sure every tech company has learned the hard way. If we place too much emphasis on the final product, it is easy to lose sight of some of the critical elements along the way that have contributed to “getting it right.” Imagine an iPhone upgrade that is missing a key feature of the previous model, one that engineers neglected to include in their new version because they didn’t realize it was so important. Luckily the previous model would still exist so that engineers could re-trace their steps and see where they went wrong. Our own work – writing, digital creation, invention – is no different, but so often we don’t keep multiple drafts, or think about the steps we make along the way. That is why I ask students in my French 201 and 202 classes to write their journal entries using Google docs. By clicking on “see new changes” at the top of the document, students can view the record of changes to their journal entries, including my corrections over two drafts and their own responses to those corrections. Students who started studying with me last fall and continued on this spring now have seven journal entries that they can compare, allowing them to literally track their improvement in French from beginning to end. Since it can be hard to realize the progress one makes along the way while learning a foreign language, these drafts provide written proof that their language skills are improving through this process. It validates the efforts students have been making over the last year.
It can be tedious to go back and study our process to see if maybe a previous version was better, or to understand how we have improved. But this “meta-data” – information about our data – can save us time in the long run by linking the progress we make with the thoughts and ideas we had along the way, and by helping us to understand that there is no such thing as a “final product,” just a point at which we decide to stop in the creative process… for now.
Lauren Upadhyay teaches French language, literature, and culture in the Department of French and German at Agnes Scott College, and at the Alliance Française d’Atlanta. Her favorite French expression is, “rien ne sert de courir,” which loosely translates as “slow and steady wins the race.”