Bite by Bite: My Process for Immersing in Literature

When I earn my Ph.D., I don’t have plans to stop learning and growing. The intellectual aspect of our lives is vital. My academic journey is still just starting, but I feel like I already have so much growth under my belt. I see post-graduation continuing to increase my skill and ability to immerse myself in literature and scholarly projects. This semester, I have felt both accomplished and utterly lost, depending on the day and moment. I have found a process that has been helpful so far, but I imagine I will be refining it for the rest of my life. Desmond Tutu in Shadyac’s (2010) documentary aptly commented:

How does one go about eating an elephant?
you eat it one bite at a time.

This bite by bite process is the only manageable way that I find I can approach my dissertation. As the push for final projects is still on a distant horizon, I have to continue to encourage myself to chip away little by little at forming my outline for my dissertation. To express my process and what I am doing, it might help by describing my last week in research and how I have been approaching it. Each week has been different, and will likely continue to be different, but each chunk will help me reach my goal.

This last week has probably been one of my most productive and engaging this semester in Ecology of Ideas. Each week has been slightly different in my approach and activities, but my goal each week is to spend time immersing myself in a particular dissertation. Last year, at the intensive, I got the opportunity to watch the dissertation defense by now Dr. Andrea Montgomery Di Marco, Ph.D. I’ve seen several of them now, but hers has been the most engaging for me and feels the most connected to my planned research. I also had multiple opportunities to hang out and connect with her, so it has also been my most personable. I remember returning from California last semester, and the next week I was teaching my SOWK 487: Theories of Practice II course. The course’s focus is on social work students learning group work skills. The groups include therapeutic and task implementations. That week my session was discussing the foundations of working with groups and empowering our clients. I excitedly used Montgomery Di Marco’s research as an example and shared the work she completed in her study. At the time, I hadn’t been able to refer to the actual dissertation because it was not yet published. I knew I would need to circle back to it and read it. This week was when I finally did that.

Looking at my Toggl Track timer for Ecology of Ideas, I logged six and a half hours this week working through her dissertation. I find it incredibly helpful to track my time. I have written about how I do this and my connection to the quantified-self (Campbell, 2019). I spent that time reading her dissertation and marking up the dissertation with the app Highlights on my iPad. I use a combination of Zotero, Zotfile, and iCloudDrive to manage the PDFs, citations, and all of my references.

The essential immersion that I gained this week was the format I followed and diving into her research in a deeper way. I did not spend six and a half hours just reading her dissertation. I looked at the overall format and outline of her publication and the references and citations that she made.

I plan on using participatory action research (PAR) as my methodology in my research. I might be more specific in my methods, but I am still keeping it pretty broad right now. She talked in general about PAR, but she specifically focused her Feminist Participatory Action Research methodology. In considering the outline and her book overall, I copied all of the headings from the table of contents. I went through each one and evaluated if it was a broad section that I likely will have or not. There were many subheadings that I will not integrate into my paper, as she was focused on working with refugees, and I am looking at working with teachers. But the broad strokes have helped me pencil in the skeleton of an outline.

The first time I read through it, I highlighted anything I found interesting or were topics I wanted to come back to and look at again. After reading it all, I went back through the paper and screenshotted each of the sections that had citations I wanted to look at further. With my screenshots gathered, I went down and started living in her reference section. I went through all of my screenshots and looked up each reference entry. My first task in screening out references was to look at the title, author, journal. I was looking to see if it seemed relevant to my research. If it appeared potentially appropriate to my dissertation, I went and found that source. I added it to my Zotero database, skimmed the article. I would make some notes about some of the topics or the connections I made. I would then put that information into my MindNode database and move on to the next reference.

Each week has been a little bit different. I have 600 references in my Zotero database that I still need to categorize and add to my research journal (at least the related ones, a great many aren’t). That is my next step in the next couple of weeks is to systematically go through old reference I have and add ones that might be useful.


Campbell, J. (2019) The connection between self-research, transformation, and social constructionism: The quantified self.

Montgomery Di Marco, A. (2020). How a group of refugee-immigrant women living in the diaspora in Metro-Vancouver define flourishing and experience participatory-hospitality: A feminist participatory action research project [Ph.D. Dissertation]. California Institute of Integral Studies.

Shadyac, T. (2010, October). I am [Documentary; Video]. Flying Eye Productions.

Author Note

The following essay was originally posted to the online discussion forum for TSD 6526 - Ecology of Ideas as a part of my Ph.D. Studies in Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies.