This is an ode to the pinboard—bulletin board, corkboard, tack board, or whatever synonym you prefer—as an underrated brainstorming tool.
When I arrived at Cambridge as a new PhD student in the fall of 2020 (mid-pandemic), I became very well acquainted with my accommodations at St. Edmund’s College during my 14-day quarantine. My room came with two large pinboards. Perfect, I thought: plenty of space to hang photos and cards. I knew I was going to be looking at these walls for a long time so I might as well make them interesting. I quickly populated one with postcards while the other remained bare besides the fire and COVID safety posters. The term progressed, and the UK plunged into its second lockdown as I dived into my preliminary literature review for my doctoral research. Once again limited to the four walls of my room and attempting to piece together the unwieldy number of articles I had been reading, inspiration struck. I pulled out my trusty index cards, printed off and cut up my bibliography, bought some gift-wrapping twine, and covered the pinboard with an energy that would make Charlie Kelly proud.
As strings tangled, I felt my field unravel before me. Disability studies, dyslexia studies specifically, is inherently interdisciplinary, sitting at an intersection of various subjects: the cultural history of literacy and learning disabilities, dyslexia’s origins as ‘word blindness’ and how it shifted from optical to neurobiological study within medicine before shifting to educational psychology, and how the neurodivergent mind is perceived by society; then toss in children’s literature and childhood studies for good measure. With all these threads stuck to my pinboard, I was able to sit and visualize the entirety of my research beyond a 13’ screen. I recognized patterns, drew new connections, and was able to trace a line between them all (follow the red string).
I looked at the pinboard all the time. Even when I was not actively working on my literature review, I would walk past it, roll out of bed to it every morning, or just stare at it when the Zoom fatigue reached its peak. Sometimes revelations came at weird times: I recall, for example, an instance of rapidly tacking up new index cards, praying my pasta was not boiling over in the kitchen.
I was always drawn to the idea of putting my thoughts up on the wall. In the past, I had tried using whiteboards, but magnets got bumped around and dry erase ink smudged. The pinboard offered the perfect balance between stability and maneuverability. It offered the best way to form new connections, create patterns, and find the gaps. The only downside was that I could not pack it with me when I left Cambridge during the winter break. What originally was a few weeks to visit family became several months when the UK entered its third lockdown and advised students abroad to not return if possible. When I realized I would be home in Canada for Lent term, I immediately ordered a corkboard, some pins, and twine as I prepared to tackle the next steps of my research. I playfully refer to it as my “murder board,” which has become especially poignant as I spent Lent term analyzing dyslexia narratives in detective fiction. As Sherlock Holmes tracks down his archnemesis Moriarty, I too am unraveling how villainy runs rampant within my corpus of texts.
I have always enjoyed visualizing my work. I have great spatial reasoning skills (if I do say so myself), which is not unusual for many neurodiverse minds. I have a learning disability. My difficulty is very similar to dyslexia—I often call myself dyslexic-adjacent—and have used a laptop as one of my primary learning accommodations since I was 11 (back in the 00’s when I was often the only student in the class to do so). Using a word processor allows me to outline, to start in the middle of paragraphs, and catches my deplorable spelling mistakes. But, while I rely heavily on technology for my education in an age when nearly everything is digitalized, the pinboard accomplished something that word processing and project organizing programs like Scrivener could not.
I could physically move information around on this kind of “map” without scrolling up and down in a giant word document, visualizing pieces all at once without the font becoming microscopic. This past term as I examined how narratives around dyslexia diagnoses can map onto the classical detective story, my new pinboard (“Murder Board 2.0”) allowed me to overlay my primary texts over the archetypal paradigm. Strings linked similar plot points and character roles across texts. Offline, slow thinking could thrive and my thoughts could percolate without the blue-light eye strain. I could lay out the pattern and connections between ideas first and find the specific words later without losing my broader picture. That is the trouble with word processors: you often need the words first.
Old technology is not necessarily bad technology and new technology is not necessarily better. And so, this is my ode to the pinboard made of simple cork, foam, and cloth. While I have, and will continue to, use my laptop chalk full of word processors, outlining tools, spellcheck, and read-a-loud editors, for the delicate brainstorming stages of a project I will turn to the trusty pinboard. Like all learning strategies, it is about finding out what works for you.
Elizabeth Leung is a first-year PhD student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge where she is exploring the representation of dyslexic characters in genre fiction for children and young adults. She is the co-founder and editor-at-large of Young Adulting: Serious Reviews of Teen Fiction and has the bad habit of buying more books than she has time to read. You can follow her on twitter @ezlabeth.