Last night I did this post about research, and then this morning, when I woke up, I decided to take it down. I rarely do that - even when I probably should - just because I feel like, what the hell, that was what I wanted to write at the time and I've got to own whatever it is that I wrote, even if I feel like I don't like it now. But I chose to take that post down because I felt like it was weirdly apologetic and yet also disingenuously modest and yet also not really true. And also really long-winded and without a point.
But so throughout today I've been thinking that I wanted to do a post that actually does talk about research in a real way, and specifically about my experience as a person who does research at the kind of institution at which I teach.
First, I should say that since I realized I enjoyed teaching and that I had a talent for it, teaching and research have never been in competition for me. For me, each contributes positively to the other, and that's not just a schtick I've worked up for cover letters and performance review purposes. I really do believe that I'm stronger as a researcher when I'm devoted to my teaching and that I'm stronger as a teacher when I'm devoted to my research. That's just the way I roll.
I know that not everyone has that experience - some feel like teaching takes them away from their research and still others resent the demands that research makes upon them that stop them from focusing on what they do in the classroom. I don't fall into either of those camps, not really. Sure, I resent having to teach writing as much as I have to teach writing. Part of that is because I don't really believe it's where I'm strongest as a teacher, and I get frustrated when I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, spending great amounts of time on something that I'm not really very good at and not likely to get better at doing. I often feel in the writing classroom that I've got to lower my expectations for what I can achieve with my students, whether for my own sanity or whether to accommodate the students themselves, and I really hate feeling that. But this has a lot to do with the unique configuration of writing requirements at my institution. I'm not sure that I would feel the same about this part of my job in another context, and how I feel about this part of my job does not extend to a feeling about teaching generally.
But I didn't get into this gig to be "just" a teacher. If I had wanted to be "just" a teacher, I would have gotten secondary certification and taught high school. The attraction for me to being a professor - not "just" a teacher - was really deeply connected to my love of research. Now, I'm not the best researcher in the world. I'm not setting the world on fire, and I really don't think I'm that wildly productive. I pursue questions that are interesting to me, and I do so in a methodical way, and then things happen because of that. I don't say no to opportunities that cross my path. But I don't devote time each day (or even each week) to research, and I don't spend my summers writing like a maniac. If I've got a particular project, with a deadline, I do the research stuff. I devise projects because I'm interested in thinking about certain things - if I didn't have an idea that I wanted to pursue, I probably wouldn't have projects just to have them or because I felt obligated to do so, particularly in my current job. It's just not necessary to do that here.
But since it's not necessary to do research (beyond one article and attending some conferences) at my institution, that leads to some questions. One question that many people ask me (astonished) is how I've managed to be active in my research given the things that ARE required at my job (MUCH service, MUCH teaching). Another question is why I do it, given the fact that the deck is in some ways stacked against me.
But so first. How have I "managed"? I think part of it comes down to personality. I think I'm actually more likely to do research when I've got to squeeze it into limited blocks of time. I feel less pressured about it (which may seem contradictory, but for me that's because I don't feel like I've got to do something "good" but rather that I've just got to get the task completed, which is kind of liberating) and I don't get bogged down in minutiae as much. I also think I've been very good at being efficient with the projects that I take on, so that I'm not doing three radically different projects at once that are also radically different from anything I teach but rather that all of my various projects are intertwined, so reading one article "counts" for like 4 different things. Finally, I've managed because I've made it a priority to do so. I care about research, and I feel like I'm losing something if I don't do it. Some people feel that as well, but because they are so overwhelmed they just come to resent their job or to give up on trying. My response is rather to make sure that I find a way to keep this part of my intellectual and professorial life alive, whatever else I'm doing.
So yes, maybe I'm uniquely suited to being doing research while working at an institution at which research isn't terribly important. And maybe I've developed habits that contribute to my success with keeping active in research. BUT - and this is a big but - it's not all down to me. Most of the time, things end up falling into my lap. I don't have some big agenda that I devise strategically about what I will produce in a given year, and really the only research goal I've ever had is to get my damned manuscript into shape and get it published as a book. Otherwise? I'm pretty relaxed in my "plans" (if you can call them that). I think that's probably a good thing, as it means I don't beat myself up when something falls through or when something doesn't happen. Since it wasn't a goal, it's not a failure. Also, I've been lucky to have really great mentors who've sent projects my way, and I've been lucky to fall into working on something that seems to be becoming kind of "hot." (Well, not hot-hot, but not cooling off, if that makes sense.) And I got really good advice about how to market the work that I do, and so I have been steadily developing a higher profile in a very specific subspecialty.
As for why I continue, well, I really resent being told that the research I'm doing isn't important. I know that's not what my colleagues mean when they tell me that I can cut back, but that's the message that I get. I really believe in what I'm working on, even if it's not that important to most people. I really like the idea that something that I could write might make somebody read a text in a different way. And, hell, I just like to write. I enjoy it. But there is also this: I think that I need to do this kind of work in order to be content in the other kinds of work that my job requires. And no, I'm not at some fancy research institution, so I shouldn't have to do as much research as somebody there might (and I don't) and I don't actually aim to be at that kind of institution. What matters to me, though, is that people respect my intellectual life. When colleagues say to me that I should cut back on research, it feels like just another version of some members of my family deriding me for not getting a "practical" degree. Maybe what I'm doing isn't essential to anybody but me, but that doesn't mean that it isn't important.
So the battle, at an institution like mine, is a battle to keep one's intellectual life even when that's not what is most essential to the running of the institution. I imagine the opposite is true for people at research universities - that they must battle to keep teaching a priority. And it's not impossible, but it is challenging - and at least in my experience, the greatest challenge is not in carving out time to do that but rather in carving out the mental and emotional space to do it.
The likelihood is that more people teach in institutions like mine than in institutions like the one where I got my PhD. And getting a PhD at that kind of institution does not prepare you for the challenges of doing research at this kind of place. Sure, they warn you about needing to say no to things and about carving out time for your research, but they don't warn you that you'll also need to find a way to believe in how important your research is when those around you don't really care one way or another. They, I think, probably don't know to warn you about that because it's incomprehensible to them that other people with PhDs would have that kind of an attitude. So, my time on the tenure-track has been an education, in that regard. And if I stay here, I need to gear up for continuing to fight this fight, because I really do think that it's important. And if I go? Well, I'll cross that bridge when (or if) I come to it.
5 years ago