Friday, May 01, 2009

Research Agendas?

Sisyphus posted over at her place last night about the "research agenda" - what it's supposed to do, its scope, etc., and although I blabbed at length in her comments, I thought I should write about this over at my place. Let's note that I think this is something I should do right now because really I need to be a) grading and b) readying my house for the arrival of my parents.

First, The Academic Job Search Handbook says the following about this topic:

Give a brief context for your research interests, including how they fit into work others have done, and then discuss your plan for investigation. It is very important to communicate a sense that your research will follow logically from what you have done and be different, important, and innovative. Describing plans at an appropriate level of generality/specificity may require some rewriting and feedback from faculty members. A research plan so specific that one article could complete it is too limited, but one that includes a whole area of study, for example, "labor economics," is too general. If you will require substantial facilities and/or external funding for your research, include that in your discussion. If you've identified funding organizations likely to support your research plans, indicating that this is the case will make your plan sound much more credible. (97)

Ok, so that's basically what I thought a research agenda was supposed to do. But here's why I'm writing about this: all of the above is well and good, but in the past, statements of my research agenda have rarely been anything other than fake documents that don't actually guide my research, and the plans that I outline in them rarely bare much relation to my accomplishments after the fact. I don't start off with the intention of lying exactly, but I don't necessarily care whether I follow the program that I lay out in them. This, I should note, is probably a luxury of working at a place that doesn't focus on research. See, nobody has ever compared such statements that I make to what I actually end up doing. Sure, I had to talk about research in my statements for my tenure binder, but that was more about my research philosophy and about what I'd already done - not about what I planned to do, really. So the only times I've really written out the "agenda" have been for the job market or to get course releases/funding, but again, there was never any accountability.

So how I've actually managed my research has been much more amorphous than plotting out an agenda and then following through on it. Instead, I sort of have a vague idea of what I'd like to pursue, I wait until somebody expresses interest in it or offers an opportunity to do something with it, and then I follow through. If nobody invites me to do something more, I flit on over to the next idea. Seriously. Like I've never sent an article out to a journal totally cold, for example. I ended up finding a publisher for my book because an editor contacted me about something else and I changed the conversation to discuss the book. Ultimately, I'm pretty lazy and changeable when it comes to planning research projects and when it comes to getting my research "placed." This is not the same thing as being a lazy scholar - I'm a productive scholar - but I'm not a very... disiplined one. Yes, I think that's a fair way to put it.

And working at a teaching institution has enabled that lack of discipline, and in some ways produced it. See, when research doesn't really count for very much, it's just easier to go which way the wind blows you, to take opportunities as they come, and to pursue those things that fall into one's lap. It takes less energy. That, however, is not a way to productively manage a career as a scholar.

In contrast, if somebody asked me for a "teaching agenda," I could articulate that with a great deal of clarity. The same is also true for a "service agenda." What's funny is that nobody ever asks for those things, even though at my institution, those are really important things to have.

But so anyway, I've been thinking a lot about my "research agenda" lately, as I'm pretty much with a clear plate right now in terms of research things (if we ignore that R&R I've yet to finish), and I really need to figure out what next, what with my new status as a tenured lady who has the ambition to go up for full sooner rather than later and what with the looming fall deadline for my application for sabbatical. I really need a plan for what I'd like to accomplish - a true research agenda, as opposed to a "fake" one that I trot out because somebody asks me for one. And since I've really got no irons in the fire, I'm not sure what I'd like to do.

Complications: I'm not sure that I want to do a second monograph right now, but historically it's been a book that gets people to full here. Of course, I've already got a book, right? But that book doesn't "count" as far as I can tell, since it was published before tenure. A smart lady would have postponed the book until after tenure, but I wanted to be done with that part of my life. Nobody knows whether a "book equivalent" (like 6-8 well-placed articles) could work for full, as nobody's ever had my particular situation before. It's been indicated that a textbook could work, but if I'm going to write a book, it seems to me that I should do something that would make me more marketable (a monograph) rather than a textbook, which isn't really a "scholarly" project in the same way. So let's consider the options.

Monograph #2: I'll be honest, I've already got some ideas for this that I think are pretty kick-ass. I also have a good idea of where I might place such a book. The pros are that I've already got a great deal of research done that would be translateable into the project that I'm considering, and also that I learned a ton about the process the first go-around (so, for example, I'd be much more careful from the outset about framing my project so I wouldn't need to lay out so much cash for permissions), and that I now know how to write a book. The con is that I'd have to write a book. Also that with the economic downturn and the state of academic publishing generally, getting book contracts isn't exactly an easy thing to do right now. That said, it might be easier for me having already published a book that's selling decently well (for an academic book), before reviews.

Textbook: I've got an idea for this, which I think is awesome, and if others thought it was awesome, then maybe it would even make me some money. That'd be sweet.

Series of Articles: In some ways, this is nice because I wouldn't have to commit to a unified project like a book. In addition, it would help me to get around the whole "crisis in academic publishing for monographs" thing. The problem, however, is that journals are so erratic in terms of review times and time to publication. It may take a thousand years to get 6-8 articles out, given the fact that I don't anticipate that I can really manage doing more than 1 polished article per year (though I could probably manage two to three polished pieces over a sabbatical.... except if I'm going to do that why not draft a book over the sabbatical?).

So I think what I need to do before I can really figure out my next step is to talk to my full professor mentors and to see what they think it will take for me to get full here and what seems to be the most reasonable course of action given that information. From there, I need to figure out what I want to do and to figure out how I plan to go about doing it. And I suppose that's really what a "research agenda" is, ultimately. Figuring out a plan for what one wants to do and how one plans to go about doing it. And then actually following the plan.

Most hilarious about the fact that I'm so preoccupied with this right now is that at a reception for the newly tenured, I was described as being all about "service, service, service, SERVICE, and some more service!" Seriously, that's a direct quote. The person who introduced me this way didn't say, which would have softened that a bit, "and in the meantime she published a motherfucking book before tenure! Can you believe it?" Nah, I'm all about the appropriately feminine act of serving others, regardless of the fact that I am among the most published people including people of all ranks in my department. Yeah, I have done a lot of service. But that's not all I've done, nor is it all I plan to do. Annoying.


Sisyphus said...

Ok, pffffft on whoever described you as all service and gave no props to the book. WTF is that1?1?!

Figuring out a plan for what one wants to do and how one plans to go about doing it. And then actually following the plan.I dunno, why does having a research agenda mean you have to follow the research agenda? I'm starting to think this may be more like those stupid "teaching philosophy" documents than I originally thought. Or more precisely, I think there are "fake" research agendas that you hand to tenure committees and grant foundations, that are written to sound sexy and yet doable and professional and that scream "fund me!" and then there's the rough-hewn mental plan that you're sorta constantly updating as you fumble your way through your projects.

Oh, and I am intrigued by this idea of a "teaching agenda" or agenda for service --- talk more about these, please!

Susan said...

Well, you know what it takes to do a book, so if there is a project that really interests you and you think it's a book, go for it.

But the great thing about a second book is that it's all yours -- you don't have to please any adviser or other authority person. (It has to get past the press, but that's different.) But that means you can experiment with genre, or whatever you feel like doing.

And it sounds as if at your place, there would be fairly capacious understandings of what counted, which would also be nice.

I think of my agenda as the big question(s) that interest me, of which a particular project is a subset.