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Follow-Up Post: How to Have an Active Research Agenda at a Teaching-Intensive School

September 16, 2013

Last week I linked to an article at Inside Higher Ed that was written by a colleague in my department. The article in question addressed the problems related to and strategies for overcoming limitations to one’s research agenda that arise from being in a teaching-intensive institution. I serve at an institution in which I am required to teach a 4/4 load, though I often pick up one or two additional courses each semester just to make ends meet. I have also taught 3 summer session courses each summer for the past three years. Thus, I average roughly six classes a semester every year, but I am also firmly committed to maintaining an active research agenda. It has certainly been a challenge. I agree with everything my colleague wrote and his article proved be helpful for my own thinking on the subject. After some reflection over the weekend, I decided to add a few thoughts of my own. Here they are (in no particular order):

(1) If you want to establish and maintain an active research agenda, it’s a good idea to do a little bit of something every day (or at least every weekday). Both during and after completing my doctoral research, I served as a long-term adjunct at the same institution for five years. One of the best pieces of advice I got from my dean during that period was, “write a little every day.” I took that advice to heart immediately and began writing between 5:00 and 6:30 every morning before leaving for work. However, over time the complications of family life and other elements of my morning routine ultimately pushed that practice out of the way completely. (For example, much of the time one of my children would hear me getting up to write and after only 15 minutes or so I would hear small voice say, “Daddy, can I come in with you?” Everyone’s priorities are different, but I found that even at 5:00 AM, the voices of my children beckoned louder than the 500 or so words I might be able to generate that morning).

Notice, I said it’s important to “do a little bit of something every day, “rather than “write a little every day.” This is because I have found it fairly difficult to write every day. I marvel at people who can write beautifully constructed, crisp, academic prose with speed and efficiency. I am not like that. I labor over every single word that appears on my computer screen, reading it over and over and over to be sure (1) that it is exactly what I want to say, and (2) that should my 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Wasko ever pick up anything I’ve written, he would be proud (rather than thinking, “was Chris paying attention at all?”). So, I try to do something related to my research everyday. If I’m not writing, I’m reading something related to what I’m writing. If I’m not reading, I’m actively thinking about my footnotes or even paying attention to the formatting of my document. I know this sounds strange, but it keeps me involved in the process even if nothing of substance is popping onto my computer screen.

(2) READ. A LOT. I have found that I cannot write well if I’m not reading broadly. Sometimes it means I’m reading highly specialized monographs, journal articles, and/or book reviews related to my research. Other times I’m reading blog posts, and sometimes, completely unrelated news items. I believe the active “life of the mind” is critical to maintaining one’s research agenda.

(3) Writing and researching are often like going to the gym. Some days you wake up and feel like you could run 8 miles without batting an eye. Other days, it’s a struggle to put on your workout gear. Maintaining an active research agenda is a discipline, and like most disciplines, there are days when it sucks. To say it another way, some days you keep at not because of the fulfillment it brings, but simply (and sometimes, only) because you are committed to it. This is especially true when you find yourself in a teaching-intensive institution.

(4) Many grad students and scholars in our field maintain blogs, so this is my advice for those who blog: You may have to choose what you want to do well. Unless you have the superior abilities of a Mark Goodacre or a Nijay Gupta, who can seemingly keep it all together in the blogosphere while continuing to write important books and publish regularly in peer-reviewed journals, you may find it difficult to blog AND undertake research in more traditional venues like articles and monographs. Choose what you want to focus on and do that as well as you can. If you have some time left over you can always pursue the other interest(s). Last year I was promoted from Assistant to Associate Professor after only three years of service in my current post; there’s little doubt that the quantity and quality of my publications was one of the major factors contributing to the committee’s decision in favor of promotion. In my first three years here I published one authored volume, three edited monographs (see here, here, here), one article in a peer-reviewed journal, 8 articles in books or monographs, and nearly 25 book reviews. This meant, however, that I spent much less time blogging about my ideas and much more time writing about them for “official” publication. (I know some of my co-bloggers will chafe at the idea of “official” v. “unofficial” publication, but let’s be honest, the academy has its standards for evaluating scholarly research and those are not likely to change anytime soon.) I want to be a much more prolific blogger than I am in my current iteration. However, if I have to choose one over the other, I’m going to work toward disseminating my work in the form of books and journal articles.

(5) (To be kept in a necessary tension with #1 above) Take a break occasionally. Leave the fields of your research fallow for a season so that new seeds can germinate. Qoheleth reminds us that “there’s a time for every purpose under the heavens.”

I hope this helps someone. If not, it was helpful for me to get it out.


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