I love doing research. Most of all, I love diving headfirst into the deep waters of a subject, swimming around in what we know about it, and unearthing the mysterious shells of interesting questions that still remain. I love teasing out strands of raw wool ideas, spinning them into concepts, weaving them into a prettily patterned theory. Then, I love trying on lots of different outfits made with that cloth, seeing how they fit different types of models and situations.
(Also, I obviously love mixing overwrought metaphors. It's a thing. You've probably noticed it by now if you've read, well, pretty much anything I've ever written on this site, or at Tea at the Ford. I try to keep it out of my academic writing, but this is my place for (mostly) shameless self-indulgence.)
Research design is challenging, and often frustrating. Coming up with good questions is often the hardest part, but the next hardest is figuring out how to go about answering them. What's feasible? What kind of data do we have, or can we reasonably obtain? Do I actually know how to do what I'm setting out to do, or must I learn some new methods? Or even develop some? Fun, but very hard work. The payoff is pretty exciting, though, when the design is done well.
The empirical aspects are not my favorite part. They provide the necessary raw material, and don't get me wrong--it's cool to see patterns emerge from the data, especially when they're surprising. And as much as I love theory, the reason I love it is because it offers a set of different lenses through which to look at the actual world, and see how the various shapes and colors highlight different aspects of the human experience. Theory in a vacuum gets tiresome after a while. Still, the actual gathering of data is usually pretty tedious business. This is true whether we're talking about textual data (my favorite, since it generally avoids dealing with IRB), or working with so-called human subjects. I enjoy survey design, actually, but not identifying-slash-drumming up a viable sample. And since I'm a mixed methods kind of person, there's also the matter of having to locate and schedule people for interviews or other kinds of qualitative inquiry. I also enjoy interviewing, but it's exhausting and time-consuming and then requires things like transcription. So, yeah, not my favorite part of the process.
I have a lot of ideas. One of the big draws of academia, for me, was the opportunity to explore (almost) any whim. But, you know, everything takes longer than you think it will. Usually a lot longer. Every time I've begun something that was meant to be a small side project, it's turned into something huge. And a lot of my huge projects run aground on the rocky shoals of time and labor. (Hey, another metaphor! You're welcome.) Often, I'm plagued by doubts: about myself, about my writing, about whether anyone else will actually care about what I've spent so many hours laboring at. Most importantly, that those who do care also happen to be in a position of publishing power, allowing me to add another merit badge to my academic sash. (Collect them all!)
Unfortunately, I don't have access to much in the way of help. I do sometimes get a research assistant, or even two, but they are drawn from the ranks of a program that doesn't train people in research, and the students are kept hellishly busy doing things that they hold in much higher priority. So I can't really train them to do anything beyond very low-level grunt work, and even that can be difficult to achieve. I've had some very nice and even occasionally very dedicated assistants, but most of the time I'm left to my own devices.
This leaves me with a (virtual) notebook full of project ideas, most of which I'm pretty excited about, but few of which I actually get to pursue. Even fewer of those are pursued to completion. This would probably be the case even if I had hordes of graduate students diligently working for me, but the overall numbers would likely be higher for all categories.
I have so many projects at various stages of completion right now. This year's "side project" turned into, predictably, a giant meandering thing, but at least I have two articles from it in the pipeline. (One an R&R for which my fingers are tightly crossed, since it's a pub that would be a major coup. Trying not to get my hopes up too high.) I have two pieces that are fairly far along, but need some serious time and brain power to finish up and get out the door; both have been languishing for months. And meanwhile, I have one long-term project that really needs to be wrapped up in, er, the next month or so, a new idea I've just started turning around in my mind in the last few weeks that I'm super excited about but have no idea when I'll manage to get to it, and an essay that I have been jotting notes on for over a year that I would like to actually sit down and write at some point. Oh, and I am increasingly drawn to a book project whose shadowy shape has been gradually taking on more tangible features in a corner of my brain, that I'd love to work on this summer but should avoid since books are not very highly considered by those making tenure decisions on my behalf. Plus, you know, I've got all this other stuff to attend to first.
And yet, with our newly puny calendar, I must spend the next few precious days revamping two courses that start in just over a week, and which will predictably consume far more of my time, energy, and intellectual capacity than they're supposed to over the coming months. If I manage to make headway on even half of the above, I'll be delighted.
I want a lot of things from 2013, personally and professionally. But if I can--to end on yet another tortured metaphor--muster a sharp enough scholarly machete to hack through this tangled jungle of research projects, a lot of my generalized anxiety will probably dissolve like magic. Having a full plate is only good when you have at least some prospect of eating your way through it. Here's to a year of focused, diligent, and productive probing into stuff, and fervent wishing that the Powers That Be will find my questions (and attempts at answering them) as fascinating as I do.