How to Produce Research at a Teaching School

Yeah right, like I know the answer to that question. But it doesn’t mean I won’t speculate. And my speculations led to me develop the following strategies that should help one be a (more) productive scholar while teaching 3-4 courses per semester:

  1. Accept you won’t be that productive.
  2. Spend almost all your time working and thinking and writing.
  3. Avoid teaching many new courses (i.e. new preps).
  4. Design your research around small projects (articles, book chapters, encyclopedia articles, book reviews…).
  5. Design you research around edited projects. Let other people do most of the thinking and researching and you just get to react to it.
  6. Collect as many primary sources as you can, while you can. You never know when you’ll be able to get back into the archives.
  7. Design your research around questions that can be answered with published primary sources.
  8. Explore an old subject from a new angle or perspective.
  9. Recycle and renew half-written drafts from your past, even stretching back to grad school.
  10. Focus on subjects that aren’t incredibly popular, so as to avoid having to keep up with a large and ever-burgeoning literature.
  11. Focus on subjects that aren’t incredibly popular, so as to avoid getting scooped by PhD students and faculty at Research I institutions.
  12. Speed up parts of the research process through software (particularly bibliographic and note-taking).
  13. Analyze historiographical trends, by counting titles and keywords.
  14. Write crappy history. Specifically, avoid delving into the complexity of real human lives (and real human interactions), and instead generalize about an entire continent over a generation by referring to one published theoretical treatise on the topic, or one single case study.

Guess which one I choose? Actually all of the above, though I’d like to think I’ve avoided #14.

But now is the time to focus on:

16. Waste some of your time trying to figure out a way to systematize and atomize your research process, so that you can complete bits of your research during the normally-busy school year.

And how would one do this exactly? I don’t know, but here are my first ruminations on the puzzle. All framed by, you guessed it, that damn Getting Things Done cult.

The way I see it, the key problem – even assuming you’ve adopted all of the above strategies – is the lack of time. If the people I read and talk to are any indication, it’s as much the fragmentation of time that you do have, as the paucity of time in the aggregate.  You probably have an hour here, 15 minutes there, during even teaching days, but what can you get done in these short bursts? The several hours of interrupted space that you do have, late at night or on the weekends, are too often consumed once the course prepping and grading and sports watching is completed. (Family? What family?)

So why is fragmentation an issue? To be honest, we academics get really defensive when we hear people say professors should be able to do our research in less than four-hour blocs – “CEOs are able to do theirs in small chunks, after all” they say. But, but, but we academics think BIG, which means thinking for a loooong time about very weighty subjects.

Is this true? In one sense, I’m sure it is. I’m sure we all study incredibly important topics that are really really difficult for most people to understand. And some of it might be the way our brains work. Recent studies seem to suggest that a change of scenery and time to let the mind wander are important to creativity – the real justification for a sabbatical. Free association, incubation, letting your subconscious mull over an idea in order to make new connections – I hope everybody has experienced the different perspectives and insights a period of relaxation can produce. Other brain studies suggest that willpower exhausts itself throughout the day, which is why some people wake up at oh-dark-thirty to start their days on their own projects.

But, it seems, most of our research time (at least mine) isn’t spent producing “ideas.” Your average journal article probably only has one big idea, a book might have a few. Now that I think about it, I don’t actually have a problem coming up with ideas and speculations, even during the busy time of the semester. Instead, my problem is that I can have all sorts of ideas (they’re a dime-a-dozen, really), but it takes a lot of time to actually test them out and see which ones actually match the historical record. That is where I run out of time. And, if you’re a historian who wants to look at what more than one contemporary actually said about a topic, it’s your problem too.

Conveniently for this blog post, the problem of fragmented time is actually addressed, in general terms, by GTD. When Allen talks about the need to get the ball rolling by writing down the next physical action, the point is to make it easy for you to perform that action later – you won’t need to decide what the exact action is later on, which means one less decision to make, and one less excuse to just do it. (And you’ve already chosen to look only at those tasks that are doable in your particular context.) But since I always have my document-laden laptop with me, the physical context isn’t usually the key limitation. The biggest limit is more often the next criteria in Allen’s “four-criteria model for choosing the next action”: time available. Sound familiar? But even if we have time available, the third criteria can also be a problem: (mental) energy level. Particularly after spending hours in the classroom and in mind-numbing meetings. So I’ve spent the past day or two trying to figure out how to apply GTD to amorphous research tasks.

My solution thus far: to distinguish tasks that can be done with little mental effort from those that require more concentration. Two strategies might help with this.

Strategy the First: Vary your research tasks according to your mental state

First, you need to organize the doing of your research process based off your time and energy levels. Nothing shocking there, but how exactly do we do that? Presumably you need to figure out what types of research tasks are easy for a brain to do, and which are hard. And, as we’ve seen before, there’s a whole variety of stages and tasks that your average research project goes through. Some sleuthing on the Internets led me to this model, which is a bit more generic, yet it includes lots of action verbs that you can start GTD tasks with:

This came from secondary school (Thames Valley School Board)

From secondary school teaching materials (Thames Valley School Board publication)

So let’s figure out which research tasks are harder, and which are easier.

Preparation stage

This formative stage usually requires little sustained thought, and most prep tasks can be easily done in small bits of free time as needed. It’s not particularly taxing to explore indexes, catalogs, footnotes and bibliographies. Especially if they are online, and especially if you have some kind of software (like Zotero or EndNote) that will automatically download your findings (metadata and maybe even a PDF of the original source), or save them to a Safe Space (like Devonthink). These may be repetitive tasks, but normally they don’t require brilliant insights, or rely on accessing your deep well of historical knowledge.

In this stage you’re probably already coming up with possible ideas, avenues and routes to explore, jotting down fragmentary ideas to think about – you don’t really need a reminder to write them down, but make sure you have a trusted Note Place. Maybe reading historiography on the subject happens in this stage as well – keep track of that. But it’s early in the process, so hopefully you aren’t freaking out if you haven’t come up with your research question quite yet.

Common preparatory tasks include the action verbs mentioned in the graphic above:

  • Define scope of project
    • This is still a bit amorphous and actually rather hard to do (and iterative). Thus it should probably be atomized further.
  • Explore catalogs/historiography on topic X
  • Identify resources to go through (could break them down, e.g. after Identify, you Explore catalog X, Explore catalog Y…)

Accessing Stage

More administrative work here, so not particularly mentally taxing – checking out books, ordering interlibrary loan items, maybe even traveling to archives. Assuming you have access to all those items.

Having a good task system to keep track of all of these tasks helps: Check Out ___ @Library…

Now that the Easy Part is Over

But as researchers know, that’s only the beginning. The hardest part, the processing stage, is where the real heavy lifting gets done. It’s also, I think, where many projects get bogged down. So of course it merits its own blog post.


One response to “How to Produce Research at a Teaching School”

  1. James R. Regan says :

    Excellent post! I look forward to reading your post on heavy lifting.

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