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Guest Post: Developing a Research Agenda

thank you Eira Tansey for your contribution!

When I was on the academic archivist job market a few years ago, I interviewed at one institution where I was warned during lunch to have a very narrowly focused answer to the dean’s inevitable question about my research agenda. I was strongly advised to make it clear that I had a tightly-defined research agenda, that my research interests weren’t all over the place, and that I was aiming for high-profile titles in which to publish my work. The only problem was that at the time I was searching for my first professional position, and as a paraprofessional I had only just started dipping my toe into publishing — all I had in print with a chapter in Kate Theimer’s book on description. Furthermore, my graduate program did not heavily emphasize or acculturate students into pursuing publishing opportunities. I don’t recall how I answered the question during my meeting with the dean (however I do remember his bone-crushing handshake!), but the broader question of “What is my research agenda?” is a question where my answers are rapidly evolving.

I lucked out and ended up at an institution that is a far better fit than the previously-mentioned one for a multitude of reasons. At my institution, librarians have faculty status and we have multiple paths to tenure (see our criteria: http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/libraryfaculty/docs/criteria2005.pdf). Some library faculty choose to build their tenure case (and preceding reappointment and promotion applications) around publications, others choose different routes. Since I started two years ago, I have prioritized building up my record around “publishing or creative works.” Unlike some institutions that clearly articulate how many articles are required for a successful tenure bid, or specifications on journal rankings, our criteria is very open-ended. There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, it allows generous flexibility in choosing experimental publishing outlets (new interdisciplinary open-access title with funky journal design layouts? sure, why not!). On the other hand, because we don’t have clear guidelines, there are fewer objective benchmarks to be evaluated against.

I should pause here to describe what I mean when I say a “research agenda.” I don’t believe you have to have faculty status, professional status, or even a full-time job working in archives to have a research agenda. You don’t have to know statistical methods or have grant funding (although obviously the more you have of both, the more you can do!). But you do have to have an idea worth exploring, more than some superficial things to say about it, and the ability to eventually sit down, tune out distractions, and write. As far as I can discern, a “research agenda” is a broad scope of work in various stages across one’s career that has interconnecting intellectual tissue underneath what might look like many unrelated interests. When I think of well-known archivists and imagine their research agendas, I think of how certain archivists are associated with certain areas of archival theory and practice (e.g., Rand Jimerson on archives and social justice, Terry Cook and Helen Samuels with appraisal, Mark Greene with processing and collection development, etc).

When I first started getting serious about committing to professional writing, I chafed against the idea of a research agenda. It seemed so restrictive, and I have so many boundless interests, why not move from topic to topic, even if they’re completely unrelated? But as I’ve accrued some publications on my CV, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of targeting my focus towards a certain direction for the foreseeable future. To contribute something worth publishing, one should be familiar with the literature written on that subject. Depending on the topic, this could mean a lot of writing — and then you have to figure out where your contribution fits into that landscape. It is a lot of work to review literature on an existing subject (https://archivespublishing.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/how-do-i-learn-everything/), and I’m beginning to see one of the greatest arguments for having a focused research agenda: you don’t have to reacquaint yourself with a whole new body of knowledge every time you begin a new project.

I should note here that I think this process of writing about a bunch of different topics, and then finding one’s calling towards a specific area is fairly common. Certainly, it echoes the many college students who have undeclared majors for a long time, or how many young professionals switch career fields. For fun, I looked at the CVs of some well-known archivists, and you can certainly see how over time, their output begins to coalesce around a few main topics (for example, Mark Greene http://www.uwyo.edu/ahc/_files/vitas/m-greene-vita.pdf).

Right now I’m feeling the call to explore the intersection of archives, the environment, and climate change. I feel compelled to build a research agenda around this in a way I haven’t felt about other topics. This is occurring while my other “scattered focus” writing projects are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have a whole range of issues I still care about (privacy! erasure and marginalization of archival labor! everything ever to do with appraisal! public records laws!), and every day I think things like “What we really need is a comparative study of unionization among archivists! WHY ISN’T ANYONE WRITING ABOUT THIS? I WANT TO READ ABOUT IT! Should I work on this?!?!?!” so I’m at a juncture where I feel a little twinge of sadness at the idea of not trying to write about everything unexplored. It doesn’t help that I have a “future ideas to pursue” list of dozens of half-baked ideas I add to on a semi-regular basis. Mostly I just try to be vocal about the topics I think are unexplored within archives-land and trust that someone, at some point, will feel inspired to write all the articles I know I could never manage on my own, but that I so desperately want to read.

How have you decided what to write about? Do you “write what you want to read”? Do you enter the conversation like a game of double dutch (credit for this to Jarrett Drake: https://snaproundtable.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/on-the-job-training-publishing/)? Has your research focus shifted as you grow as a writer?

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Developing a Research Agenda

  1. Pingback: “Within us” | NixoNARA

  2. Pingback: Forced Writing: On the Tenure-track | Publishing in the Archives Profession

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