Research Themes

This is post #1 in my miniseries on Organizing Your Research (find post #2 & #3 here).

I remember having a moment of clarity after reading/hearing (?) Roopika Risam discuss how she organizes her research interests (see her awesome website for inspo). Up until then, I was like a lot of current early-career academics: jumping from project to project like they were pieces of the Titanic floating in the icy waters of late capitalism and trying not to drown. Sure there was the through-line of my dissertation subject, but I had a lot of other interests…at least I had a lot of other projects underway. It was hard, though, because making a living as an adjunct, having revolving institutional affiliations, and trying desperately to launch myself out of the phd into the job-hunting limbo that awaited left a) little time to think carefully about what research or projects I should/want to pursue and b) little continuity/stability for completing those projects let alone developing new ones as we are expected to do. And then I got a full-time teaching contract with no tenure track option (i.e. no immediate pressure to figure out my research trajectory). Suddenly I had time to consider whether I even wanted to continue to do research and academic writing (that was a “yes”) and, if so, what kind of projects I wanted to do and how all my research interests fit together. That’s the purpose of this blog – to describe that process in case it’s helpful to you in your journey. While what follows is specific to academia, I imagine it could be applicable to anyone who has to make decisions about which projects to adopt and which to abandon.

For my process, I sat down and penned a list of all the projects that I had worked on, from the ones I had completed to the ones that were just ideas. Then I organized them into groups based on their major topic areas. For me that was: Digital Literary Culture, Digital Composition, and Digital Literacy & Community Engagement. My own “linchpin” apparently is “digital” which was not shocking to me at all, but I was pleased to see how connected my various efforts actually were given how fractured they felt to me at the time (this one attached to that class I taught at my previous institution, that one attached to the dissertation, etc.). To help me visualize my research themes (or “buckets” as I call them sometimes), I created a mixed media graphic that I ended up using for this site header and which I keep taped above my desk for guidance.

Venn Diagram of my research interests: Digital Literary Culture, Digital Divide, and Digital Composition

Now, how exactly does this help me?

It helps to keep these three “buckets” in mind when I am deciding whether or not to take on a new project. Does it belong in one of the buckets? No? Then maybe I’m just being side-tracked by a shiny new thing or letting my obliger personality take the wheel. That’s not to say I can’t make adjustments over time. Some of the researchers I respect the most have let their research interests evolve in such compelling ways. It is always good to keep an open mind. For me, it helps me to not take on too much. As previously noted, I have a high teaching load and a dynamic life outside of academia, so being judicious about how I spend my time is important.

Another way it helps is to bring all the work that I do (researching, writing, service, teaching) together. This might resonate more with those of you who have high teaching loads or little choice about what classes you teach or service you do. It is, of course, ideal in many ways for these things to overlap in nature so that you don’t feel as though you are constantly switching between disparate roles with no connection to one another. I find it incredibly satisfying that I teach classes related to all my research areas. It helps that I have more control over my teaching schedule than I ever have, but it also helps that I let my teaching assignments shape my research (looking at you, CE classes!). If you can’t choose exactly what you do in your current position, why not extend the arms of your research themes to wrap around your present responsibilities? Bring them into the warm embrace of your focus areas and they might just take your research somewhere you didn’t expect.

What are your research “buckets”? Do they overlap? Do they account for your other roles (service, teaching, admin, etc.)?

Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page)ALSO, I am happy to announce that I will be RELAUNCHING a biweekly podcast called Vita Abundantior in which I conduct interviews with awesome women and ask them how they go about living such abundant lives (avail on all major streaming platforms).

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