Something that comes up a lot in job applications (or fellowship applications, or annual reviews, or tenure reviews) is the idea of the research agenda. In each of these cases, the research agenda is something you demonstrate to others that you possess - a carefully thought-out understanding of what your research does, where it fits into broader concerns of the field, and especially, where it's going to go, to produce a coherent and significant body of work.
I get all that, and I even have a research agenda. On paper, I like to think it even looks okay.
But what really strikes me when I think about my research agenda is how much it's been shaped by chance and happenstance.
Oh, I have plans, don't worry - plans and goals and intentions. From the very first time I went on the market, with dissertation barely (or not quite yet) finished, I had a follow-up project waiting in the wings. The trajectory there, of course, is supposed to be: finish dissertation, turn it into a book, begin follow-up project. Well, I finished the dissertation, and have actually finished the follow-up project, too, at least for the moment (in theory it could be expanded into something larger, but I'm okay with pausing here right now). The book? Still in progress. And in the meantime, I have a NEXT next project all ready to go.
I never realized when I was a grad student how much one's research agenda gets defined retrospectively, looking back at conference papers and publications and reading the shape of a career like auguries in bird guts. For instance, my first publication came right out of my dissertation. The opportunity dropped into my lap with the CFP for an essay collection, right on my topic, that my advisor stuck in my mailbox. Voila, a publication. Now, it turns out that this portion of my dissertation has pretty much nothing to do with the direction my book has taken. But the essay collection turned out to be a really good one (no thanks to me) and one of the few studies of this subject specifically, so people actually read my essay on occasion. It's probably my most visible publication, and publicly it marks me as a scholar of X. Thing is, today, X is really only a small part of my larger interest in tangentially-related, larger issue Y (for me, X is a phenomenon that provides evidence for Y, which is what my book talks about). Regardless, this spring I'm giving a paper on X, because someone put together a session on X and wanted me to participate specifically as an X scholar. I still find X fascinating, don't get me wrong, but I can't decide if it's regressive to present on X again, or if it's actually cool to reestablish my place in X scholarship. Am I simply returning to one branch of my research tree, or am I wandering away from the defined safety of my research path?
Most of my other publications come from conference papers, but where the conference papers came from has been pretty random:
- Someone asked me to be on a roundtable for a scholarly society (I think they needed another warm body); the society's journal decided to publish those comments as-is.
- Some medievalist friends of mine and I decided we wanted to hang out together at a conference, so we came up with a session for a big conference across the pond, and then the conference organizers decided to put together an essay collection from that conference's papers, and accepted mine. Our session was by no means bogus - we all work in the same geographic area and share similar interests/approaches, and I think the papers worked really well together - but it didn't arise from any long-term research plan.
- A paper I need to revise-and-resubmit got written when another grad school friend e-mailed me to say, Hey, the AHA is on theme X this year, and I want to do a session on Y - got anything you could present?
- I presented the (first) follow-up project I mentioned above as part of a session in a series of sessions around a particular theme, and wholly serendipitously a publisher contacted the organizer of those sessions and said they'd like to see the papers put together as an essay collection.
I could go on, but my basic point is this: I can go back to my papers and publications and projects and see connections and relationships between everything I've worked on. It's a modest little body of work, but there's nothing wrong with it (except that I could have produced more. But we won't go there now). Thing is, calling it an agenda seems to imply some kind of guiding purpose - one beyond "present some papers and write some articles" - that I'm not really sure was there.
The NEXT next project I mentioned? (The project that always looks so tantalizingly sexy when your current project is old, flabby, and boring?) That, strangely enough, really does derive solidly from my book, following up many of the same central themes and questions but in a totally different way. Should I actually finish the book, and write the next one, I will feel like I have a research agenda indeed. What I don't know, though, is whether when I get there it will look anything like I'd imagined.