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?

SNAP Twitter Chat about Publishing

Last week I participated in a SNAP Twitter chat (#snaprt, @SNAP_Roundtable). I’ve participated before, but it’s been a while. SNAP does a great job of hosting the chats and having prepared questions. There aren’t many opportunities for such interaction to discuss publishing and I appreciate that this topic comes up every so often for discussion. Most of the conversations I have are one-on-one and occasionally speaking to groups. I’m always happy to participate in these discussions, as are others involved in publishing. From my perspective, I don’t always know who wants these conversations (beyond SNAP) so I encourage others to just ask! I’ve worked hard to make myself accessible, but I know that other editors, authors, or others involved in publishing will also participate. So don’t be afraid to ask.

There’s always so much that comes up during these chats. I won’t be able to recap everything, but I want to touch on a few of the topics. I suspect many people outside of SNAP have the same questions so I hope you find this helpful.

How do I know what’s interesting to others?; it’s already been done. Understandably, when one is new to the profession it is hard to know what to write about and whether others will want to read it. It takes time to catch up on where scholarship is. I’ve encouraged people to write about their interests or where they see gaps. No one knows every article or book written, and that’s where a good editor comes in. Many submissions to Provenance cited scholarship I didn’t know about. However, often I and the peer-reviewers recommend additional articles if we believe it necessary. No matter if you are new or seasoned, there is the question whether others will find it interesting. So, talk to your peers, coworkers, friends, colleagues, and ask. Or email an editor and ask. Pick a topic, read a few articles, and think about it. Then write and submit. The only way you will know for sure is if you submit and accept the feedback. There’s been a bunch of new journal issues (just browse the most recent posts) so start there. Read more in a previous post.Others know so much more and I don’t want to BS. That sentiment is appreciated. The longer I was an editor, the easier it was to spot a graduate course paper submission. I don’t say that as a bad thing, because grad school is about generating and discussing ideas, learning about the profession, and engaging with scholarship. When I was writing my dissertation, I frequently felt what most grad students do – that I’ll look dumb if I forget that one book, that one article, where my committee would think “How could she not know about that?” But you know what, that seldom happens. If you do appropriate research, you become the expert and you’ll find the resources. Don’t try to read every word of everything; start by reading book reviews and abstracts. Chances are, you’ll miss something and a good editor will provide it for you. And absolutely don’t BS. As long as you can provide evidence for your argument, are clear and articulate, don’t use a lot of colloquialisms, and are logical, you’re more than halfway there. The best way to learn as much as others know is through writing and research. How do you think they became experts?

Turning a conference presentation into an article. Do it! As you prepare for a presentation, keep track of your sources, write an article alongside your presentation. But please, don’t submit only the text of your presentation. Remember, writing for publication is different from reading your ideas in front of an audience. Several times, I followed up with conference presenters and suggest they submit to Provenance. So think about it before you present and you can have a solid draft or full article for submission.

Revise and resubmit is hard. Yes, and honestly, it seldom gets easier. I did write a post about this a while ago. And this question reminded me that I meant to write more (hence the part 1 of many), so I will get back to that at some point. But if any of you want to share your experiences, whether good or bad, I welcome all perspectives and guest posts. And, as noted also below, a blog post is a great way to start writing.

Write to non-archivists. This part was particularly interesting to me. We are not limited to writing to each other. Yes, that strengthens our profession and engages each other. But what about librarians, users, historians, and others? Bringing non-archivists into our writing sphere will help us understand our users more as well as raise awareness of the archival profession. Do you collaborate with donors, faculty, users, or anyone else you can co-author with? What about asking researchers to write about their experience? When I taught classes, I always try to find non-archivist perspectives. One article I used multiple times was Joan Zenzen’s “Administrative Histories: Writing about Fort Stanwix National Monument” (sorry, I wish it was open access but is available through JSTOR or request through interlibrary loan). And a excellent book is Kate Eichhorn’s Archival Turn in Feminism. Can’t help but enjoy a book written by someone who reveres archivists. In other words, think outside the box. Also, you are not limited to archives publications. Write for disciplinary journals, library journals, digital humanities journals, government resources, or whatever falls within the scope of your interests.

Some general tips:

  • don’t let your profession define what you write
  • book reviews and blogs are a great place to start
  • write with a publication in mind instead of squeezing it into requirements
  • find a writing group

It was a great conversation and lots of great ideas came up, both about writing and topics of interest. I also keep thinking about what else we need to do to continue these conversations. Don’t forget, I welcome suggestions for topics. I thank all of you for reading this blog but I see it as only one way to share experiences. So let’s keep the conversations going in whatever ways we can!

Creating an Outline

As I mentioned last post, I am writing the third edition of AFS Reference and Access for Archives and Manuscripts. The first task was to create an outline. In general, I’ve always struggled with outlines. I like the idea – creating a coherent organization of content and research. In practice, it’s not my strength.

However, with this project it (so far) is working well. What helped tremendously is that I did not have to start from scratch. I began with the structure that Mary Jo Pugh used for the second edition. I knew I would not, nor should not, keep it exactly the same. My outline is definitely different, but using hers as a reference ensured that I did not miss any major topics.

Although I can’t share (sorry) the actual outline, it is organized into three major sections, chapters within each section, and topics within each chapter. When I reviewed it recently, I already see how I might reorganize a few parts, but I’m going to wait until I get to those chapters.

For the first time, I’m using an outline as guidance for writing. Especially, knowing exactly where to start when I sit down to write, as opposed to spending time thinking “hm, what should I write about today?” Granted, I’m not very far yet but psychologically, it gives me a good grounding. As I research and write, I have ideas not related to what I’m writing about. With the outline, it’s easy to look and identify where those ideas fit and make notes accordingly.

Lastly, it was a great way to create a schedule and deadlines. I can’t guarantee that I’ll meet them all (but am motivated to try!). Knowing that, for example, I plan to take one month to write a certain chapter, if I’m 2 weeks from the deadline but only have a few pages, I then know I need to either write more or refocus how I’m writing.

I know the outline will change and evolve as the project develops. I’m glad that I started this way. That’s not to say that creating an outline is the best for everyone or every project, but I’m grateful it was a requirement for this one.

Who is Qualified to Publish?

As I have conversations with archivists, I’ve repeatedly heard variations of this question and comments: am I qualified? who will be interested in what I write? others know more than I do so who will read my writing? I’m not sure I have anything to say. Many people, including me, have these thoughts. In graduate school, we read numerous articles and books and see those authors as authorities. In return, it’s hard to see ourselves as an authority, therefore develop an insecurity that we are not qualified.

Restricting authors to an idea of “qualifications” discourages writers. Instead, I prefer the question: do I want to publish? There are variables, such as tenure-track positions having a writing requirement. But if one truly has the ambition to write, I say go for it.

When I was in library school and even into my PhD program, I did not expect to become a published author, much less an editor. However, once I started, I found myself enjoying it. As a tenure-track archivist, I am required to publish to achieve tenure. I, too, questioned whether or not I was “qualified.” Because peer-reviewers read articles without knowing the author(s), they evaluate based not on the author’s qualifications or prior writing experience, but instead based on how well one constructs an argument and supports it. (more about peer-review in a future post)

I encourage anyone to submit for publication. While I of course solicit for Provenance, I suggest authors review the various journals (see list) to find one that best suits their topic. Especially, review previously published articles to see if theirs fits within the scope of the journal. There are an increasing amount of journals, therefore an increasing amount of opportunities to write.

The qualified question most often comes from students or newer professionals. My response is that without new voices, the literature can get stale or repetitive. Publishing should be ongoing conversations about a variety of topics, as well as a platform for new ideas. Our profession continually evolves and as such, so should the literature. So try to not think of whether or not you are qualified, but why you want to publish and how your ideas/experiences can benefit other archivists.