Finding my research path: Taking a big swing

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About a year ago, my article “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” was published in College & Research Libraries. This article represented something of a turning point for my research and writing, first because it drew inspiration from outside the library and information science field and second because it was a much bigger swing than what I’d previously written. But the big ideas in this article have led me down a path of discovery that has made me more excited about research and writing than I was before. And it’s led to some great conversations. So I’m really glad I took that big swing.

I wanted to take some space now to reflect on what taking that swing was like in part as a way to encourage others to do the same with their own ideas.

Letting go of a safe bet

I  had the idea for “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” after reading Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts for Writing Studies by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. I first picked up this book because the ACRL Framework was still new at the time and I was interested in learning more about threshold concepts and how other fields had used them. In reading the introduction to the book, I was struck by the parallels I saw between the challenges faced by writing instructors, as identified by Adler-Kassner and Wardle, and information literacy instructors, particularly when it comes to conveying the value of what they do to both students and outside stakeholders.

At the time this new inspiration struck, I was working on an article about best practices for tutorials and evaluating the tutorials in the ACRL PRIMO database against those best practices. (1) It was a practical article that directly related to my work at the time, so it seemed like a safe bet. Being on the tenure track, having a safe bet was important.

Unfortunately, the work I was doing for that article was also a slog. It didn’t excite me the way this new idea did. But I barely knew what this new idea was, much less whether it would be worth it to take the time to pursue it.

So I asked my mentors for advice. This was not easy since, as I said, I barely knew what my idea was, much less how to articulate it. My conversations with them helped me understand that since I’d already met the minimum number of peer-reviewed articles for getting tenure, I could afford to take a risk and branch out from the more practical articles I’d been writing up to that point. And if the risk paid off, it would be worth it.

 

Patience, precious

An early challenge for writing this article was knowing that I had an idea but not knowing exactly what that idea was. If I couldn’t actually articulate my idea, how was I supposed to do a literature review, much less write about it?

So I started by writing the article’s abstract. Doing this helped me figure out what problem I was trying to solve and why I felt it was important to solve it. This was enough to get me started.

Early on, I read a lot about the Framework. Then I started reading more about the history of bibliographic instruction and information literacy. Soon, I was branching out into readings on writing studies and then I stumbled on some examples from other fields that I thought might have connections to the ideas I was pursuing. Each week, I would add whatever sources I had been reading to the draft I was working on, shuffling and reshuffling the ideas as I went.

What I ended up with was a big unwieldy mess that had very little resemblance to that original abstract.

In retrospect, watching my own ideas evolve and take shape was the most exciting part of writing a Big Idea article. At the time, though, it was scary. The piece I was writing didn’t feel coherent, much less cohesive. I worried that I was wasting my time.

 

All about the feedback

The only way to know if what I was doing was worthwhile was to open myself up to feedback. For maybe the first six months or so that I was writing the article, I wrote with the door closed, as Stephen King might put it. But I reached a point where I realized I couldn’t go any further until I’d found out if what I was writing made any damn sense.

The first round of feedback, which came from my mentors, was encouraging but also pointed to some holes that meant adding even more to what already felt like an overstuffed article. But in the end, I made it work well enough to submit the thing to one of the top journals in the field, College & Research Libraries.

I submitted my first draft in spring 2017 and received the first round of generally positive feedback in August. Perhaps somewhat overconfident, I quickly turned around a new draft and received a second round of feedback in October 2017. This second round of feedback was something of a reality check. Basically, one peer reviewer had called for a restructuring of the whole article and the journal’s editor agreed that this was needed. There was also a fundamental flaw that hadn’t been identified previously: my article was supposed to be about how research is both an activity and a subject of study but nowhere in it had I clearly conveyed what, exactly, I meant by “research.” What I’d thought was a mostly finished article was going to require a lot more work, at least if I wanted it to be published in C&RL.

Feeling a bit bruised, it took me some time to pick myself up and dust myself off. Once I did, I made a decision: I started over from scratch. Well, maybe not from scratch. I still had the submitted draft to use as a guide to my original ideas. But basically I started over again and my first step was to read whatever I needed to in order to figure out what, exactly, I meant by “research.”

Starting over again at that point was daunting but I was able to do it because by then I knew what I was trying to say and I believed strongly in the importance of saying it. I just needed to make my case as strong as possible and the feedback I’d received, harsh though some of it was, gave me a sense of what I needed to do in order to achieve that.

 

What comes next

In the end, the work was worth it. The changes made the article much stronger and the challenge of defining research is a big part of what helped me realize that research is contextual in nature. Realizing the contextual nature of research is what led me to the path I’m on now.

I write all this partly as a case study for any librarians out there who, like me, may have spent a lot of time writing about “safe bets” but are thinking about branching out in some way. For me, taking a big swing was worth it but I probably wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have trusted mentors to bounce my ideas off of. If you have mentors of your own, I would say definitely consult with them. But if you don’t or if just want a second opinion, feel free to give me a shout.

I also wanted to write this because in fall 2020, I’ll be going on my first sabbatical and the project I proposed for it would be a lot like this one in the sense of taking on something I’m excited about but also not entirely sure I’m ready for because while it’s very much connected to what has now become my research agenda, it’s taking me into territory that is very new.

But I’ve done it before. That means I can do it again.

*

(1) I did some initial work on this, but never wrote the actual article. Feel free to steal this idea if it appeals to you.

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