some thoughts on research

I’ve hesitated to write this post for a while. I suppose it would be accurate to say that doing so scares me—not so much because what I’ll talk about here goes against all of my academic training, nor because I fear what people with power over me will think. Rather, I’m scared of what this fact about myself, which I’ve known for a while but which has been thrown into unavoidably sharp relief by my first year in a permanent job, means for that job and all future similar jobs that I might hold.

Originally, I conceived of this post as “Five-ish Things I Rediscovered About Myself in My First Year in a Permanent Academic Job.” But in putting it together, I realized there was one main thing, and it colors everything else. So here goes:

I don’t like doing research.

I thought carefully about the wording of that statement. “Research doesn’t fulfill me” is true, but jobs shouldn’t always fulfill us; jobs are jobs and labor is labor. “Research doesn’t bring me joy” doesn’t work for the same reason. Should we enjoy our jobs? I think so, and also, we should get joy elsewhere. I digress.

Here is what I mean: I don’t mind doing research most days. I like reading things, I like learning things, I like thinking about things and writing about them. The desire to be a perennial student is one reason I got into this business, if I’m being honest with myself. Of course, academics are not students, or perhaps more accurately not primarily students, and that’s where the proverbial shit hits the fan. Being expected to know things because I discovered them? Or thought of a particularly compelling way to make sense of things we were already aware of? Or happened to have a more privileged platform than someone else from which to yell the same information? I don’t know.

People here keep telling me that I have an ambitious research agenda. This is confusing to me, because I think I am doing a thoroughly mediocre job. I am okay with that mediocre job—it fits within my constellation of professional priorities—but I am less okay with it being assessed as strong or anything like that because it feels like I’m sending an inauthentic message about myself out into the world. A co-worker said that I was hired mainly because of an article I published, and that made me feel sad. I’m proud of the article in question, but I am so much more as a scholar than that article. The best academic parts of me are elsewhere. So part of my challenge is that I am seen as primarily a researcher when that is not how I view myself at all.

There’s more to it than external perceptions, though. I’ve been candid about how emotionally difficult I found fieldwork. The epistemologies of good fieldwork—ethnography, immersion, contingency, deep contextual knowledge, relational work, co-producing our lifeworlds—are all things in which I believe deeply, and I struggle to engage with research that does not adopt this general ethos. (A mentor once said, “I wish you could find fulfillment running models at a desk.”) And also, these things are extremely difficult for me to do. I am an introverted person, I don’t like meeting new people without plenty of advance warning, I am not a natural conversationalist, and once every couple of months I find it essential to take a week where I see approximately zero humans. During my fieldwork, I spent almost every moment not at an interview (or arranging an interview, or prepping for an interview; y’all know how it is) laying on the couch staring into space. I had to drag myself off of trains to go meet interesting people from whom I learned a ton! I am going back to the field this summer and the only reason I think it might work (I am already dreading aspects of it) is because it’s in a city where I know so many people from my life pre-academia, and so I can exist in that space comfortably as a different version of myself. I have so much admiration for folks who do fieldwork with less difficulty, because this is the academic work that I think is worth doing and I, well, I can sort of do it. Sometimes. With costs.

So maybe it’s more accurate not to say that I don’t like doing research, but that doing research doesn’t make me feel good. It supercharges my depression—a constant baseline not caused by research but certainly not helped by it, in my experience—and it makes me feel like a fake version of myself. And that’s crushing, given that I think authenticity and coming to the work from a place of empathy and care are what produce our most valuable insights. But here we are.

I want to underscore that I can do research most days, and I will—as mentioned, learning things is great! I’m especially grateful to work at a UK institution where one is not expected to be a constant top-journal paper-producing machine. I didn’t apply to almost any R1 jobs in the US because I wasn’t interested in meeting the tenure expectations at those institutions with regards to research. (To anticipate unasked-for advice: I applied to every job at a liberal arts or teaching college for which I was remotely qualified. It was the height of COVID. There were, like, five of those.) The pace in the UK is much more my speed, and if I can turn off the terrible voices of US R1 training in my head and suppress the socialized desire to do more projects, more, I will be fine here, research-wise. (The grant capture side of research expectations here is a different story, but we are not opening that can of worms tonight, friends. Too much.)

Importantly, there are other parts of my job that make me feel good. I still believe, all institutional incentives and promotion requirements notwithstanding, that our primary job as university professors is as teachers. That is why our jobs exist. That is what we are here for. And so I have trouble empathizing with co-workers who talk about “getting back to research” over the summer as a matter of urgency. I can acknowledge the importance of hitting research benchmarks for tenure and promotion, but I can’t feel that same urgency. I can’t position research as something distinct from teaching and service—to me, they are all interconnected, which is part of what makes research tolerable—and I struggle to understand the desire to learn things for “research” when you could be learning things alongside your students. I digress, again.

Anyway. Why am I talking about all of this now? In reflecting on my first year in this job, I have tried to locate moments that are satisfying vs. moments that are not, in an effort to maximize the former and minimize the latter going forward. I have said no to a few offers of research collaboration, including with people whom I respect a great deal, and though this will require more practice to shut down the nervous butterflies, declining these invitations has been a small reclamation of agency in an industry composed of external pressures and duct tape. That feels like a small step in the right direction.

I have also noticed that so much of the departmental talk, even in an institution where research expectations are less onerous than what I am used to, is about research. How can we preserve time for research? How can we help co-workers do their best research? These are important questions, and I can imagine them resonating if research makes you feel good. I encounter these questions and hear the opposite of what is intended: that the things that make me feel good matter less and are to be shaved down to make time for the thing that doesn’t. My department had a failed search for an associate teaching professor, and had I been more senior, that’s the sort of post I would’ve applied for in a heartbeat. My brain knows why we didn’t fill the position, and yet it can’t comprehend that we didn’t fill the position. I digress, again.

I suppose my point in sharing this is that we so often put research up on a pedestal in academia: at North American R1s, at institutions that want to be North American R1s, at UK research institutions (which are the vast majority of UK institutions), across a lot of Europe. To be abundantly clear, this is not a dig at research. But academia is so much more than research, and I want the grad students who get into this business because they love teaching college students to have a future here. I want them to feel valued and equal to their more research-focused peers. I want programs to support them fully. If you are a grad student and this is you: I see you and I am here for you, 100%. If you are a grad program: what are you doing to show your students on academic career paths that there is more than one way to be?  

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