Saturday, November 22, 2008

Changing Horses

Here's the backstory: just before I finished grad school, I published an article on a fairly sexy topic that I had stumbled across while researching my dissertation. Oddly enough, no one had really worked on it before, at least not that I had seen. It was exciting: I had a pre-Ph.D. publication in a fairly high-profile journal, and a second topic ready to go once I had turned the diss into a book. I put it in my job application letter in that "next project" paragraph, and figured that I had staked out my territory.

Funny thing about staking out your territory: it only works for so long. In the five years subsequent to the publication of that article, at least two other people begain work on the topic. Both are now much further into the topic than I am. Sure, I had a plan for which archives to visit and what questions to ask, but after a conversation I had today with a senior scholar in my field who knows the state of both of these people's research, it seems that I've once again got to shelve the project, wait for one or both of these projects to be published (another four years or so?), and then see if there's room for me to get back into it.

I'm not feeling bushwhacked or anything. I let the topic go cold, and it's little wonder that others got interested in it. But now I find myself needing to think about what to do next. I've written my sabbatical application and a couple other things as if I were going to take this project on, because my other possibilities are too early in development for me to speak or write intelligently about them at this point. But today I had to face facts that the thing that has always been in the back of my mind as the "next project" won't be, after all.

So, it seems like Shiny New Project may be the way to go. There are complications with this one, but more on that in a later post.


Historiann said...

Notorious, I disagree. (Well, I think you should do what you want to do, regardless of territory-staking or other people's research agendas. The work is too complicated and it takes too long for you to write something that doesn't give you pleasure.) The advice of that Senior Scholar seems cowardly. Why should you have to wait to see what they produce? There is almost no chance that your articles/book on this topic will replicate their work. Besides, you're the person who has a publication on this subject.

If you get your sabbatical (and how could you not?), then you can do whatever you want with the time. But, why be scared away from a topic when you only know through hearsay what someone else is working on? I was once warned away from a topic as a grad student by a more senior person to me (an Assistant Prof. at the time) whom I trusted. When I mentioned wanting to write an article on topic X, she said, "Oh Historiann, I've already written that article." That was fifteen years ago. Have I seen that article published anywhere, or appear in a book chapter?

((Crickets chirping))

squadratomagico said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Historiann. If the topic has a some richness to it -- and it sounds as if it does -- then I imagine several different scholars can work on it and all still produce interesting work that will complement one another's. You all will have your own "takes." Plus, as Historiann notes, since you already have a publication out, why should you back away? Even if they are a bit further along than you are right now, you will be doing your own trajectory with the work and will quickly catch up.

I say, if you want to pursue this, you certainly should. But maybe you're just looking for an excuse to do that microhistory?

Dr. S said...

I concur with what has already been said!

(I mostly wanted to chime in with that, and with the fact that my verification word is "HOPHE"!)

Perhaps what you now need to ask yourself is in which direction your instincts are guiding you? Are you looking for a reason or a way to be able to do the shiny new study? Are you hankering to get back to the old 2nd project?

Fortunately you know you're going to rock the whole damned block, no matter what you decide.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Well, the opinions are unanimous, but there's more to the story. Senior Scholar actually had just read a grant application from the other senior scholar who is working on the project. She's a big name, and her work is both definitive and fast. I've actually read a background article she's already done, and it's very good. She's also got some editorial pull at a big press, so there's that.

Most importantly, however, is my fear of doing a ton of work, only to find that I've reinvented the wheel.

So, the tentative plan is to work on Shiny New Project, but also poke around at the edges of Old Next Project. That way, when the other books come out, I'll be well-positioned to know what (if any) unique contribution I can make to the discussion.

At least, that's the plan right now. Who knows what changes of heart I'll have in the next six months?

tenthmedieval said...

I think everyone has points here, and of course I'm biased because I think the Shiny New Project sounds really cool. But I think one factor not so far mentioned is how well you may or may not need to get on with these others who are working your area. There is the possibility as Historiann says that whatever they're doing will never come out (in my side of the field there seems to be a ten-year limit on that, which is I guess about the time that it takes for Obedient Pupil who Never Wrote In Place of the Master to get his or her own grad students to do it instead). But if they do produce something, then either (ideal) there will be no overlap, or one or or other of you will beat the other to the press. You're worried about what happens if they beat you but it may not be comfortable if you beat them either...

Ivy Climber said...

Hi, I'm a lurker here, and I just wanted to say I've been in your position before. The trouble is that once you wait a few years to see what the others have written, there will be half a dozen NEW people --the follow-the-leader types who don't come up with original ideas but fill in around the edges of existing work-- working on the topic. It will become *less* yours, not more.

Which may mean kissing it goodbye altogether.

On the other hand, in my field if I hear that someone is working on a project it is perfectly acceptable (and even appreciated) to contact her and ask to see a draft, if/when one is ready. Most people (1) aren't jerks, and (2) genuinely want others to read their work, and so are happy to comply, if perhaps not immediately. You can simply say, "As you may know, I've worked on this topic before, and I'm very interested in what you've uncovered."

Susan said...

What everyone else has said. There are few topics where there is room for only two pieces of work. But shiny new project sounds really cool too, so. . .