Saturday, January 23, 2010

Second Projects: Fear of Commitment

This is the second-project post, so expect some rambling.

Many years ago, even before I had finished my dissertation, I had a second project all mapped out. It happened just the way you're always told it would: In the process of researching your first project, you stumble across a cluster of intriguing documents. You pop out an article to help you think about it and to stake your claim, write up a description, and put it away as the "next project."

Except that, two years ago, I found out that someone had stepped on "my" project. Two someones, actually. And so I was stuck, because I had only been looking one project ahead. Silly me.

So the past year, I found myself trying to figure out what came next. And I came up with three ideas. The problem is that I don't have a clear front-runner, so I'm having trouble mustering up the commitment it will take to really get going on one. All have their obvious advantages and disadvantages, and so none is really jumping up and shouting "Pick me! Pick meeeee!!!"
  • Project Mnyeh: Happened the same way that Former First Project did: I kept running into mentions of certain semi-obscure-yet-important individuals in a couple of underexploited local archives. Their lives linked in with a bigger set of questions that historians had been asking, but as far as I know, no one had worked on these particular figures before. The problem was that it was a field of inquiry that bored me silly, and the field itself seemed played out. But I had materials. Location: regional archives, mostly an easy commute from Big Research City.
  • Shiny New Project: A microhistory. Super-interesting case. Lots of potential. Fun to research not one but many new things. Possibly problematic as a second book (I'm feeling like I need another traditional monograph before I go off and do something fun), but I went ahead & did some work on it in the archives this past summer. Problem: a large part of the research is prosopographic, meaning that I'm leafing through a couple hundred un-indexed notarial volumes looking for random mentions of two dozen names. It's going to take forever. Location: Big Research City.
  • Nifty Title Project: Seriously, this is one where the idea came to me as a title. It's somewhere between a traditional monograph and an innovative format. I know where some of the bodies are buried. The scope of what I have to look at is manageable. The problem is, I don't know what the central question is. Location: I can do the core research in Big Research City, but since I don't have the question set, Nearby Town regional archives might yield more info.

I thought that I'd have pretty much all of January to sort through all of this, before I left for my trip to Big Research City in early February. But all I've discovered is that I really don't want to write Project Mnyeh. So, here's the tentative plan, which I'm submitting for your approval:

Spend bulk of time in Big Research City. Mornings will be devoted to SNP research, since that's when the notarial archive will be open. Afternoons will go to NTP. If I have a little time towards the end of my trip, head to one Nearby Town archive to explore possibilities for NTP, in the course of which I'll collect enough info on one of the figures in PM to churn out an article.

UPDATE/ADDENDUM: More concretely, my goal for this trip should be to make progress on long-term research for SNP, while gathering enough info (plus a little margin) to write one article each on NTP and PM. At that point, I'll have a better sense of where everything is, and I can really commit.

It's a lot, and a lot more diffuse than I'd hoped I'd be by this point. But it's a starting place.

Opinions? Anyone out there more advanced than I am encounter this same issue in their own research program?


medieval woman said...

I think this sounds like a great plan - you're chipping away on several projects because it doesn't seem like you have enough of a sense of any of them yet to just follow one. As you move forward you'll be getting the best of both worlds: 1) you'll be getting some info for an article or two (likely), and 2) you'll discover exactly which project you'll pursue next.


Belle said...

MW's right on (as usual). Sounds like a great plan and an excellent use of time. Be careful with your computer this time!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

One of the cool things about being a natural sciences faculty member is that you can leverage off the mutual scientific interests and need for mentored training of multiple individual scientists working in your lab. For example, there are over a dozen scientists working in my lab with my guidance on about a half dozen different projects. Now *that's* fucking fun!

Susan said...

Go with your instinct. After my first book, I started a BIG SECOND PROJECT. Got a bunch of very visible articles out on BSP, and then someone asked me a question, and that led to the book I wrote. BSP is interesting, but I don't have a hook on it to allow me to write the kind of book I'd like to write. Until I find it, I'll leave the world with a few really interesting articles that get cited all the time.

So I'd say (a) follow your nose and (b) remember that you have the privilege of tenure, and you can do what makes sense, rather than what you think you ought to do. Actually, I think (b) should guide us even before tenure, but most of us are not that confident. After all, we're the ones who have to live with our project, not "them". (And I never know who sets up the rules about what you are "supposed" to do.)

FrauTech said...

Btw, I think the way you are clearly excited about Shiny New Project definitely says something. I'd go with momentum for a while.