Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Research Oasis

The end of March marks the beginning of the end of the academic year. When we meet for the first time after break, I always tell my students that the final weeks are going to feel like an adrenaline-hyped haze. And this is made even more extreme by my institution's academic calendar, because our spring break was last week, leaving four weeks of class after the break is over. And with the end of the semester comes a rush of papers to comment on, department and committee business to conclude, administrative business to continue (forever), and so on. T. S. Eliot briefly brushed the soul of we the academics when he declared April to be the cruellest month.

We're busy, in other words.

So when spring break arrived, I treated it as an opportunity to get ahead (catch up? stay on top of? I don't know) on research. I received a research fellowship for the summer, and I certainly plan to dedicate a significant amount of time escaping heat and humidity by poring over this keyboard to produce scholarship. But I wanted to make spring break count as a productive week, separate from the other obligations I must satisfy. I wanted it to be a research oasis.

What a "research oasis" looks like for me:

So I came into the office last week on days that I would have preferred to stay home and enjoy the brief respite from my half-hour commute and my windowless workspace. And I did research that I had been planning for a couple of months.

Not so long ago, I posted about the realities of rejection in every writer's life. I've gotten rejected often enough lately. One article that I was particularly excited about was sent back to me from a journal with, shall we say, less than helpful feedback. ("Umm...yeah. Of course I read this. Sure, I did." This is how I translated the editor's notes, probably quite unfairly.) I brooded a little and set it aside. Then an idea for how to approach the project from a new and probably much more productive direction came to me one day, with the aid of some of my colleagues from afar with whom I discuss ideas. But I didn't have time to do it.

Fortunately, Jacob from December knew what Jacob in March would want. A spring break uninterrupted by other demands. So I planned my classes accordingly. I had no student writing to respond to for more than a week. (That statement deserves italics, as any writing teacher would agree.) I counted on the faculty tendency to take advantage of breaks to disappear for just a little while, and sure enough, the influx of emails slowed to a tiny trickle. It was my kairotic moment. I had created an oasis.

Last week was my oasis. I thought about research methodologies. I set aside my conclusions from my previous approach and jumped in, letting my new method lead me toward new conclusions. I made pages and pages and pages of notes. I coded information. I read article after article. I examined multiple kinds of artifacts, letting my methodology guide me to what would help me to explore my question.

And it felt good. I don't know what this research will yield yet. I am on the tenure-track, so I certainly hope it leads to publication. But I tried to enjoy that brief window of uninterrupted research for the joy research provides. Tenure is never far from my mind, but I want to find joy in conducting research and producing scholarship. I don't want the pressures of tenure to be my only motivation. And last week was enjoyable.

Today provided me with a brief extension of my little oasis from last week. I pushed aside tasks that probably should have gotten my attention. I have another writing project that needs to be finished by the end of the week. I am working on an exciting conference proposal with colleagues from across the country. There's another writing project I'm sure my co-author would love for me to pay even a little attention to. I need to think more about a book project. Always more. Always more.

I used the term oasis because the word blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. An oasis is generally always just out of reach. And as this summer gets ever closer, that time I have marked off for research and writing, I have to remember the realities that will keep pushing that oasis a little further away. A new baby. New administrative responsibilities. New class preps for the fall. But getting even just a couple of days back to back can prove to be incredibly productive.


  1. I wish Jacob from December would plan Kerri from any month's life. I've got to learn to do this. Thanks for writing.

    1. As my new colleagues are prone to remind me, Jacob of the first year on tenure-track has more energy than they do. They feel assured it will wear down into a comfortable chaos if given enough time.