It drives me nuts that there are so many great articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education – behind a paywall, where you can’t see them unless you have a subscription. The December 19th issue had a great essay, In Search of New Frontiers: How Scholars Generate Ideas. If you have a subscription, that link will be useful for you. If not, try to rustle up a print copy somewhere on your campus.
The author, Robert L. Hampel, talked about how one selects a Good Topic for Future Research (GTFR). He came to question the advice he’d been giving to first year PhD students:
Fill a gap in the literature, identify a problem that has not been studied adequately, and add a brick to the wall of knowledge. That might be how I and others justified our research, but was it how we came upon the topic in the first place?
After talking with a dozen or so colleagues, he concluded that “filling a gap in the literature” was not really how anyone went about choosing a research problem. There were four main “lessons” he gained from his collegial conversations:
- Future research arises from current research. Things are never really finished, and many projects don’t work out as we’d planned. All that cleanliness in the literature is misleading!
- Future research can be autobiographical. On this one, I’d like to quote the author at length:
Research is often “me-search,” a friend of mine likes to say. Ideas for research topics can stem from brief personal experiences from childhood or threads that run throughout their professional lives. For example, gender equity in science education has riveted a colleague since she majored in chemistry in college. Another colleague’s passion is the give-and-take of arguments, “so I think that’s why I’m studying fifth graders’ persuasive writing.” What “voice” means for minority scholars fascinates an African-American academic who feels that the traditional norms of scholarly discourse stifle her own creativity. For those colleagues, their lives are inspiration, but not evidence — in other words, they are not autoethnographers.
Sometimes a good project arises from family life. A child psychologist extended her work on infant communication when her 14-month-old son was pointing incessantly to the refrigerator. “I’d take one thing out after another, and he finally seemed to find what he wanted,” she said. “So I got excited and found three families, studying how kids make their ideas known and how they correct your misconceptions when you’re wrong about what they want.”
- Future research often arises from conversations. You know this one. Have lunch with your colleagues, visit them in their offices, hobnob at conferences. I don’t care if you’re shy and you don’t like talking to people. Get out there and circulate!
- Future research can derive from what others want and might pay for. This isn’t just the obvious – grants and contracts. It can also be solicitations for a special volume (this is more likely in the humanities and social sciences than in the biological and physical science and engineering).
Apparently, just as no one gets taught how to teach (though this is changing some), no one gets taught how to generate research projects either. Hampel notes:
That lack of formal coaching may explain not only the variety of approaches that my colleagues take to identify ideas for future research but also the different mechanical ways that they keep track of them. One used a single folder; another had a separate folder for each idea. Two kept journals — one was strictly about research, the other resembled a personal diary. Three used computer files ranging from the very simple to the elaborate, cross-referenced array with shorthand and symbols throughout. Another had index cards. The only common pattern held for the four people who used no system, preferring to carry the ideas in their heads, confident that they would never run short of topics.
How do you generate your ideas? And how do you keep track of them? Hampel also wonders what we are doing to document the ideas we haven’t had time to work through, so that those who follow us can pick up where we have left off after we are gone. He doesn’t want the fruits of our intellectual labor to just vanish when we do. What do you think of that idea – leaving a sort of legacy notebook of ideas? Right now, mine consists of a pile of clippings and cryptic notes to myself that I doubt anyone could make heads nor tails out of. I’m not saying the world will be in terrible shape just because I never got to blog that one insight about that one article or book I read…but maybe you have some really fab research ideas that could make the world a better place. Are you keeping track of them somewhere?