Hitting My Stride: a System for Developing a Research Agenda beyond the Dissertation / Book Project

With the academic year ended and our seniors graduated and feted, many, if not most, scholars are now turning their attention to their summer writing projects. This is especially true of those of us with heavy teaching loads, who often struggle to find the time to make progress on their scholarship while classes are in session.

In my case, I did manage to finish and send off for review three articles this spring, but a.) those were all projects that had been begun the previous year and b.) you do not want to see my current living conditions as a result. It’s possible to teach a 5-4-1 load and write and stay married and keep the kids alive, or to teach a 5-4-1 load and keep a reasonably tidy household and stay married and keep the kids alive, but you cannot have it all….

So far, I’ve heard back on one of those articles (acceptance! Yay!) and, while I await word on the other two, I’m moving on to three other active projects–two in media res, and the third a new WIP. I’m working on revisions to the Welsh and Old English and cannibalism sections of my dissertation, now a book project; I’m completing the full draft of an article on female friendship; and I’m drafting the Introduction and my contributed chapter for a collection of essays on food and feast in premodern outlaw tales.

Besides these active writing projects, I have one revise-and-resubmit that needs more attention than I was able to afford it during the academic term, and I am also developing a project on teaching Celtic materials in the generalist classroom with my colleague, Matthieu Boyd, although at present my contribution is primarily editorial in nature. And that’s my summer scholarship, all planned out. Plus four book reviews, and a possible 2 further revise-and-resubmits, dependent upon the responses to the articles currently out.

Looking ahead, during this summer I am also seeding a few new projects–doing the prep work to make them happen in the next few years. That is, I am thinking about them, reflecting on them, maybe reading a little towards them, developing conference sessions on them and reaching out to others for possible contributions (in the case of edited collections) but not actively working on drafting until the current works are submitted. This is, essentially, how I am developing my research agenda beyond my book project.

As graduate students, we are trained to focus on our thesis or dissertation and get it done and graduate. Then, we are supposed to turn that material into articles or a book. And then…. we are supposed to do it again, and again, and again, but without the benefit of a director’s or supervisor’s experience, advice, coaching, and encouragement. Where we have been directed to complete one major project before beginning another, now suddenly we are expected to regularly publish new material.

So, how do you get from “I finished my dissertation and got my PhD! Yay!” to developing a research agenda with multiple works at various stages of progress in this academic publishing pipeline that is so essential to building your career? There are a lot of resources out there with great advice about writing and publishing articles and books. In what remains of this blog post, I am just going to share how my research agenda has developed since I completed the PhD in 2016, and how I strategize to juggle projects.

I graduated having already published a few items–articles on various aspects of the Arthurian legend and Chaucer’s birds–and each of those projects had left at least one question mark leading into another possible project that I needed to set aside in order to focus on completing the dissertation. Before that, I also had a master’s thesis which included material I was keen to turn back to. The dissertation itself, as it is supposed to do, led to new lines of inquiry that could not possibly be covered in that single project. So, upon graduating, I had several possible avenues for research and publication, and it was primarily a question of how to manage everything. Conferences are a good start.

In my MA and early PhD program years as a graduate student, I tended to see a CFP for a conference that looked interesting, have some work I did for a course that would fit one of the sessions, and propose a paper. It might or might not actually have anything to do with my current research or future research plans; it was just “hey, I want to go to this conference so I need to get a paper or talk accepted.” With the encouragement of my PhD advisor, I adopted a more strategic approach, in which I returned to projects I knew I wanted to develop and turned those into conference papers, instead of just submitting anything. So, for example, I went back into my MA thesis, cut out the part I wanted to expand in a new direction, and gave that as a paper at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in 2013. Two full revisions later, it became my article “He Dreams of Dragons: Alchemical Imagery in the Medieval Dream Visions of King Arthur,” published in Arthuriana 27.1 (Spring 2017). In 2014, I gave a paper at the ICMS with my colleague Deva Kemmis on the Melusine legend, and together with Misty Urban, who also gave a paper on Melusine that year, we developed an interdisciplinary, edited collection, which was published with Brill in 2017. In 2015, working more specifically on my dissertation materials, I gave papers on women and the feast–now part of the third chapter of my book–and on the Geste of Robyn Hode, now an article in Medieval Perspectives 31.

Since graduating, I have continued to find using conference papers and sessions as the basis for work I want to develop to be the best means of getting it done despite my heavy teaching load. In 2017, I spoke on the “Gender and Species: Ecofeminist Intersections” roundtable at the ICMS, in which I doubled-back to Chaucer’s birds, the subject of one of my first articles. That talk, expanded and refined into an article, will be published in Medieval Feminist Forum sometime in the next year. The paper I gave in the “Female Friendship I” session that same Congress, is one of my revision pieces this summer, and will (I hope) be included in an edited collection expected to come out sometime in the next year or two. I also gave a paper at the 2017 Southeastern Medieval Association that was derived from the Arthurian materials in my dissertation, which was immediately snapped up by the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays on that subject.

This year, I gave a paper at the Medieval Academy which is the seed thinking for the cannibal feasts chapter I am drafting this summer, and a paper at the Indiana-Bloomington symposium on the Welsh materials in my book project, which I am also revising this summer. In June, I will be presenting some of the work in my Old English chapter at SLU-CMRS, before revising that material as well over the summer.

Besides using conference papers as a means of presenting and  refining my own works-in-progress, I also find organizing conference sessions to be an effective means of jump-starting edited collections. My colleague Evelyn Meyer and I are in the beginning stages of an edited collection on Arthurian Ethics, so we organized sessions on the subject for this year’s ICMS and SLU-CMRS to begin gathering possible contributors and seeing what and how people are thinking on this subject, in advance of launching into the full project in late 2018/ early 2019. My colleague Matt Carter and I are in the earliest planning stages of similar work on “violence and gender on the premodern stage,” and my colleague Renee Ward and I are similarly planning sessions on animals in medieval romance for a collaboration on that topic. I am in early talks with another colleague to develop a collection of essays on Beowulf penned solely by women scholars.

I have a wide range of interests, which means I am never lacking for a project. However, I also have a plan; I am not just haphazardly publishing on anything and everything. At any given time I am working on probably 4-5 scholarly projects, according to a rough formula as follows: one piece that returns to something I have already worked on; one piece related to my dissertation/ book project (s); one piece that takes that dissertation/ book material in a different direction; one piece that moves into a new area of study entirely; one or two collaborations. I build on my own intellectual foundation with some projects, and then extend it with others, in an ongoing, circuitous fashion. This approach makes good sense for me, because I am not great about just focusing on one subject or project at a time. My mind is inherently interdisciplinary, and so is my scholarship.

I am certain as certain can be, that this system of using conferences to jumpstart publications is self-evident and that established scholars and even many graduate students are probably thinking “well, duh, of course” in response to this blog post. But if there are others out there struggling under heavy workloads and unsure of how to develop a research agenda that permits them to publish regularly, I hope my experience is helpful and gives you ideas for how you might go about it with a little less anxiety.




About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in Academia, Conferences and Professional Development Opportunities, Publishing, Research and Scholarship, writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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