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Friday, August 07, 2009

Scholarly "Dead Ends"

Today, following up on my posts based on my SEALS panels on planning and promoting your scholarly career, I want to talk about a subject that most of us know something about but few of us discuss in the detail it deserves: the scholarly dead end.  The thoughts here are my own, but they're inspired by the wonderful talk on this subject at SEALS by Prof. Cynthia Ward.  Again, without wanting to be a stalker, if you're her friend or colleague I encourage you to encourage her to publish her very insightful remarks.

The scholarly dead end is not limited to any one stage of the career, although I suspect it may well be high at the beginning and recur thereafter in something like five-year cycles.  At the beginning, the dead end may be related to the fact that your first piece or pieces are one-offs, not yet related to a larger project.  Later on, it may emerge when you run out your string on a series of articles, or decide that the subject has been adequately dealt with by others, or just doesn't excite you like it once did.  Sometimes, it comes from the fact that you said yes to an invitation that in retrospect you should have declined, and find yourself saddled with the obligation to write a symposium paper, response, etc., that's a little bit too far out of your field or just not as interesting as the invitation made it sound.  And sometimes a project sounds attractive and doable at the outset but you come to realize it takes more than you can bring to it.  Finally, Cynthia Ward, arguing along some of the same lines I've pursued here this week, suggested in her talk that a dead end can come from a junior scholar following the advice of a senior colleague to write about an area that is "hot" or "safe" rather than writing about the topic one really wants to write about.  That approach may seem safe, but it also risks a swift dead end.

I wonder why we don't talk about dead ends more, given how likely it is that all of us will face one from time to time.  Is it superstition?  Insecurity?  The belief that it only happens to us, not everyone else?  I don't know.  But it is very much worth discussing, and sharing our experiences.  What do you experience when you hit a dead end?  Despair?  Anomie?  Guilt?  Despair?  (OK, I said that once already, but you get my point.)  Why have you suffered dead ends?  What do you think you would have done differently to avoid it, and once at a dead end how do you respond?

In my experience, I've been fairly lucky, but not entirely immune to the scholarly dead end.  (At least as far as I can tell from my own perspective.  Folks who think I've actually hit many dead ends are welcome to not weigh in.)  For the most part, by thinking in terms of two or three broad research "pods," each of which have yielded several articles and/or books, I've stayed productive and able to put one "pod" on the back burner when enthusiasm wanes, only to turn back to it when it waxes.  Still, I can think of one paper I abandoned altogether after some 60 or 70 single-spaced pages and a year or two of research.  I can think of one or two papers I've written -- usually in a symposium context -- where in retrospect (and during the writing process!) I've wished I could escape that obligation.  

I have no outstanding advice here, and hope to hear from all of you out there.  I can offer a few words, though.  Again, I think most of us have two or three areas, often related but sometimes fairly distinct, that we are pursuing at roughly the same time.  Of course, each "pod" can have payoffs for the other, such that reading one book will yield insights and ideas for several "pods."  This helps economize on time but also helps us to toggle back and forth a little, keeping different projects in various stages of development or suspension.  Second, even at the pre-tenure level, I think it's important to know when to let go of a project.  Don't fall for the fallacy of sunk costs; if something is causing much more pain than pleasure and production, maybe it's time to abandon that project.  You can always return to it months or years later, and if you don't, you can at least have a better sense of what projects to pursue and what invitations to accept or decline in the future; plus, your research may well find uses in other projects.  But not everything you do absolutely has to be published.  Third, read for inspiration, both in and out of your main field; you never know when some stray sentence will lead you to your next set of articles.  Fourth, recharge from time to time, whether by using a sabbatical to learn something new or go into practice, or by focusing on teaching and reading for a year, or going to conferences without speaking, or what have you.  Fifth, don't write in a field that doesn't interest you, just because someone told you it would be the wise thing to do; the payoffs are probably not worth the risks.  Sixth, if you find yourself saddled with a project you have to finish, say because it's tied to a symposium, and you can't just turn it back to the ideas that do excite you, do the job that needs to be done (obviously, you should always do the job that needs to be done), but find ways of making that project narrower or more speculative or otherwise less time-consuming; then grit your teeth and do it.  (As to which I might add ruefully, physician, heal thyself.)  Seventh, remember that even if we don't talk about it, it happens to almost all of us.  (Sunstein and Posner excepted, perhaps.)

Again, I hope others will share their experiences and advice.  I'll have one or two more posts on related topics and then recharge my own optimism by posting about a new paper next week.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 7, 2009 at 10:24 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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My putative Ph.D thesis fell into the category of a topic given to me by an unofficial mentor that he considered hot at the time. It quickly turned into a dead end for me, and that's why I never finished it.

Or so I like to tell myself....

Posted by: Tycho | Aug 23, 2009 10:20:53 PM

Demoralizing, perhaps, but only in the sense that I recognize my paper here and wish I had gotten this advice months ago.

Posted by: Anonymous | Aug 10, 2009 1:16:52 PM

You have no idea how demoralizing this post is to me, in light of my quest, after two coauthored articles, to become THE expert on Third Amendment law.

Posted by: Dave Hardy | Aug 9, 2009 11:51:48 PM

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