To wander with purpose …
If there’s one valuable service those of us with experience can provide the neophyte researcher (in any subject), it’s tools to overcome the potentially-paralyzing sense of being overwhelmed when you first start exploring a topic. Where do you even start? Humans have been writing stuff down for thousands of years, and leaving material objects behind for longer than that. There are billions of us walking around on this planet now. There is so much stuff.
Even if you readily accept what Jeff Webb taught us in HIST 7001 at MUN: “You can’t read everything,” that still begs the question, “So what DO I read?” (Jeff, to his credit, had useful answers to that.) What works for me is, to paraphrase the late great Francis Christie at Hendrix, “start where you are.” It doesn’t really matter where you start; it’s not a linear process. It’s a web; which strand you start traveling down isn’t important. It’s navigating the web with some purpose that’s important. Trick is, that purpose will not be entirely obvious at first. Only with time spent on the web of knowledge and inquiry will a purpose come into focus—over a period of time. As with any other worthwhile endeavor, starting a research project is an act of faith.
That all sounds exciting and inspiring—at least to me—but the reality of the early stages of research is that it’s actually unnerving and can feel pointless and aimless and—overwhelming. I’ve come out the other side of a dissertation and two books now; I know how comforting it is to be locked into a specific focus, with the end product clearly in sight. Work becomes a concrete, task-oriented process; a series of near-term gratifications leads, at an accelerating pace, to ringing the brass bell at the end. An even more instantaneous feel-good is working with a publisher in production; every step in that process reinforces the sense of satisfaction of having done it and made it.
Starting a new major project is a whole different thing. I’m compiling a working bibliography—a list of books and articles I definitely, probably, or maybe need to read. It’s exciting and refreshing if I’m in one mood—I was ready to get off the narrow track I had to be on before, ready to learn new things, to read books that go to (literally) different places. In the other mood, it’s daunting, discouraging—and overwhelming. Yes, I’ll freely admit, I’m still not immune to that. I’ve established some expertise in a certain area, and that expertise has been stamped with external validation. Now it’s time to stretch that. Setting off into the unknown is good for us—but it scares us.
So, yes, as I said starting off, we can perform a valuable service for, say, undergrads who want to pursue scholarship by helping them learn how to work well and feel those conflicting feelings at the same time. On the other hand, it occurs to me that we could also do ourselves a service by remembering how to go back, in a sense, to being undergrads ourselves.
The best thing about “college,” as opposed to graduate school or professional training, is that it opens up the whole intellectual world. Doing it right means following your brand-new interests where they lead. Want to know what anthropology is? Take a course. Want to go to biology lab in the morning and the art studio in the afternoon? College will be happy to arrange that. It’s for exploring, learning everything you can about everything you can for four unique years as you become an adult. In that sense, it’s priceless, even if it now costs way too much money for most people.
Our minds are humming with potential at the end of a long course of study, and we have all this stuff in there, and it’s all fresh. As soon as we start down the path of specialization, some of that fades. A senior historian I know said that, the day he got his PhD, his supervisor said to him, “Congratulations—you’re smarter now than you’ll ever be again.” But we do have to do something with all that potential, and that requires specialization—focusing on something, pursuing a limited, necessarily-restricted path of inquiry toward a useful contribution to knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with that; that is the way.
But we need to be able to go back, as best we can, to where we started—each and every time we start a new project. Back to that humming potential, back to that hunger to know new things, to go places we haven’t been before. Yes, we take our accumulated knowledge and experience with us, but the terra incognita (and, in my case, mare incognitum) will test and challenge those, and that’s good for us. So, we need to learn how to be both—how to deploy the focus and concrete skills of the practicing professional without losing the broad-minded curiosity and taste for exploration of the promising beginner.
That applies to life. Those of us with gray hair get something we really need from the young ‘uns, at the same time that we do everything we can to help them on their way. We take vicarious pleasure in their new experiences, but if we’re smart, we’ll also take some inspiration from being reminded that there’s a time to let go, open up, look around, breathe deeply, think new thoughts, go somewhere we’re not exactly sure where. That bumper sticker ain’t lying: All who wander are not lost.
And on that note, it’s back to word-searching journal indexes.