A longstanding imaginary-friend-on-the-Internet, who now runs a very successful online business, once said that something I’d said to him years ago had been pivotal to his success. I had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently, back when we were both still trying to figure out what and how to do our things, I had told him to stop describing what he did as “weird”. It was such a small thing I forgot about it. But it shifted everything for him.
I’m going to give you the same advice. You may not use the word “weird”. You’re more likely to say something like
“No one really cares about this topic, but I’d like some funding for it anyway.”
“No one is going to read this journal article.”
“I’d love to write about X but no one will give me a job/tenure/funding if I do that.”
When you tell yourself that your research is weird, you don’t give it the time and energy it deserves. You convince yourself you have more important things to do. When you decide you have to write “safer” things, you struggle to stay interested and you don’t produce your best work.
Your specialist topic is not weird.
Being an academic means being enthusiastic about some narrowly defined topic. Other academics, even other academics in your discipline, might occasionally say that your topic is weird (though probably in a much more scholarly way). However, when you think about it, they have a specialism that appears just as strange as yours does to those who don’t share their enthusiasm.
You are a specialist. You are one of a small number of people who are doing what you are doing. Your friends and family who are not academics probably don’t understand why you’d want to devote so much time and energy to your specialist topic.
There are other scholars who are interested (even enthusiastic) about your topic or something very closely related to your topic. Their interest counts. The fact that other people don’t already know what is interesting or important about your field of research doesn’t mean that they would not be interested or find it important. Part of your job is to make the case for the significance of your work. You might be surprised.
The research and writing you want to do is interesting and important. Do it. Share it. More importantly do it and share it assuming that it is not “weird” and that there are people out there who will be interested and recognize its importance.
For reasons which still elude me, a stranger on Twitter took my advice.
I gave this advice to someone on Twitter several years ago. At the time he was a sessional instructor. He was not inspired by the things he was writing and struggling to find the time and energy to write and publish them. He complained about it on Twitter. I suggested that he write what he wanted to write.
His initial reaction was that he couldn’t. It was too risky. He needed to write things that would get him a job. I pointed out that he might not get a job anyway. At least if he wrote the things he wanted to write, he wouldn’t feel like all this time was wasted if that turned out to be the case.
He started writing what he wanted to write. He enjoyed writing and wrote more. He submitted articles and lo and behold they were accepted. Not only accepted but a senior scholar on the editorial team of a journal pointed out that there might be a book there and offered to mentor him to that end. He was invited to edit a special issue of a journal. A reviewer comment on one article led to another related article. He got a book contract, sold worldwide English language rights, and has just told me that translation rights have been sold for another country. Somewhere in there he got a tenure track job with a research leadership element.
Assessing the risks
When I say “write what you want to write”, I am asking you to take a risk. If you are currently unemployed or precariously employed, that risk looks huge. What if you don’t get a job?
It sounds harsh, but you might not get an academic job anyway. Not because you aren’t any good but because there are more excellent scholars on the job market than there are academic jobs. You might think the risks are already high because you are black, or a woman, or working class, or disabled. Maybe people with more privilege than you have can take risks about what they write but you need to play it safe. I’m going to be harsh again: you cannot fight irrational prejudice in hiring (which does exist) with evidence of high performance in safe topics. They will always find a rational-sounding justification for not hiring you if that’s what they want to do. It’s not fair. But that’s how it is.
By working on the material that really excites you, you will work harder and do better work. You will find time for the work because you enjoy it and find it meaningful. If, for reasons beyond your control, you do not end up with an academic position, you will remember the years you spent working on this material with fondness. At least you got to spend howevermany years focused on the work you found truly meaningful.
You also risk the outcome my Twitter interlocutor had. Sometimes what actually makes you stand out in a crowded field is the very thing you suspect everyone thinks is weird. Sometimes the excellent work you do on that topic, fuelled by enthusiasm, is exactly what makes you look like an excellent candidate for a job. Sometimes that will even tip the irrational prejudice scales in your favour.
It might not happen. But it strikes me as a risk worth taking.
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