Friday, February 25, 2011

My Research Agenda (Or, "Ooh! Shiny!")

A friend once described my research agenda in two words: "Ooh! Shiny!"

By this, I take it, she meant both a compliment and a warning. The compliment has to do with my ability to take an interest in many, many things. To be dazzled, even, by them, and attracted, and eager to get to work. The warning has to do with how scattered my research and publishing threatens to be.

Instead of working on aspects of a single project, talk by talk and essay by essay, I seem to have spent the past few years working on a set of disconnected, purely contingent tasks: an essay on Muriel Rukeyser, an essay on poetry and the novel, an essay on Latino/a poetry, a talk on Bollywood, etc. Even my courses work this way, shifting focus and text from quarter to quarter, busily seeking with a continual change.

Over at Stupid Motivational Tricks I find an entry--one of many--about what it means to have, or not to have, a research agenda. In response to a blogger who was frustrated by her lack of inspiration, Jonathan writes:
The writer seems to be thinking in terms of individual articles resulting from isolated flashes of inspiration rather than an overarching research agenda. Without such an agenda, individual ideas have no framework to sustain them. This lack of a framework, together with a belief in "inspiration," is a sure-fire recipe for "writer's block."
He goes on to summarize his own research agenda in a single sentence: "My research agenda, for example, is explaining the development of late modernism in contemporary Spanish poetry and fusing together strands from intellectual and literary history through the work of authors who belong to both." He elaborates the various "components and dimensions" of the project, which lead to a variety of individual projects, but they're all linked, or in some way in dialogue with one another.

I think it might be useful for me to brainstorm a list of the things that I've been working on, and see which of them fit together, and how. I don't expect there to be a single agenda there, connecting across genres (poetry and popular fiction) or across topics (love and Jewish American culture, for example), but maybe something will come of it.

At the very least, I suspect I have two research agendas: one on love, which spans a variety of media and genres (poetry, fiction, film, popular song) and one on poetry as such, which includes the Jewish American poetry interest. (I'm not particularly interested in reading or studying Jewish American fiction.)

That's a discovery, this morning. Not sure what to do with it, but if I can begin to articulate what I want to do in either category the way that Jonathan does, I'll be on to something, I think.

Image: "Shiny Things," an original painting by bishopart, via Etsy.

"Character Strengths"?

Got an email this morning from the "VIA Institute on Character."

"Research is clear," it announced. "Focusing on what's right with us is more effective than focusing on what's wrong. Switch your focus today!"

Given how much I struggle these days with feeling down, and knowing that one way to increase your level of happiness is to put your character strengths into practice, as often as possible, I swung by their website to take the VIA survey and find out my "Character Strengths."

My top strengths, in descending order, seem to be:
1) Curiosity and interest in the world
2) Capacity to love and be loved
3) Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
4) Fairness, equity, and justice
5) Humor and playfulness
I'm a little surprised by 3 and 4, to be honest. Maybe they're on my mind because of all the grading I've been up to recently. (That and the political Tweets I follow.) And I'm sorry to see "Humor and playfulness" last, below them, although that, too, may have as much to do with context as anything else.

I took this survey years ago, but I'm damned if I can remember how I did on it then. And I'm not entirely sure how I can put any of this to use in the immediate future. Maybe, though, it will make me feel better about giving out so many Cs to my students on their first round of papers. Fairness, equity, and justice, that's me.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bronk, Actually

I've been busy, this quarter. Busy since November, evidently.

Wrote a long Parnassus piece on Harvey Shapiro, Michael Heller, and Stanley Moss, whose page proofs I've just put to bed, so that should be out soon. (By long, I mean 41 pp. in print, which is long even for me.) Edited. Taught. Did family things. Lived, worried, fought off the glums. Wrote funny lyrics, worked on my voice and my dancing. (I'll be front man for the Alte Rockers next month, at the synagogue Purim spiel.) Little of this, little of that. The usual.

Didn't see much point in blogging, so I didn't.

Lately, though, I've been thinking about my projects and plans and research agenda, and as I do, blogging keeps coming to mind. Not as a publication outlet, but as a place or a way to do some thinking aloud.

I miss it; or, rather, I miss the man I was when I was doing it more often and more thoughtfully. Reflective, with time on his hands. "The man who has had the time to think enough," as Stevens says. Or drink enough, anyway!

So I'll probably ease back into this. Just so you know.


In the mean time, to hold the fort, here's a little poem by William Bronk.

Bronk's a poet I had to age into. When I was in my, what--late 20s? Early 30s? Something like that--my friend Mark handed me a copy of Living Instead at Chapters bookstore in Washington DC, because he thought I'd enjoy it. I did, albeit a decade later, and that process of coming to like something fascinates me.

Anyway, a year or two ago I bought a stack of remaindered Bronk collections at my local Half-Price Books. This is the opening poem of The Mild Day, a collection that Talisman published back in 1993:

It's like going to Africa to live
with animals all around us, animals
regardless of us and we not the life
of the place ourselves as in this universe,
on earth even, forces are
that we don't see the way animals
could be seen but are around and are
regardless of us who are not the life of the place.
Awed, we stand our foreign ground. We watch.
Maybe tomorrow, or the next day, I'll say a bit about why I like this poem. Wouldn't be the worst use of my time. And who knows what might come of it, or this?