|Student Rachel Rueckert posted reviews of|
books she was researching both on Goodreads
and on her research blog.
Blog about the books and sites that you are reading, researching, and skimming! Tweet about some of those articles you are going through! Post reviews about the books you research, make blog posts evaluating that archival website or digital resource! Keep your researching and thinking as public as possible!
Read on to learn why.
One of those sea-change shifts in how writing is evolving has to do with publishing one's processes of researching, drafting, and formulating one's ideas. It used to be that all of that refining process had to be private and that anything published was expected to be complete, polished, and worth the trouble involved in using a scarcity-based medium like print. The implicit corollary: anything not formally polished and published isn't worth one's time.
All of that, gratefully, is changing. We are starting to value interim, inchoate, incipient, provisional knowledge -- knowledge that isn't set or fixed but can be fixed and reset. (For a more complete defense of this genre of unfinished knowledge, see my "Burning Redwoods: The Lost Assets of Academia.")
Don't go solo
For those writing about literature in a college setting, research has typically been a very solitary and private activity. But it doesn't have to be; indeed, it no longer should be. Why not benefit from collaborative research? Why not engage other minds -- not just in response to formally published writing, but in response to tentative ideas and provisional conclusions?
Academic writers should follow Eric Raymond's famous dictum for software development, "release early, release often." They will find that from early brainstorming up through drafting and more formal development, they can be rewarded with interim feedback that will motivate them, help to refine their ideas, and build an audience for the more finished versions of their work that they finally issue.
Responding to sources gets you into a productive draft mode.
It is so often while grappling with someone else's work that we are able to discover and articulate our own developing viewpoints. This is why I encourage writing publicly and informally about various sources you encounter in your research. As you write in this open way, you will discover more about your own thinking and the possible place for each resource in your formal writing. Moreover, by doing so you can also connect with others who already have interest in those sources.
The annotated bibliography for the digital age
Long before updating my pedagogy, I had my students creating annotated bibliographies as a way of getting them to do research, to find diverse and appropriate sources, and especially to get them developing a working thesis statement (which I have them place at the top of their bibliography). This interim document has proven very crucial and has opened up great conversations between me and my students.
But why limit that conversation? It is just when ideas are incipient, just coming to the surface, that input can be most valuable from others. Moreover, if literary researchers talk through their sources in blog posts, it builds their ethos, their credibility, as someone who has done their homework. Even if some of those sources never get used in a formal paper, the student's discussion of them stands both independently and in aggregate with other posted content, indicating the interests and intelligence of the researcher.
When Rachel read Ben Okri's The Famished Road, she wrote a review and posted this on Goodreads as well as on her blog. On her blog, it joins 18 other posts about books she did, which when I browse tell me a lot about Rachel as a thinker and a reader, and about her areas of interest. So, her reading and her review have value in that they provide a context for her other activities and a sense of what she's up to.
On Goodreads, Rachel's review joined over 4500 other reviews that have been posted about this book. Glancing over them, one can see the many people currently reading the book or who have recently done so. Many of these have very strong opinions and quickly engaged me. Though Rachel didn't take the opportunity with this particular book, because of the social and current context in which she published her review, she was potentially connected to literally thousands of other people who have a stake in that book. She could reply to any of those reviewers' reviews, or click through to see their profiles and examine what other books she may have in common with them.
Working bibliography and social discovery
What I have described with respect to Rachel is a process by which the private activity of reading and research was transformed into forms of knowledge that contribute to building her reputation and socializing her research and interests. Those things have value independent of whether researched sources make it into formal academic work. When content gets connected to people through the intermediary of an active (and open) researcher, that content becomes a catalyst -- to potential audiences, and to discussion and thought that can refine and perfect a researcher's budding ideas.
Not just reviews
Even a book review can seem to be a formal or semi-formal kind of writing, and it's important for researchers not to feel as though the narrative of their research process is so formal a kind of publishing that it has too high of a participation threshold. This is why I encourage lots of informal blogging. A given post might narrate a set of sources that a researcher has gone through. The recent annotated bibliography assignment I gave to my writing students required them to add notes following each entry in which they are to talk about the relevance of that source to their current (incomplete) thinking.
What other ways could we share and discuss our research sources while we are in the developing stages of writing a more formal project?