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Finding the ‘Right’ Research Mix

Finding the ‘Right’ Research Mix
Sticking to what they know and love helps some scholars chart successful research careers
By Kendra Hamilton

The research enterprise is the cornerstone of the modern academy. It is so much a feature of the landscape that perhaps it’s not surprising that no aspect of the scholarly condition has been subject to more hand-wringing, myth-making and conjecture even as there has been very little in the way of formal study.

Everyone knows the importance of starting one’s career by picking the right research question. But from there, things get fuzzy. The question must be neither too narrow nor too broad, but just right.

Actually, “right” is a word one hears frequently in the context of research, as in the venerable old saw: “Don’t worry about getting the research right; just make sure you’re doing the right research.”

And along with vague admonitions such as the foregoing, one finds a proliferation of five- and 10-step formulae that, scrupulously followed, will result in the perfect dissertation/research project/scholarly monograph.

Of course, the simple fact is that, while everyone longs for one, there is no road map from graduate school to a professional career that features a school of the “right” size with the “right” colleagues and the “right” mix of teaching and research. But the experiences of individual scholars can often be quite helpful.

And so Black Issues talks to three scholars about their research. They are at different stages of their careers, based at very different types of institutions — but united in the fact that each feels that he or she is exactly where they need to be to do the work that they’re passionate about.

We asked what they were working on, the similarities — or differences — between those projects and their dissertations. We talked about the role of grants, colleagues and community. The result is not exactly a 10-step formula to success, but a timely reminder of some important general principles.

Going Deep

“I always tell people you’ve got to love your project — you almost have to have an affair with it,” says Dr. Beth Richie, associate professor and head of the Department of African American Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago. “You have to care about its most minute details. It’s almost as if all your pride and comfort were wrapped up in it.”

That’s quite at odds with the culture of academia, which stresses distance and objectivity, admits Richie. But it is, in her opinion, one of the keys to enjoying a successful research career. And by any objective measure, Richie has certainly done that.

As a specialist in violence against African American women and girls and the link between physical and sexual abuse and incarceration, Richie has been principal investigator or co-principal in no less than 16 major research studies. Her book, Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women (Routledge, 1996), is considered required reading for anyone interested in issues of abuse and incarceration as they pertain to Black women. The full list of her book chapters, articles, monographs, curricula, manuals and more runs to many pages. And all because Richie is motivated by a passion for her subject matter.

“I’ve been interested and worried, both theoretically and empirically, about the conditions of women and girls caught in the increasingly wide net of the criminal justice system for the 15 years of my research career,” she says.

Indeed, as Richie describes the trajectory of her research from the dissertation stage to her current preoccupations, one can clearly see the strength of the foundation laid in graduate school on which she currently stands.

“I first started working with battered women and sexual assault survivors” — that was the topic of Richie’s dissertation — “and then with battered women and sexual assault survivors who were African American, and then with those who were from low-income communities, and then with those who were trapped in the criminal justice system, and then with those who were young, and then with those who were lesbians.”

It was an organic process for Richie: “With each new population I came to understand, it led to another set of questions about another sub-population and another set of issues that made them uniquely vulnerable” to violence.

The stories Richie gleans through her qualitative research are harrowing, no less so because she is bringing news that no one wants to hear about — Black women, incarcerated women, lesbians — whose very existence many people would prefer to forget.

“Doing research on highly sensitive issues about very misunderstood populations means that my job is one of amplification and clarification,” Richie says, adding that her job carries special responsibilities. “The questions I choose are often those that I feel need better understanding. But I think that scholars, especially younger scholars embarking on a research career, need to seriously weigh the intellectual and political costs of identification with certain research topics.”

Richie has had to fight — not once but many times — to defend her research. Indeed, when she was embarking on the interviews for Compelled to Crime, she found her access to the prison population blocked by an institutional review board that asked her point-blank, “what I thought could be learned by talking only to Black women.”

After a nine-month struggle with the board and her sense of scholarly integrity, Richie compromised. “It was so clear the only way to get in there and do this work was to include some White women in the study,” she says.

While she’s won as many battles as she’s lost, Richie adds that some of the strongest critics of her work are to be found “at home” — among the older African American studies scholars, Black ministers and Black women’s groups whom she considers to be key allies in her struggle to educate the public and alleviate victims’ suffering.

She sees herself as a scholar who is as committed to activism and policy intervention as she is to research. So Richie would choose to be nowhere but where she is — leading an African American studies department at a large urban research university that considers outreach to the community that surrounds it as a major part of its mission.

“But,” she adds her experiences are emblematic of “the major challenge for junior scholars who are thinking about the research questions they’ll pursue. You really need to ask yourself: Where do you locate yourself, whom do you want to be accountable to, what kind of questions do you go deep on?”

Creating Community

Stepping into the office of Dr. John Rashford, professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, is like stepping into a cool green oasis.

It is filled with plants from every corner of the globe. And every inch of wall space that’s not covered with bookcases or framed certificates listing his awards and honors is covered with photographs, paintings and prints of plants, souvenirs of his travels or gifts from colleagues and students.

These include a large poster of an enormous baobab tree, long a personal passion of Rashford’s; folk art paintings of market women and market produce from Brazil; a color woodblock print from Malaysia depicting each of the important plants and trees of that island; a framed leaf from a ficus, the tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment; and many, many others.

Rashford’s taste in décor is easily explained: He’s an ethnobotanist, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in the study of the interactions of people with the plants in their environment. But the collection of objects also hints at the larger principles that have governed Rashford’s career: those of collegiality and community. Rashford is part of an international community of scholars whose interest in people and plants brings them together across many disciplines and many languages.

Rashford notes that he came to ethnobotany while he was a graduate student at the City University of New York, working under Dr. Eric Wolf, a native of Vienna, Austria, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on peasants and the modern world. Rashford, a native of Jamaica, explains he was “very interested in the development of a peasantry in the Caribbean, especially since it was not there historically but was a product of the abolition of the slave trade and the freedom and dignity associated with that.”

But as his studies progressed, he found himself growing more and more interested in not just the people but also their plants: the ones that were important for food or destroyed as pests, the ones that were economically valuable or had religious or cultural significance. The result was his doctoral thesis, “Roots and Fruits: Social Class and Intercropping in Jamaica.”

“People always think the title was metaphorical, but I meant it quite literally — as people who live in the humid part of the tropics depend upon root crops and tree crops to survive,” Rashford explains.

As for his current book projects, one can readily see that they are “rooted” in his dissertation. Rashford has been traveling back and forth to Brazil as he concludes a manuscript about the baobab — a tree that originates in Africa and is found wherever in Asia or the Americas that people of African descent are found.

And he’s also writing a much broader book about the much-misunderstood concept of “seasonality” in the tropics. “It’s quite an under-researched area,” Rashford notes. “Most scientists think of seasons as a temperate (zone) phenomenon.”

Between the dissertation and his current projects, however, Rashford concentrated his efforts on journal articles and conference papers. And though he acknowledges that, in the current environment, many junior scholars feel quite a bit of pressure to rush a book into print, he stresses the importance of what one might term “scholarly free will.”

“It all depends on the individual and his attitude,” Rashford says. “Many people concentrate on the writing of books because that’s where they think they’ll be recognized. But I can’t say in the initial part of my career that I was much concerned with that. I was much more interested in exploring a variety of ideas and developing my research agenda through shorter pieces. I was really quite resistant to devoting many years of my career to just one manuscript.”

Instrumental in shaping his approach were the scholarly communities formed around several professional societies that were important in his field, the chief among these being the Society for Economic Botany (SEB).

Not only were the people “delightful,” Rashford says, but in addition, the society led to “more opportunities (to speak, write, travel and network) than I had the desire or even the ability to take advantage of. I’ve met the most distinguished people in my field and, indeed, in contemporary science” through the SEB.

Rashford seems to have found the perfect career mix by combining his professional affiliations — the SEB, the International Congress of Ethnobiology, the Linnean Society of London, Caribbean Food Crops Society and many others — with teaching and research at the College of Charleston, an intimately scaled yet vibrant community of 10,000 faculty and students.

But he stresses the importance of professional societies for the young scholar: “At their best, they represent an opportunity for creating a true community of learning, with scholars who share your theoretical interests” and can help a young intellect develop and grow, he says.

Perfect Timing

Dr. Kim Williams has learned an important lesson about doing the “right” research — it can win you a place at the top of the academic food chain, even in your very first foray onto the job market.

Williams hadn’t even been granted her degree from Cornell when the John F. Kennedy School of Government made her an offer of an assistant professorship. The reason Harvard was so eager to nail her down was the provocative nature of her dissertation, “Boxed-In: The U.S. Multiracial Movement.”

Indeed, Williams’ timing was perfect. She completed her doctorate in May 2001, which meant the search committee was reading her chapters amid the fevered anticipation of policy-makers, journalists and scholars awaiting the initial reports from the 2000 Census, the first to include a multiracial category.

As she began teaching at Harvard in spring 2001, an idea that she had nearly 10 years ago — of traveling around the country to document the dreams and aspirations of the men and women battling the inertia of U.S. government and the hostility of the civil rights establishment to get a multiracial category added to the Census — was the red-hot item leading nightly news broadcasts coast to coast.

Williams is quick to admit the role of timing and luck: “I just happened to be there at the beginning of the movement — I followed the trail and this is where it led,” she says.

But she also acknowledges that this was not the study she initially intended to conduct. After receiving a bachelor’s from the University of California at Berkeley in 1990, Williams had taken off for a six-month trip abroad that ended up lasting four years. She traveled around Africa, then lived in London and Paris with a side trip to Alaska to recoup enough funds for a return trip to Barcelona, Spain.

She came back to the United States with many questions: “Seeing the world in the way I did got me thinking about inequality. I grew up in Oakland, so I knew a lot about inequality — it’s everywhere you look in the Bay area. But I came back wondering about inequality in the global sense: Who’s in power and how they got there and how they stay there? Why are things the way they are and do they have to stay that way?”

Graduate school seemed the best venue to get some of those questions answered. Williams’ plan was to graduate with a doctorate and to decamp for Europe again to write about the link between immigration issues and race.

“And then,” Williams gives a mock sigh, “Rogers Brubaker published Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. He said everything I planned to say — only much more eloquently.”

Still, even though Brubaker’s book forced a shift from an international to a domestic focus, Williams’ aim never changed. What she’s always sought, she says, “is to open up a way of talking about race that we haven’t gotten to as a country and society.”

That is evident in her teaching — on the politics of the 2000 Census and on post-civil rights era leadership. “Racial demographics have shifted so much that we can no longer think about Black politics irrespective of Latino politics and irrespective of globalization,” she says.

And even though, as the only African American female on the Kennedy School of Government’s 120-person faculty, she sometimes feels badly that she doesn’t teach Black politics — “There’s a real issue about race” at the Kennedy School, Williams admits, adding, “The students are always angry, and I hear it more because I interact with students all the time”— she maintains her research and teaching focus on the multiracial phenomenon.

She also notes that grants were critical in the development of her ideas in graduate school. “I wouldn’t be here (at Harvard) today if I had had to teach. Grants really saved me,” Williams says, giving particular credit to the Ford Foundation dissertation fellowship. She acknowledges that many find the grant application process intimidating — or believe they have to wait till they’re “ready.”

“My best advice is to apply for everything,” she says emphatically. “I applied for a ton of stuff in graduate school and got one out of every three or four things that I applied for.”

Still, Williams faces the reality that no one gets tenure at the Kennedy School —”Allegedly, there’s one guy who did. But I’ve never met him, so I think it’s just an urban legend,” she jokes — so she’s got a brief window of five years in which to operate.

And so Williams, who’s on leave this academic year, maintains a rigorous schedule of writing in the mornings and reading in the afternoons in order to stay on her self-set publishing timetable. She has a chapter in the just-published edited volume New Faces in a Changing America and she’s nearing completion of her book manuscript, The Next Logical Step? The American Multiracial Movement. And she says consistency is fundamental to what she’s learned of the research endeavor.

“You start off with one question. If it’s a good question, it will lead to others,” Williams explains. “You place it in an appropriate theoretical framework, but maintain your focus — allow for some give and take in the formulation of the questions, but don’t move off onto wild tangents.”

Williams began by looking at the “new and unexplored territory” of the multiracial movement, documenting its rejection by traditional allies in the fight for civil rights and its embrace by right-wing elements hostile to affirmative action. Now she writes about diversity in a broader sense. “My whole argument is that the biggest challenge to civil rights enforcement is diversity,” she says.

As for what’s the next logical step from there, that’s the process that she — and every young scholar like her — is living.

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