Adventures in Trying to Do Research During the Semester

My research project on the devil has been long deferred. It was immediately clear to me after finishing my dissertation that the devil theme was the most interesting aspect and worthy of its own study, and that remained my “official” position on the matter despite the fact that I was doing relatively little in the way of actual work toward that goal. I explain this partly by the vagaries of the job market — in my years as a VAP, I wasn’t sure where I was going to wind up, in the sense that I didn’t know if I’d find a job at all and I also wasn’t sure what department I’d be in. Hence I focused more on my little pop culture project, along with more occasional writings that were mostly dictated by invitations rather than any kind of systematic program. I gave myself time off from thinking about such things while finding my feet at Shimer, and then once I was through my first year, I had already committed my summer (and much of the fall, as it turns out) to my Agamben translations.

But now, dear reader — now I have actually done something. I made a commitment to myself over winter break that I would carry out some kind of systematic program of reading toward the devil project. This became especially important after my reading of Taubes’s From Cult to Culture impressed upon me how much more I had to do and how narrowly I was trying to pitch the project simply to make it more manageable. For the sake of making it more manageable, I decided that my first semester would be more a matter of reconsolidation rather than totally new research — and the primary written product would be reading notes rather than nursing any kind of fantasy about cooking up a proper article under these conditions. Since I intended to pitch my book as an intervention into the field of political theology, I decided to review foundational works in that field and expand my knowledge of key figures, which I would then cap off with a thorough rereading of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory, a book that I’ve done a lot with but that I’ve never written up proper reading notes for.

It’s the end of the semester, and I’ve just started my rereading of the Agamben, having covered the following works in political theology:

  • Schmitt, Political Theology
  • Schmitt, Concept of the Political
  • Schmitt, Nomos of the Earth
  • Schmitt, Political Theology II
  • Kahn, Political Theology
  • Löwith, Meaning in History
  • Taubes, Occidental Eschatology
  • Taubes, From Cult to Culture
  • Taubes, Political Theology of St. Paul
  • Taubes, To Carl Schmitt
  • Selected articles by Bruce Rosenstock and Philip Goodchild

Admittedly, part of me hoped I’d be this far already by spring break, but I’m okay with this level of progress — even if the list is artificially padded given that so many of the books are so short.

Over the next few weeks, my attention will turn toward preparing for my summer seminar with Eric Santner, which will allow me to go into more depth into Marxism and psychoanalysis and help me cast a broader theoretical net. At that point I will probably need to turn my focus primarily to course prep, but hopefully I will be in a position to come up with a similar manageable project for the fall semester. And then — in what would be the greatest coup of all — I’m planning to pitch an elective on the devil for the spring semester, which would be a substantially revised version of the course I taught at Kalamazoo with a greater focus on primary texts and less of an attempt to do modern stuff that doesn’t really fit within the initial phase of the project as I now conceive it.

Along the way, I may present a paper at the seminar, and I’ll be giving a lecture at Shimer. By the end of the summer or early fall, I could be in a position to put together a formal research proposal and start looking for publishers or research grants (or both!).

If I would dare to extract principles from this limited experiment, I think they would be as follows:

  • Be realistic — you don’t want to set yourself up to fail. For most of us in teaching-intensive jobs, serious writing during the semester is not going to work well, at least for new areas of research.
  • Maintain continuity — the story of my academic life has been to do a little bit each day until it adds up to something big. As long as you’re making some progress and keeping your mind engaged with the project, you’re already doing quite a bit. Even when summers are truly free, it’s hard to shift gears completely — and leaving all your research work until the summer makes it more intimidating (and thus increases incentives for procrasination).
  • Never hit the bottom of your queue — I was constantly piling up more books that I needed to read for the project. This could have backfired, but the benefit was that I never had any uncertainty as to what I should do next — that produces gaps in continuity in which the natural tendency toward procrastination can take over, setting up a vicious cycle of intimidation and further procrastination.

What about you, dear readers? How do you manage to keep up some semblance of a research agenda while teaching?

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4 Responses to “Adventures in Trying to Do Research During the Semester”

  1. Brad Says:

    I can’t speak to the specific question, as I am neither a teacher not affected one whit by the academic semester, but the general issue is something that weighs on me daily. Partly, of course, it is a matter of time management. Apart from that, but never too far, a whiffing distance from an odor shared, there’s just plain old laziness — or, when I’m being generous, fatigue from a day dealing with customers and playing spouse. When time is made available, as it is now, this very moment during which I’m writing this comment, I’m faced with further options: do I do my language study, so that my two-year-old Belgian nephew doesn’t completely show me up when I next visit? do I go the gym, noticing the jeans (which I now see should probably be washed – oh dear, laundry, too?) I’m wearing have become less form-fitting as than they are simply spilling over with form? All the while my ‘work’, that tangible, created thing I’d so much like to derive pleasure and/or self-regard, mostly languishes — thought about constantly, thought of rarely.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    At least you don’t have kids!

    I wanted to add: one benefit of having an overloaded queue is that it gives you options when it comes time to choose what to do next — so you can skip over something you’re dreading rather than getting totally stuck, etc.

  3. Robert Minto Says:

    Personally, I have so thoroughly fucked my self-disciplinary abilities that I am ONLY able to research if I can make it take on the aspect of procrastination. So I second Adam’s overloaded queue technique: that way, every bit of work you do can be a form of procrastination from other work you have to do. Summer is hell though, precisely for the reason it’s supposed to be heaven: when there are no obligations, it becomes impossible to procrastinate.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This essay totally changed my life, by the way: Structured Procrastination.


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