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Research: It Starts with a Feeling

Can we talk about our feelings, hunches, or instinct about our research openly? 

May 12, 2013

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about “feelings” lately. Affect studies, vulnerability, intimacy, depression: I’ve been wrestling with a lot of really big, complicated ideas that have to do with emotions.

Let me just repeat that: big ideas that have to with emotions.

I’ve written before about how frustrated I get with my students when they constantly use “I feel” before expressing an idea. For me, one of the biggest challenges is to get students to move past talking about how something made them felt and get them to reflect critically about why that is and then move on to critically evaluating the ideas expressed, rather than the feelings they elicit. To read and think about things that challenge the things they “feel” to be true. To realize that most people, politicians, and corporations use pathos because it works, because we let it work.

But I don’t want them to ignore their emotions all together, particularly their instincts about certain ideas or directions for their writing and their work. Once students have good ideas they struggle to write about them in a meaningful way because they are hamstrung by formulae and expectations. They can’t express themselves because they don’t or can’t do it in an authentic way, ways that make sense to them and thus also makes more sense to their audience. This isn’t saying that whatever they word-vomit out is gold, but instead that what they get out in the first fast draft is probably better than anything they painstakingly write according to someone else’s writing directives.

Of course the more you read and the more you write, the more reliable these “feelings” become. Probably to my own detriment, I let my feelings (I’d rather call them my instinct) drive my research; I listened to my gut when it came to choosing what I wanted to read and write about. Did I get that feeling that there was more there, was my curiosity piqued? I chose to do graduate school in literature because I had this feeling that there was more going on in the books I was reading than I was able to understand. I absolutely had to learn the tools to find out about what else was going on. My book on Laferrière has entirely been fueled by my belief that people had overlooked an essential understanding of his body of work, and that feeling was finally vindicated when I learned about the tradition of the Lodyans. My hunch was right!

I asked in an earlier post, who gets to write about emotions and be rewarded for it (versus punished or ridiculed)? It’s who has done the most research, at least in academia. This isn’t all that surprising, but I think it’s one of the reasons that so many academics and aspiring academics don’t or won’t blog. Blogging your research is about writing about the hunched, theories, feelings that have not yet entirely been vetted. It is an incredibly vulnerable position for an academic to be in, to admit that, I have this idea, but I don’t know yet if it will pan out, but I have a really, really strong feeling about it, that I’m right.

Twitter, on the other hand, is perfect for these kinds of musings. Maybe it’s because of the academics who are on Twitter, so they are more open to 140 character bursts of ideas, to thinking out loud, “talking” through the instinct we get about certain topics. I don’t think I’m being judged negatively because I usually get valuable feedback, questions, and references. I also enjoy participating in other people’s process of thinking through an issue, how they incorporate all that they read and learned in the service of a hunch, looking for more resources to think things through.

But I think too many of us stay silent with our instincts, our hunches, for fear of looking “half-baked” as my husband just put it to me, unprofessional, or ridiculous. Is this why we are still looking for people who do “public humanities” or write for a more general public in regards to any subject? Do we feel so afraid of appearing “half-baked” that we remain silent, perhaps never feeling confident enough in our knowledge, or worse, no longer able to write in a way that get our ideas across to a more general audience?

Or is the over-professionalization of the academy causing us to ignore our hunches in the name of more “marketable” research? Have we created a system that is so intolerant of mistakes that we are forced to either remain silent or mold the results to fit our aims?

This post, itself, is based on a feeling. It’s a risk that I take and that I always take when I write here. I share it, though, because I do want to start a conversation about how we talk about our research these days and to think about ways that social media has actually helped open it up and, in my estimation, make it better. If there will be a series this summer, it is this. Because this feeling, it’s not going away.


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