The Chronicle of Higher Education
Monday, March 25, 2002

Following Your Scholarly Passions

As scholars, we are all trained to break new ground, to produce original work that questions the premises or conclusions of those who came before us -- work that ideally even redefines the very boundaries of our field. Pathfinders, trailblazers, intellectual leaders: These are the roles we are encouraged to set our sights on from our infancy in graduate school through our difficult adolescence on the tenure track to our presumably mature adulthood as a senior professor. And they are worthy goals indeed, but at what price is their achievement?

Even as we are working to produce that original dissertation or breathtaking first scholarly book or scientific study, we are subjected to the pressure cooker of academic evaluation, in which a given number of citations or publications with a given university press spells success, and straying too far from the norms spells likely doom.

In fact, even as we are expected to blaze new trails, we are also expected to prove our rising reputations by the recognition we receive -- whether through reviews, citations, or reference letters -- from those successful senior scholars who blazed the last set of trails in our disciplines. Realistically, what that means is that the academic system does not foster or encourage truly original work. In most fields newcomers are judged according to their ability to move just far enough beyond the previous models of success in their discipline to be pronounced "original," without offending or confounding their predecessors so much that the newcomers find themselves excluded from the inner circle.

The practical consequences of this essentially conservative system of acclaim are that many new scholars are preoccupied with identifying current "trends" in order to get published, attract grant money, or receive other recognition. In such a climate, the idea of following your heart -- or writing about a subject simply because you're passionate about it rather than because it offers an inroad into a current trend -- might seem the height of naïvete.

I would like to offer an alternate perspective: In the search for a balance between personal passions and scholarly trends, if you go with your heart, your niche in the field will emerge. The most fruitful topics for writing and research are rooted in our own passions and convictions. If you ignore your heart and attempt to focus your research instead on hot trends, the pressure of the market can cause you to lose your mind, even your soul. Your voice will lack authenticity, and you may never find your niche. It is important not to disregard the personal origins of our scholarship if we want to tap into the wellsprings of our own creativity.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with following a trend. If you are so lucky as to discover that your scholarly passion leads you to engage with the cutting-edge dialogues in your field, by all means, "catch the wave." But if your passions do not appear to connect with mainstream trends, don't give up. It may be that your audience is waiting for you to come to them. It may also be that you will find your audience when you identify not only the "topic" of your passion but its underlying "source" as well. If your initial topic seems abstruse, consider the motivation that led you to it in the first place. Then you might be able to expand or reframe your focus and make a connection with your audience.

Let me offer some examples from my own experience, which, along with my gut instincts, has provided me with the data from which I am drawing my conclusions.

My own research work on Renaissance concepts and representations of maternity has been shaped by the fact that I am a Renaissance scholar who is also a mother. Likewise, my more recent work on Shakespeare for children has been driven by my passions as a Shakespeare professor with four children. Each time I have initiated a new project in these fields, I have encountered some resistance and dismissive treatment from some academics. Only a minority of my colleagues have reacted to my work this way -- all of them male. And while their resistance is not insurmountable, it is nonetheless annoying.

At the very beginning of my scholarly career, I chose to move away from the "Noah's ark approach" of my dissertation, which had paired a canonical male author, Sir Philip Sidney, with a less-than-canonical female one, Lady Mary Wroth -- a common practice at the time in order to justify attention to an early woman writer. I decided that my first single-authored book, called Changing the Subject, would focus entirely on the female author. That was when I discovered, to my surprise, that one of my grant applications to support the archival research for the book was dismissed by the reviewer with the response that Wroth studies were "already an overworked field." Given that there was no book-length study of Wroth's complete works in existence and no essays on Wroth in the major volumes concerned with early modern women writers that had already appeared in that decade, apparently the preliminary attention of a handful of journal articles (some by me) on this "uncanonical" woman writer could be judged to have overloaded an already "overworked field." If you're changing the subject, even a little can be seen as too much.

Much later, when I initiated my work on Renaissance maternity after publishing my early books on Renaissance women writers, it was clear that in the eyes of some of my more conservative male colleagues, my progression from women as writers to women as mothers signaled a less than completely commendable academic trajectory. An interdisciplinary collection of essays that I helped edit on Renaissance female caregivers won an award from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women, but that honor most likely only confirmed the deepest suspicions of my less congenial colleagues. One example of the suspicion attending my evident passion for maternity came from a colleague in my discipline, who wondered aloud, upon learning that I had four children, "Is she part of a cult?"

Now if women as mothers is a partially suspect topic, you can guess the reaction to my current work on Shakespeare for children. I have taught and published on Shakespeare throughout the course of my academic career. When I began studying the ways in which Shakespeare is introduced to children, I set out to create something that I myself wanted to read: a collection of essays by contributors ranging from children's book authors who have adapted Shakespeare for children to Shakespeare scholars exploring the implications of adapting an author who himself adapted all his sources to teachers of Shakespeare from elementary to graduate school.

Not coincidentally, I learned that some of the graduate students in my department were being discouraged from taking my course on this topic by one of my colleagues, who told them: "She doesn't really work on Shakespeare any more." Yet, for my part, I feel as if my classes on Shakespeare for children, which bring my students into elementary and secondary schools to work with children on the Bard, are the some of the most productive Shakespeare classes I have ever taught.

In my mind, now I really work on Shakespeare. And the reality that there is an emerging and passionate audience for this topic (including Shakespeare scholars who have participated in my national conference seminars with this focus, as well as one of the more prestigious publishers in my field, who offered me an immediate contract for the volume), only underscores the possibility that if you follow your heart, a path will open before you.

I am convinced that if your heart is in the work, either you will find your audience or your audience will find you. And if your heart isn't in it, find something else to do. Above all, we need to bring passion to our investigations, so that the highest scholarly standards can be informed not only by intellectual rigor but also by love.

Expect some resistance and negative feedback if you follow your heart. The work of defining a new field is much harder than following an existing trend. But know that, if you persist, you will find both personal and professional rewards. My own most recent project is a co-authored novel, Sea Changes, adapting Shakespeare's The Tempest for a young adult audience. As I follow my heart with this project, I have learned that sea changes in one's professional as well as personal life are not only possible, but necessary.

Naomi J. Miller, an associate professor of English and women's studies at the University of Arizona, recently published an award-winning collection of essays, co-edited with Naomi Yavneh, Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period (Ashgate, 2000), and has edited a new collection of essays due out this year from Routledge, A Local Habitation and a Name: Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults.