Reconstructing the Research Agenda

In the Land of Academia, particularly in the subdivisions that focus on research, having a research agenda is a vital part of what we do. Your agenda sets the stage for who you are and what you do. It sends a message to others about your area of specialty and what you are known for.

I had an inkling of an agenda before I entered the doctoral program at Michigan State. I knew, based on personal interest and my experiences as a 6th-grade teacher, that I was interested in doing research on adolescents who had academic reading difficulties. I probably wasn’t able to articulate it that well before I went back to school, but that’s pretty much what it always was. And actually, that’s not really an agenda. That’s really what my area of focus/specialty is in. My agenda would then be how I expected my research to play out in relation to the larger issue of adolescents and reading.

If you’re a doctoral student on the job market right now listen up. If you are searching for a home in the Research subdivision of Academia, you will get asked questions about who you are as a researcher, and you will be expected to articulate an agenda. Sometimes people (not me) ask you to explain how you see the first five years of your career playing out. Other times people (and I do this) will ask you to explain what you think your study following your dissertation will be.

agendaBut not to worry doc students. We all get asked this question no matter where we are in our careers. I know people who have tenure that get asked to articulate these same things when interviewing elsewhere. It’s a common question that apparently we should all be able to articulate. And I get why I ask it and why others ask it. If you’re in the hiring position, you want to make sure that the person you get has a vision for themselves as a researcher and some general ideas about how to move that vision forward. Where I work, you’re ability to get tenure and thrive (or maybe just survive) depends on being able to do this.

And for the longest time I bought into this. I bought into the idea that anyone applying for a position in the Research subdivision should be able to articulate who they are as researchers and how they plan to enact their agenda. I was indoctrinated into that way of thinking, I have enacted it, and it has served me well.

So, you might be wondering why I would be writing a post that has the title of reconstructing the research agenda. Well….here are my reasons:

#1: Who Does The Agenda Serve Beyond Me?

I didn’t even realize it at first, but my agenda doesn’t really serve the communities I do my research in very well. I know there is a huge disconnect between research and practice, but I had no idea how wide the chasm really was! It probably doesn’t even serve the larger population it’s intended to address (adolescents with academic reading difficulties). I don’t mean to sound so harsh. I am sure it has helped a bit, but not as much as it could.

My agenda does serve me very well though. I have gotten lots of shiny publications (with trophies!), grants, awards  – plenty of recognition. So in that sense my research agenda has worked really well for my career. It may have helped someone else’s career as well if they build off the work I have done. But how does it actually serve the communities it’s intended to serve? Eh…probably not as much as I had hoped it would.

#2: What If We Did Away With the Research Agenda?

What if we did away with having research agendas? I know, I know…here goes a professor with tenure spouting off some idea that no agendawould never work for an assistant professor – except that it might. It has potential.  Let’s get back to an earlier point. In reconstructing – or even doing away! – with research agendas, let’s first assume that we’re all gonna keep some type of specialty.  My specialty is adolescents with academic reading difficulties. Let’s use that as an example.

Now, instead of making me explain to you how I intend to enact my agenda over the next three, five, or eight years, let’s assume that I shouldn’t even have such a vision. Let’s assume I’d be crazy and very egotistical to have one. Why would I be crazy/egotistical? Well, first off we all know that we can do a study and that the results (and even our experiences within a study) can lead us down a new path. We can say that first we’ll do Study A which will lead to Study B and so on…it all looks very nice and clean and even makes logical sense given that each study connects to and builds off of the one before it. And yet, we all know that research is anything BUT nice and clean. We all know that once Study A is done Study B can now look boring, irrelevant, or nowhere near as exciting as Study C (which needs to become the new Study B) or that we have designed something new entirely. So there’s that.

The second reason I think having an agenda is crazy is because doing so – at least from my experience – is often done outside the communities that it is intended to serve as well as those who would be involved in the study. We talk a lot about forming relationships with communities in which to conduct research, but from where I stand what that means is we have good connections with certain areas that will likely let us in and help us find a place to do our research.

#3: Let’s Reconstruct Our Research Agendas Within Our Communities

Instead of saying that I want to come into your school and do XYZ research and ask who’s interested – instead of even having a plan at all about what the study should look like – what if we approached this whole thing of the research agenda in a different manner. For example, let’s say I could connect with a local district or school with the following understanding:

I’m interested in working with X many teachers of adolescents who would like to work on how to understand and be responsive to their academic reading needs. I’d like to get together with whoever wants to show up and have a discussion about what the issues are they face and see where things go.

The research is still driven by my specialty and interests (adolescents with academic reading difficulties), but it gets framed by the real problems and concerns that teachers have. I use my knowledge about prior research and theory, they use their knowledge about what’s going on in the classroom, and together we come up with some sort of plan of action that we want to test out together. At the end of the study, we could disband or continue on with future work being grounded in whatever our new goals are based on the work we just did together.

In Conclusion

I’m not saying that what I’ve proposed here is for everyone. There’s lots of models out there for how to do research. What I am saying is that we need to back off on the idea that everyone should be able to spit out and articulate a research agenda – especially when  that agenda is classroom based. We don’t know where our research will lead us, and it’s almost impossible to predict what I will do from one study to the next. So let’s stop trying to pretend that it is and that this is how we should be articulating ourselves. Instead, let’s start talking about our specialties and how we plan to connect with communities and build long-term, sustainable relationships.


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