Don't wait until you know who you are to get started, scholars.

This is part two of a series in which I’m writing up how Austin Kleon’s work particularly relevant for scholars, researchers, and academics. For a quick overview of his book Steal Like an Artist, you can watch Kleon’s TED talk.

You can find the previous post in this series here.

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started. Kleon argues that it is in the act of making stuff that you discover who you are. This is true for research and academic writing, as well. It’s possible that this applies mostly to early career scholars, but I think scholars have the opportunity to reinvent themselves many times in a career, so it can apply more broadly.

Don’t wait until you have a research design to start thinking and writing about a topic. If there’s something you’re interested in, go ahead and start reading in that area. Write up your reading notes. They will come in handy when you’re ready to design your research.

Don’t wait until you have a narrow field of expertise to conduct a study. My first study was on the leadership practices of school librarians. My second was on school library preparation program’s special education courses. My dissertation is about the information literacy practices of cosplayers. These are not all related at all, but I learned different things during each one. (Or, in the case of my dissertation, am still learning.) The first study used a survey methodology, the second content analysis, the third ethnographic methods. I also conducted two small-scale studies for my coursework. If I waited to find my one true calling until I started designing studies, I probably never would have designed any studies. (I’ve actually designed many more than I’ve completed; maybe I’ll use those designs eventually. I really like designing studies. I’ve thought about hiring myself out as a sort of “research best friend” to talk people through their study design process.)

Kleon encourages creatives to copy their heroes. Scholars can copy - but not plagiarize - the work of others in a variety of ways. My favorite is to apply someone else’s research methods to a new population or scenario, adding on something extra to make the study uniquely mine. For my Master’s paper, I copied Daniella Smith’s methods, using the Leadership Practices Inventory. Dr. Smith used this to measure the self-perceived leadership practices of preservice school librarians, people who were training as school librarians but were not yet employed as such. I used the same instrument to measure the self-perceived leadership practices of National Board Certified school librarians - school librarians with at least three years of professional school library experience who had submitted to a rigorous certification program. This is a very different population, but I used the same instrument. I also added a second instrument, which I had developed to measure school librarians’ ability to implement professional guidelines, then investigated the relationship between leadership and that ability. I copied, but it was not a perfect copy. (And as Kleon points out, it never can be - in the case of research, something about your settings or materials or analysis is bound to be different.)

For my dissertation, I am building on the methods of Dr. Crystle Martin’s dissertation, using her interview and online artifact analysis methods with cosplayers. She used these methods with World of Warcraft players. Again, a different population. I also, in my original design, added face-to-face observation - something that built on her work but made it my own. (In the wake of COVID-19, I am sadly not sure how much face-to-face observation I will be able to do. We’ll see.)

Next time: Write the book you want to read.

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh