I used the term “academic otters” over on #phdchat a few weeks ago, and as it seemed to go down quite well, I thought I’d write a longer post in praise of the academic otter.
The phrase originated early during my PhD, when I wanted a name for all the research ideas that were bouncing up and around my brain but I didn’t have time to pay attention to. Thankfully, another community of writers, those in the fan fiction world, are familiar with the problem – they call those little persistent thoughts that nibble away at your brain until you write them plot bunnies. Fan fic writers have tried to corral plot bunnies in various ways, such as putting them on websites for other writers to adopt, or keeping a record of them in a dedicated document until they have time to get to them. What I clearly needed was a similar strategy to care for my academic otters.
My solution for this was to create the Academic Otters document. A shortcut to this sits on my computer desktop at all times, so if I am struck with a Brilliant Idea for a research project, I can bed it safely down and not worry about losing it. The document has become quite a hefty piece of kit now, as I’ve been using it for several years, and in the end it made sense to split it into sections. Under each idea, I have a list of bullet points outlining some general thoughts about the direction I see it going in, and add any relevant bibliography that I might come across; I’ve included a screencap of the third and fourth pages of the Academic Otters document below the jump so you can see the sort of thing I mean.
The first section is the outline of my research agenda for the next year or so, followed by active projects that are in progress right now. Then there are projects that are waiting for other people’s input (for instance, my article on queering reception, which is now waiting for feedback from the volume editors). Next come projects which I’ve begun but are on hold for now; these are things like the book manuscript, various things I’ve given conference presentations on or offshoots from the thesis, development of work I’ve already started, things like that. Most of these have some substantial work already done on them, but they’re not the current research priority.
Next comes possible research projects – that is, those I know I actually might have a chance in hell of writing. They usually require a lot of work, but they’re feasibly inside my area of research expertise, I’ve done a little bit of prior work on them, and I could pull them off. The next section lists ‘feasible ideas’ – ones that have sprung up as random research questions during my reading, normally, and that I might fancy getting to at some point, but that aren’t quite as appealing as the possible research projects for whatever reason. As an example, there’s a paper I gave there on Greek tragedy which I could return to and buff up, but it would need a hell of a lot of legwork around the scholarship on Greek tragedy, which I don’t have time for at the moment.
The final section is ‘unlikely ideas’ – those fabulous thoughts which seem to be great ideas at the time but, with reflection, are actually far more trouble than they’re worth. But I keep hold of them, because – well, who knows? Somebody might want to adopt that academic otter.
I will admit that I have a secret ambition to get the phrase “academic otter” into mainstream vocabulary among scholars, so please feel free to use it with impunity – and tell us how you keep your academic otters under control.