When I was in graduate school, particularly during my thesis year, I used to take pictures of the mess that resulted from days buried in research. Empty (or sometimes not) coffee cups, food wrappers, plates with the remnants of food sticking to them, piles of books, some open, some not, on my desk, the floor, my bed. My laptop open, running tirelessly. I never did self-portraits, just photographed the carnage I left behind in my quest for information on Shakespeare or Southern literature or bad girls in literature or John Waters’s Hairspray. I felt, sometimes, like the kind of psychotic serial killer who photographs his victims afterwards and then looks at the pictures in secret, reliving the act.
Because the truth of it is that research excites me. One of my graduate school friends used to call it having a research hard-on, that desire to get into a library, searching through online catalogues, databases, asking reference librarians for microfiches or rare journals. That research fever dream of books and index cards, highlighters and Post-It notes, it fuels the graduate student, the academic, who knows there’s one more book, the perfect book, that will unlock some truth that the world had not anticipated. And we were the ones to find it.
I think secretly, we all hope to be the one who, after tireless hours of searching and reading, picks up one final book or letter and finds a previuosly unheard of poem by Emily Dickinson or a letter from Shakespeare to his male lover. Something that has been lost, gathering dust, in the stacks, the archives, someone’s attic. Something that could, potentially, change everything.
I personally like to pretend that I’m in a high-stakes research situation. Whenever I enter the library, I have to remind myself that I’m a professor, and it wouldn’t do for me to run to the elevators, frantically pushing buttons, only to push my way out onto the fourth floor, where I will search, breathless, through shelf numbers until I find the right one, the one with that book that I need, which I pull down, open, and shove my nose into, breathing deeply. The older the book, the better. I think smelling old books must be like smelling Walt Whitman’s armpits: musty and old but somehow so natural. (Read “Song of Myself.” You’ll understand.)
It rather reminds me of some movie in which explorers seek hidden treasure but are in a race against the clock (though my clock is really self-imposed and imaginary). Which is funny because I find those movies rather stressful, as, I’m sure, do the characters in them who are actually racing against the actual aforementioned clock.
I haven’t had a solid excuse to do real academic research in awhile, but yesterday, in an effort to demystify the Annotated Bibliography for my students, I created a sample of the assignment, writing my own annotated bibliography for a topic that I’ve been interested in for quite some time, about the gendered way we think of food. There are several very interesting articles about the ways that we think of food depending on the gender of the person who prepared it. I’ve written on this blog before about the ways that I think female chefs have been sexualized in the culinary entertainment industry, and this sample assignment went off on a tangent of that topic, looking at the gender aspect in food memoirs. I made up a few shoddy research questions, and then I began researching according to the parameters of the assignment I gave my students: six sources, two of which need to be scholarly/peer reviewed, and one of which needs to represent an opposing viewpoint. I made errors and kept them in the paper to teach my students from.
The whole thing took me about three hours, which I think astonished and annoyed my students. (They’ve been given a month to do the same assignment.) And I’m not saying my sample is any good. But what I am saying is that when I was done with it, I sat back, looked at my work, and thought, well, damn, now I’ve got the makings of a research abstract for a conference.
As it happens, there’s a call for papers for the PAMLA conference in October in Seattle. The call for papers, for a panel called “With Pens and Forks: A Frank Look at American Food Writing” is sort of perfect for the area of research I want to do. While I can’t focus on memoirs the way I did in my bibliography, I can definitely spin off into a discussion of celebrity chefs and their cookbooks, or begin looking at the way the Internet creates a new way to introduce cooking shows. The options are many – I hardly know where to begin.
But my heart speeds up a little: because I think I know where this will lead. Me. In Perry Library. Smelling books. I can’t wait.