UNC Faculty Spotlight: Don Reid, UNC Professor of History

Written by Dr. Don Reid, Professor of History, Alan Feduccia Distinguished Term Professor in Research and Undergraduate Education

What is research and why is it important?

My wife is not an historian. She’s a director at a big RTP firm. However, I’m struck by her response when people ask her where she learned what she needs to know to do this job. “By majoring in history and researching and writing an honors thesis (in which she argued that the culture of dueling presented a new way of understanding nobles in Louis XIV’s  France).” She never went to business school. She explains that what she learned doing history was how to formulate a question so she could research the answer, how to research, how to analyze the research, and how to present it. The important thing she took from her experience in history was not knowledge of events in 1066 or 1789, but the skill, craft and importance of doing research.   I teach and mentor researchers not to create new versions of myself or of my wife (!), but to give students ways to address issues and questions they will confront in their post-graduation lives.

Research takes different forms in different disciplines and within disciplines themselves. However, it incorporates certain components. The first and sometimes most difficult is formulating the question, deciding what one wants to find out and convincing others of its importance. Intellectual life is a conversation. On very rare occasions, a researcher may make the case that a problem no one has ever recognized before requires study. But even then, the researcher addresses discussions in contemporary research to show how the current conversation misses the big point. More common is the situation in which an intellectual conversation has proponents of a diversity of positions and the researcher develops a project which will allow these positions to be assessed in a new way. In so doing, the researcher makes herself a participant in the conversation, someone who will need to be listened to and challenged.

Why can this be the most difficult element of a research project? Because it requires entering the conversation with something new to say with which current participants will want to engage. We all know that participants in an ongoing discussion often show little desire to let a newcomer get a word in edgewise. Historians can be drawn to the arcane, to “their” subject that no one has studied before. However, researchers in all fields need to ask why their subject has not been studied before. There are thousands of things that could be researched, but only a few worth researching. What makes a subject worth studying is if the researcher  can convince others that they want—that they need—to know about it because it responds to questions they may or may not have realized haunt the “already known” of their conversations.

What I am calling the subject is a question or questions that engage others and ways of answering these questions. The methods used to answer these questions are what many think of when they think of research: reading archives, interviewing individuals, etc. However, the best research both keeps the research focused on answering the questions one began with and frequently stops and asks if the results of the ongoing research suggest the need to reframe the original questions or pose new ones.

Research is often presented as a heroic quest in which the scholar overcomes obstacles—closed archives, subjects who won’t talk—and triumphs. However research is rarely a story of a clear path with obstacles confronted and overcome on the way. It’s not that simple.  Researchers often begin with a sense of what they will find and when they don’t find this, they despair. Why am I doing this? Will anyone care? Researchers can feel that they are first to have run into these walls for, as any psychiatrist will tell you, no one’s despair is the same as anyone else’s. However, these are often the times when research is most fruitful. After all, if the results could be clearly forecast from the beginning, why bother pursuing this research? To the couch. This is the time for therapy. Absence is data too. If the data doesn’t exist or doesn’t tell the researcher what the researcher thought it would, maybe the research is revealing something radically new, unaccounted for in the already known of the ongoing conversations. Often adjustments have to be made in the research strategy. After all, the researcher is not following an existing path; she is forging her own.

Sometimes research is characterized as lonely because the intermediary phase between identifying the conversation and coming up with results that allow one to enter it may be done (in  the humanities and social sciences) in libraries or archives, but this “loneliness” is more complicated. On the one hand, researchers are most successful when they engage with fellow researchers as they pursue their work. And mentors are there to ask questions, make suggestions (“What makes you think that?’) during the aforementioned therapy sessions. But research does have an individual component (even when a group is doing research together) and being an individual does mean being on your own. This can be a difficult element of research for many of the best students who excel at mastering the material they have been presented and asked to master.  Research requires one to go solo in ways that go beyond good time management and other such skills of the successful student. Coming up with questions, ways of addressing them and responding to inevitable disappointments are first and foremost the work of the individual researcher. Know how to ask for guidance and recognize that if all the advice you are given feels unhelpful that may be evidence that you are thinking about your work and presenting in ways you need to revise, though not necessarily in the ways others suggest.

However this individual, perhaps lonely, element is also an important part of the reward of research. I’ve never worked with a student who didn’t take great pride in the fact that her research was at once hers—not someone else’s knowledge she was told to learn—and that it was knowledge she had created and convinced others they needed and wanted to know. The final element of a research project is presenting it to others in a way that helps them understand the project, the results and their significance. The most successful researcher starts by recognizing the positions and work of those already engaged in the discussion and shows how her research opens up their work in new directions.

To return to my wife and her honors thesis, research is not just for students who want to become teachers or researchers. These were never her goals. It is for people who want to be “deciders,” those who set the agenda, rather than simply follow agendas others set. It is, in sum, the heart of a successful liberal arts education.