Pipped to the post – and thoroughly glad about it

What is your contribution to knowledge? This question haunted me and probably haunts any academic when contemplating their own research and scholarship. We are all aware that although there is undoubtedly value in scholarship which corroborates previous discoveries or arguments, the real clincher is what’s new and different. What is your unique contribution to the debate?

This can be frustratingly hard to pin down, and what’s considered a ‘contribution’ varies hugely depending on discipline. In my own work, I felt absolutely sure about the ‘big’ point but struggled for a long time to articulate the smaller contributions that were ultimately more ‘publishable’ for an early career researcher such as myself.

My thesis took me on a long intellectual journey. I started out thinking I was researching attitudes towards energy (nuclear power) and my early work was situated in the energy & environment side of science & technology studies. After 5 years, I turned in a thesis that argued that it is useful to view and analyse environmentalism as a form of implicit religion and that anti-nuclear sentiment was a point of orthodox doctrine which could lead to schism. I ended up so far outside my original field that I had no idea of where to look for a job or even where to publish.

Early on in my studies I had to learn about nuclear power. I dropped science at 16, when I finished my GCSEs, so this was H.A.R.D. I discovered I could force knowledge into my brain: keep reading. Don’t get it? Keep reading, then read another thing, and then another. Eventually, you’ll find that you recognise terms and concepts, that you can say whether you prefer one scholar’s treatment of an issue over another and start to delve deeper into the whys and wherefores. This method has helped me over and over again, and it has led me to the understanding that my Big Point – that environmentalism is a form of religion and scholars should treat it as such – has already been made.

Alas, alack! That was certainly my first reaction. I am not half so brilliant as I had assumed! (nobody is as brilliant as they assume)

However, continuing to read the work of those who have already made my Big Point in a variety of ways has shown me exactly where I can place my own contributions. Broadly speaking, I found my field.

This is, for me, a breakthrough. As I mentioned earlier, at the point when I handed in my thesis, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the scholarly discipline into which I had written myself. For a variety of reasons, I had moved away from my home department and did much of the ‘religious’ work in isolation, trawling through encyclopaedias of religion and theology in the Divinity Library at New College in Edinburgh University. My continual reading since then has proven to me that my time spent there was not wasted, as now when reading key authors of the environmental religion field (that’s how I think of it) like Bron Taylor or Thomas Dunlap, I find I recognise references that I myself found and used, at a time when I had no idea that others were thinking along the same lines as I.

This is a huge confidence boost, and I am not ashamed to say that I really needed it. It shows me that I know what I am talking about, that I am not a mad crazy woman mumbling in the corner going “Mwahahah implicit environmental religion, sacred forests, gurgle gurgle…”

It also means that I don’t have to stick my neck out and make the Big Point in order to pave the way for my smaller points. Because the treatment of environmentalism as a formal and functional religion in everything but name was a methodological framework that underpinned the whole analysis, I was unsure of how to present smaller sections for publication without explaining why I was talking about environmental “prophets” or “creeds” and so on. There is a literature I can reference which will do this for me, to the extent that is necessary for now. I can wait to make greater theoretical contributions when I am more established. In the thesis I had entire chapters in which to expound my theoretical framework and to discuss the comparative merits of alternative approaches. In a journal paper I would not have anything like that luxury.

This new realization is undoubtedly partly why I am actually making progress with my own writing for the first time since I was awarded my doctorate. The other reason is obviously my newly found guru Wendy Belcher [#WayOfWendy] and her magnificent guide to writing journal papers (see previous blog post). The key link between this post and the Way Of Wendy is her clarification of what counts as an original contribution to knowledge – namely, that an ‘original contribution’ can be much, much smaller than many new academic writers realize. The important thing is to be clear on what that contribution is, how it is valuable and to whom.

I wish any and all who read this post Confidence-In-Their-Own-Writing and recommend the magic of Keep Reading. #keepreading

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