How Can Asianists Write General Guides to Research and Teaching?

Cover of "Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project that Matters to You (And the World)," by Thomas S. Mullaney and Christopher Rea

#AsiaNow speaks with Thomas S. Mullaney, Professor of History at Stanford University, and Christopher Rea, Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, about their new book, Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World) (Chicago, 2022).

Where Research Begins is not an “Asian Studies” book, but rather a general guide to doing research. How did you come to write it?

Tom: The idea for the book started about twenty years ago with a monumental failure in the classroom. Back in grad school, Chris and I were assigned to teach a course on research methodology for undergrads, and we designed a syllabus that covered all the normal bases: working with primary sources, notetaking, annotated bibliographies, outlining… everything you might find in a book like The Craft of Research. We mapped out a step-by-step, semester-long plan which—at least in our minds—a student could follow to complete an original research proposal.

But it didn’t work. One by one, our students got stuck. We had built this bullet train to a successful research project, but everyone was just wandering around on the departure platform grappling with the same dilemma: What should I work on? I’m interested in Topic X, but where should I take it? I have lots of ideas, but which one should I choose? I found an interesting source, but what do I do with it? Without a research question, they couldn’t follow any of our steps. Without knowing their passion, they couldn’t transform it into a project.

Some students chose to settle, selecting a topic that didn’t excite them, and then dutifully working through our program. But it was clear that they had chosen their topics simply because they had to choose something. It was disheartening and stressful for everyone.

We came to realize that we’d made a common mistake. We forgot that the most challenging part of research is the part before you begin, when you don’t know what questions you want to ask or what problem you want to solve. We looked around and discovered that there are plenty of books that explain the “research process” to researchers who already know what their question or problem is, but none designed to help a researcher figure out what their question or problem is in the first place. 

So Chris and I decided to write a book about where research begins. Not just for students of Asian Studies, and not just for students in the Humanities, but for all students—and really for all researchers—working in any field. 

What are some of your key pieces of advice for people starting a new research project?

Chris: Ask yourself: “What’s my problem?” What is the personal and profound disturbance hiding beneath my topic, or my case study? Much of the book is about specific ways to tune into your own curiosities, motivations, and assumptions. The “Go Small, or Go Home” exercise, for example, involves writing down the things you wonder about a topic or a source, and then identifying patterns in those questions, so that you don’t jump to a question and miss your problem. It’s important to be in touch with your problem before you venture into “the literature,” that vast realm of voices and agendas. If you skip the introspection, it’s easy to get knocked off center and to end up following someone else’s program. 

When you do figure out your problem, however—and we share a bunch of techniques for doing this—several great things can happen. You can distinguish between your problem and cases of your problem, so that you can develop a Plan B if you need to. It also becomes much easier to pinpoint the studies that help you the most, especially studies outside your field. 

Suddenly, your “literature review” is driven by problems, and is not just a summary of topics. You’re more motivated. You can figure out which sources truly matter to your project, and get out of the weeds faster. You are better able to see the significance of your study. And there are other benefits too, some of which we describe in this piece on why you should never try to “narrow down” a research topic.

How did your training in Asian Studies affect how you wrote the book, if at all?

Tom: When you study in Asia within the context of the American academy, you get asked a lot of questions about the “significance” of whatever you’re working on. Were I to tell someone I’m working on the American Civil War, or the history of Apple Computers, four times out of five I wouldn’t be put in the hot seat to explain why I would want to work on something like that. When you work on subject matter that is less well known (Asian history, say), you are constantly asked—explicitly or implicitly—to justify your existence. Frustrating as it might be, the prompt is ultimately productive. It pushes you to think deeply about why even a “self-evidently important topic” matters to the world, and even more importantly, to the researcher. 

I’ve had students of U.S. history tell me of their interest in the U.S. Civil War, or gender in popular American culture, or the French Revolution, and rather than just accepting their answer, I try to get them to reveal the deeper concerns they have about that subject. I then try to give them the time and the safety they need to answer such questions honestly. No one—and we mean no one—finds their passion due to “gaps in the literature.” People find their passions in late-night phone calls with distant friends, in screaming matches with family members after an election, in the little acts of noticing that we do every day as we ride to work. 

Working in Asian Studies—and having to constantly answer “why” questions in a place where most people are unfamiliar with even the ABCs of Chinese history—has helped foster these habits in me, both as a researcher, and as a research mentor. 

Chris: The book is structured around exercises we call “Try This Now,” many of which we developed in Asian Studies courses. “Go Small, or Go Home” (about the power of “meaningless” questions), “Make Your Assumptions Visible” (but don’t disabuse yourself!), “Change One Variable” (for distinguishing case and problem), “Before and After” (getting your story straight), and others have roots in our work in Chinese history and literature, even though in the book we sometimes use non-China examples.

What would be an example of a methodology or theory of research that was influenced by your work in Asian Studies?

Chris: “Problem Collective” is a good example. Problem Collective is the term we use for all those researchers who—whether living or dead and no matter their field or discipline—share your research problem. Think of those moments when you come across a study whose author truly gets what you’re doing, who shares the central concern of your project. Or when you read a book from a different field that seems to “unlock” your project. It’s not only a thrilling sensation, but a connection that inspires you to think about your project in new ways, and enhances your ability to recognize other cases of your problem. 

Speaking personally, I was inspired by the Chinese notion of the zhiyin 知音, “a person who knows the tone,” who is on the same wavelength as you. In my first book on the history of laughter in China I discuss Qian Zhongshu’s 1930s essay “On Laughter,” in which he describes humor as a meeting of hearts and minds, a resonance that carries. As he puts it: “Perhaps only hundreds of years and tens of thousands of miles hence will [the humorist] find a kindred spirit, standing on the opposite bank of time and space, who smiles back.” He could just as well be talking about the magical moment when we find a kindred spirit in research.

What would be your suggestions for AAS members who want to reach audiences outside of the field of Asian Studies?

Chris: A simple but powerful way to connect with audiences outside your field is to ask yourself: “What does the world call my problem?” What vocabulary do they use? Will they understand my acronyms? What is the scenario that connects my [Asian studies] case with other cases that might be more familiar to my audience? Which analogies can I harness to help audiences understand the core issue?

Tom: Chris makes a great point here. Also, to reach audiences outside of the field of Asian Studies, it is important for AAS members to learn from colleagues who have successfully done so. Select 5 to 10 works within the discipline that you admire, and closely examine their footnotes, paying close attention to non-Asian Studies secondary sources that seem to be of particular important to the author (these tend to show up in the introduction, as well as opening and closing sections of chapters and articles). Also pay attention to the acknowledgments section and any scholars you don’t immediately recognize as part of the Asian Studies community. Who are they engaging with? How are they engaging? Are they writing in a way that effectively communicates with these audiences? Or are they mired in acronyms (to return to Chris’s point) in a way that is likely to exclude rather than welcome these potential readerships? 

 Are you two collaborating on any new projects?

Tom: In the short term, we’re looking forward to working with the Chinese translators of Where Research Begins. We’re excited that there will be at least five Asian editions of the book. The Korean edition was just published, and editions are forthcoming in China, Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan.

Chris: We are also working on a book about how to talk about your research before your research is done. This will be less about how to present a finished study than how to make better use of opportunities to speak about a work in progress to improve the study itself. At its heart is how to turn uncertainty into a productive, generative force—in office hours conversations, at conferences, when talking to publishers, even in job talks. After all, the most common state of research is unfinished!