Not long ago, I was planning to apply for a grant that would support work on a manuscript from a period later than the Middle Ages. Motivations: genuine interest in the topic; a well-founded belief that the manuscript is under-studied and that I would have things to say about it that its other admirers would not; enjoyment of time spent in rare-books rooms in general and of that one in particular; the prestige of getting grants (because, false modesty aside, I think I could write a proposal that would get funded); and advice, long ago, from one of my dissertation committee members about getting a publication out of every topic you spend a lot of time on.

It’s that last one that got me thinking. This advice was not from the cold dead magister; but it has, I think, contributed to a form of perfectionism, the urge to recover sunk costs. I have already spent time with this manuscript. I have done some research into its writer and his family. I have “read around” in the literature and social history of the period. This does sound as if I have invested in the project; it would make sense to finish what I started.

That investment, however, was made at a time when my judgment was impaired; and even then I had doubts about whether this work really required me to do it. Now, having had that conversation about perfectionism, and having worked out how many hours I’m supposed to spend on research and teaching, I’ve reconsidered.

My committee member, after all, could probably better afford to spend time marking his territory than I can. He teaches three courses a year. Applying my own arithmetic here (length of semester, 40-hour-week, etc., as in the last-linked post), that gives him a little more than 145 hours per year more than I have to work on research. There are other factors to consider, as well. His classes are smaller than mine, so he can spend less time on grading. On the other hand, he certainly has more graduate students than I have, and some of that time that he doesn’t use on classes undoubtedly goes to reading drafts of chapters and advising Ph.D. candidates. I can affirm that he reads very attentively, gives lots of comments, and is happy to talk over ideas. Nonetheless, I think it’s very likely that he has more time than I to spend on learning the background in a new area.

In Jonathan Mayhew‘s terms, he can afford to broaden his scholarly base.

I’m not so sure that I can. I have a scholarly base that serves me well, in the fields in which I teach and publish. I have work I want to do that relies firmly on that base. I can do that work more easily, and probably better, than I can do the early-modern manuscript project. Fascinating though I find its author, he takes me away from the work that I am convinced is my “proper job.”

So, with some regrets, I’m not applying to go back to that library. Maybe someday; maybe after I write a book and finish a few more articles, if I’m at loose ends, if there’s nothing else I long to do that uses my current scholarly base, then, perhaps, with or without a grant, I would go back. For now, I’m concentrating on finishing that R&R, getting two more articles finished and submitted, and then getting on with the book.

The decision makes me a little nervous. What if I’m passing up something wonderful, something that could be prize-winning or career-changing? Was that manuscript an opportunity that fell in my lap, to which I said “no,” instead of greeting it with proper enthusiasm?

But I’m sure enough that this is a good decision. I’m not old yet; but I’m not young, either. If I want to produce a truly coherent body of work (whether or not it meets the two-monograph standard), I need to get on with it. I need to stop running after the new, shiny objects, and finish the old projects with which I feel a little bored because I’ve answered (to my own satisfaction, though not in a form available to others) the question that drew me to them. I need to recognize that I work at LRU with a five-course load and a lot of committee work, not an Ivy with three (though I’m grateful for five and not six or seven or eight) and the ability to remain unaware of how STEM grants can help fund the humanities. It’s time to get real.

Sometimes you just have to let the sunk costs stay sunk.

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