Now that summer is just about upon us (hurrah!), I'm absolutely chomping at the bit to do some research. I have a few paper projects laid out, as well a book I just started. But I'd also like to branch out a bit and try some new things. So, I was thinking I might ask you all to share your research process. How do you all go about coming up with paper ideas? Do you just read a ton of journal articles and books until you happen upon an idea? Do you discuss your ideas with a lot of other people before you pursue them in depth, or only after you've worked out an argument in depth?
I guess I'll begin by sharing my process. Strangely enough, I think getting a VAP in a tiny (3 person) department at the University of Tampa -- instead of, say, a tenure-track position in a large department -- is one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. Here are a few reasons why.
A few of my published and unpublished papers -- mostly, older ones -- emerged from what I take to be the common process: reading, reading, and more reading. But most of those papers were things I had done research on prior to coming to Tampa. Since getting here, my research process has changed dramatically.
Most of my recent papers -- for example, my papers on free will, human rights, and Kantian ethics -- have emerged from undergraduate teaching. One of the things I like most about teaching undergraduate courses is that they always "take you back to the beginning." Instead of worrying about the secondary literature, teaching undergraduate courses takes you back to primary sources and the very foundations of philosophical problems (e.g. the problem of free will). Undergraduate courses also push you to try to get things as simple, clear and intuitive as you can because, well, if you don't make things simple and intuitive, undergrads will look at you like you're speaking in a foreign language and write terrible, awful, horrific term-papers papers like they're writing in a foreign language.
Teaching undergrad courses, in other words, has been something of a godsend. I try out ideas in class, and see if I can make them clear, intuitive and persuasive to ordinary undergraduates. If I can't make things clear, intuitive and persuasive to them, I go back to the drawing board.
There are a couple of other great things about working ideas through in a classroom full of undergrads: (A) they're not "in the grip of a theory" in the same way as professional philosophers or grad students, and (B) they don't "shut you down" when you mess around with zany ideas. Undergrads will argue with you, of course, but they won't pull the, "Kripke showed X" in Naming and Necessity or "Kant clearly meant Y" out of their hat. They're willing to listen to really alternative ways of looking at things -- ways that would most likely garner the proverbial "incredulous stare" if you tried them out on a grad student or fellow professional.
Anyway, that's sort of been my process as of late: making things as simple, clear, and intuitive as I can to undergraduates. I can't help but chuckle sometimes when I hear people complain about undergraduate teaching -- because in my case, at least, it's made philosophy fun again; it's made me work to get clearer on things, relying less on jargon and technical terms, taking me "back to the basics."
Anyone else have this experience? Alternatively, what research processes have you found helpful?