This interesting conversation happened with a pre-tenure faculty member who was having trouble placing her manuscript. "There's just so little understanding," she said, "of what it is that I do." She kept referring to "my field," but when I asked how she defined that field, she launched into a complicated explanation of a how it was a cross between two distinct areas of historical research, with a third cultural component thrown in. The mix made not-so-much sense to me because both of the historical aspects were from the Dutch late-1600s, and her literary/cultural monkey wrench was from France in the 1920s. Both were fascinating eras, but also much-studied yet oddly tacked onto one another in a "see if you can follow my logic here" way that felt both obscure and culturally disjointed. I soon found myself mentally humming "One of these things is not like the others..."
Call me old-fashioned, but I think if you're going to refer to an area of research as a field, it should probably have more than just you in it. Otherwise you risk being just another lonely laborer out standing in his field. Sure, you can define a field, and that's bold and important work, but it's also usually best done post-tenure. In fact, her field wasn't really so much an area of research as the resulting mashup combining what she had studied in graduate school with what she liked to do now.
I asked her whether she had considered writing about something a bit more accessible. Something -- perhaps -- that a university press might actually be able to list in its catalogue and sell. She sighed. "But this is what I'm trained in. It's my expertise." She held on to her topic, and who knows? Maybe she will find a home for it, though I don't see how. But what I do question big-picture is how hard it would be to take some post-doctoral courses at (for example) Johns Hopkins that is just an hour away, and branch into a second area of expertise that more clearly connects her to a recognized field. I'm not saying she needs to give up what she loves, but rather it seems she is defining "her field" so narrowly that she can't quite imagine doing anything else. And is she really an expert? Her qualifications at present are quite slim -- just a few graduate courses, and a dissertation. Why can't this change, expand, grow?
Many scholars choose a number of areas in which to educate themselves as experts. A doctorate is hardly a badge of perfection in any field. As some of my advisors liked to say, it's just a union card.
Photo above of a woman out standing in her field taken from Somebody's blog.