It strikes me that I have never done a research project according to the classic thesis/dissertation model. This model presupposes that you know enough about a particular field or topic to have burning new questions about it. You:
1. formulate a question or questions;
2. find out what other people have researched on these questions;
3. develop a plan to operationalize your question;
4. experiment or collect data;
5. analyze your data; and
6. figure out how your analysis answers your original question.
Sounds neat and logical, no? My method is more like:
1. decide I want to learn about a particular field or area;
2. read obsessively about it, always fearing that there is something totally definitive on the subject that I haven't found yet;
3. need to produce a paper, so write a lot of stuff sort of randomly;
4. sort through the stuff and figure out an inherent question; and
5. rewrite the stuff with the Q&A in mind.
I DO think the questions are "in there" - I just am not always fully aware of them.
Anyway, this is part of the reason why I don't have solid, operationalizable, research questions. I am still delusionally waiting for the AH-HA moment.
I met with J this morning - about teaching a class this fall (I probably won't) but along the way we talked about prelims. He's frustrated by the monster that prelims have become in our department: apparently in the days of yore one finished one's coursework and scheduled exams, MWF of a week, and that was that. Now it's become a one- or two-semester project AFTER coursework, with reading lists and amendments and amendments to the amendments.
I find that I don't really have the self-will to read stuff day after day without any structure. On the other hand, I haven't really had the brain freedom to focus on prelims what with taking and teaching courses. I am hoping that this summer will be the happy medium that last summer was supposed to be - 4 hours of my RA-ship followed by some reading. Didn't do very well today, though. Let's hope for better tomorrow.
The other big mystery about prelims is what their purpose is. I feel keenly my lack of preparation in geography, and so I'm trying to cover some bases that would have been covered in a geography undergrad or master's program, when according to my committee I should "just" be focusing on the reading that will form the core of my lit review. Which is kinda silly - the dissertation is only the first research project of my life, not my life's work.
J ranted about that, too - that dissertations in our department have gotten too big and too complicated. People should focus more and get the work done, and their advisors should help them narrow their focus.
I am waiting for the ah-ha research idea. But I may be kidding myself that it will just appear. I might have to MAKE my ah-ha idea happen through serious hard reading. I suspect that my interest in the RA work (to the exclusion of prelims reading over the last several days) reflects avoidance of that inevitability.