Since the scholar's life is short and learning long, we can be very stingy with what ideas we invest our time on. Usually, I only develop an idea into print if it fulfills one of two criteria (and often both):
- I have to believe the idea will hit, and will influence other scholars.
- A friend or scholar I respect has asked me to develop the idea into an article.
Of all the articles I have written, the one for which I've gotten the most requests for offprints is “The Several Compilers of Bald’s Leechbook".* I'm not surprised, since the article is published in the prestigious annual Anglo-Saxon England, since it is the most thorough study of the manuscript context of the charms, and since it is often highly technical stuff that most people would rather someone else did. Actually, I also have a companion piece on the Lacnunga manuscript (Harley 585) that I've still not published for a variety of reasons, even though I have strong reason to suspect that too would "hit."
Here's the surprise, though. The article for which I've received the second greatest number of requests is “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.”** Why does that surprise me? The history of that piece is unusual. Back in 2003, as a brand-new faculty member, I was asked to present a paper at a student symposium. Now, at this point in my career, I've done enough public speaking to general audiences that I could simply print out an old lecture and give it 10 minutes later, but at that time I had to write one up. Knowing that this would barely be one step above classroom lecture, I took an idea that had been in my mind for a while and wrote it up as a 20-minute presentation.
I thought that would be the end of it, but then a colleague asked me to submit it to Alabama English, a journal with a circulation that isn't exactly in the millions. Well, Alabama English needed good articles, and I hadn't planned to do anything more with this paper than let it rot on my hard drive, so I sent it in to them with only the slightest revisions, they published it, and I thought that would be the end of it.
I think I received my first request for an offprint of that article before it actually appeared in print, from someone who had seen it in the "Forthcoming" section of my CV. I sent it off with a long letter of apology: The piece was written to be presented orally, and for that reason had fewer than a half-dozen citations, and those weren't very scholarly. Then came another request. Then another, and another ... and now I think it is my second most-requested article.
If I had realized the idea was going to hit, I would have spent a lot more time researching it, and I probably would have given Alabama English a different article. No doubt one of the reasons "Teaching Grendel" is requested so often is that it's very difficult to lay hands on a copy of Alabama English outside of, well, Alabama. Still another reason is that it deals with pedagogical difficulties with a commonly-taught text ... though the requests are usually from college instructors, rather than high school teachers.
I suppose every scholar must have an article or two like that. Most of us probably have an article that we think is great, but no one seems to take notice. Hey! Look at this great article! Look at my wonderful turn of a phrase here! Look at how I've completely revolutionized our way of looking at this issue! Can't you all see how brilliant it is?!?!?! On the other hand, we've probably also each got an article that hits for no discernible reason. Huh? You like that article? Well, yeah, I mean, I took the time to write it, so obviously I think it's good, but it's hardly my best work.
So, here as a public service to all the scholars out there, I want to offer this chance for shameless self-promotion. In the comment thread below, feel free to post the title of that one medieval article of yours that no one seems to notice despite its painfully-obvious genius. If it's in print, give us the MLA citation for it. If it hasn't seen print, give us the title and a one-sentence description of the contents. Maybe we can light a lamp, sweep the house, and recover a lost pearl of great price.***
*“The Several Compilers of Bald’s Leechbook,” Anglo-Saxon England 33. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005: 51-76.
** “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.” Alabama English 14 (2004): 6-17.
***Yes, I know I'm mixing two different parables, dangit.