I've been trying to explain Book Three (a.k.a. Inexpensive-to-Write Book, a.k.a. Book on Neo-Victorian Fiction) to people for a few months now, and have usually met with polite incomprehension. Obviously, that's not the response Yr Humble Servant has in mind. So I've done all my usual routines--chewing over this and that while walking to and from campus, doing more reading (I can always do that), working on conference paper proposals, and the like. Then, one day, I read a book on what appeared to be a totally non-related topic, and said, Aha! That's what was missing! And voila: now I have a research program to follow, a narrative to construct, and a more precise set of novels to target.
On the one hand, such accidents are part of the romance of research, as it were. There I was, stumbling along, minding my own business, and...inadvertently solved my problem. All very convenient, if not fated. Hence academic angst about libraries relegating books to weird underground (or offsite) repositories: we all have stories about the Brilliant Insights we obtained just by wandering through the stacks. On the other hand, these accidents are, in many ways, much less accidental than they first appear. I wasn't "just" reading Totally Non-Related Book (at least, that's what I thought it was)--it was on my radar in the first place because it speaks to one cluster of my usual run of scholarly interests. In this case, I simply hadn't yet made the right connections. Even when I'm reading randomly, I still have a set of parameters lurking at the back of my mind, clicking and gurgling away. By the same token, when I'm meandering amongst the library bookshelves, I'm still likely to be meandering in a specific set of locations. The discoveries are "accidental," but not in any sort of chaotically free sense.
I was thinking about this question of accidents because of the Sherlock Holmes course in particular (yes, I'll post the syllabus shortly...). The undergraduate and graduate seminar experience teaches "research strategies," yes, but in ways that don't really mimic the experience of research and writing as a professional scholar. The time constraints, for example: we have deadlines, but our deadlines generally don't fall into neat fifteen- or ten-week increments. More to the point, it's hard to encourage undergraduates to have productive accidents when they don't yet have those silent (or relatively quiet) parameters yet in place--for the accident to "help," the ideas already need to be churning about. But in a seminar, one's frame of reference, often enough, is just what's on the syllabus: the student enrolled in a course on Chaucer is highly unlikely to have read John Gower. This is true even at the graduate level, where fulfilling your single-course requirement in early modern literature doesn't necessarily entail having much in the way of previous experience with it.