Recently, after drafting most of my Milton chapter, I decided it was time to sit down and read some criticism.
It's not that I'd done no prior research; I'd made certain that no one else was arguing the kinds of things I was planning on arguing, and I'd spent a couple of months doing what you might call background research. But I hadn't bothered to read much contemporary criticism, because--why would I? I knew the texts, I had a general sense of how they'd been read and discussed over the years, and no one was doing what I was doing, anyway.
But after writing 9,000 loose and drafty words, I'd run out of gas and was at a loss for how to frame my argument in a way that was more interesting and consequential than "betcha never thought John Milton was doing THIS, now didja!"
So I took a week to read all the articles and book chapters I'd ordered through ILL--and then order a dozen more--and though it's true that none of them were interested in what I was interested in, seeing the passages and problems that preoccupied others let me reformulate my ideas so my observations were addressing the same concerns. Reading the scholarship allowed me to enter the conversation, as we say, rather than just sitting in a corner and shouting, "hey! I found a thing!"
My impression is that most people read the scholarship first, but that. . . doesn't really work for me. In grad school I had a hard time seeing past prior criticism--I'd fall in love with one particular reading and be unable to recognize what avenues might still be open or what I could add--and although I don't usually have that problem today, when I'm in the very early stages of a project I'm still prone to either falling in love with a given approach or dismissing it out of hand ("Why am I reading this? it has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING!").
Basically, I don't think I'm a very careful or receptive reader when I'm protecting the fragile little seedling of my own idea. It's only after it's grown a bit and I'm sure there's something there that I can take on board and appreciate the work that other people have done--including seeing the ways that approaches and interests that seem very different from my own are actually things I can build on.
So this is all well and good, and a useful thing to know or to keep rediscovering about my own process. But it makes teaching scholarly writing hard, especially at the senior-capstone and M.A. level. Though I give my students a lot of literary criticism and I think I've gotten good at teaching them how to parse it and recognize its representative moves, I don't know how to teach them to have ideas independent of that criticism. I encourage them to find the limitations of even the best pieces and the areas available for future study, but it's only the rare students that can do this in a nuanced way, and even they often feel the burden of trying to say something original when they know how little they know and how belated and junior they are.
I wish it were responsible to say (and that the semester gave me enough time to say), "just write down your crazy ideas! make an argument! read the criticism later!" But they don't have that luxury, and I don't know how to teach them to do what I couldn't do, at their stage, either.