Monday, April 30, 2012

Booking

This weekend I had the opportunity to catch up with a dear friend who is an academic in my field. We had many things to talk about, but as it so often does the conversation inevitably turned to the profession. We are both in the early stages of our careers, my friend and I, and while my friend is on the tenure track and I am not, the stakes are relatively similar: publish publish publish! We spent a good deal of the evening discussing whether or not we would convert our dissertations into book publications. 

If you had asked me five years ago what I would do with my dissertation when I finished, my answer would have inevitably been 'publish it!' Indeed, I suspect that the majority of people moving through humanities PhDs are doing so with that advice in mind. What happens if the dissertation doesn't become a book?

Four years ago this May I completed my PhD. It was momentous, certainly, but it was neither the best nor the most memorable day of my life. I was proud of my accomplishments, I was nervous and excited about the future, but mostly I was simply exhausted. Four years have passed, and I have not yet turned my dissertation into a book. I have published, yes, and I have been (very) busy with teaching, research, and service. However, this unpublished dissertation is both a source of shame and a site of extremely conflicted and confusing feelings for me. Given my propensity to mark time and my attempts to recognize my own emotional/professional patterns, I figure there is no time like the present to bring this conversation out of my head and onto the Net. 

Completing one's degree is not unlike moving into a new phase of a serious relationship, I think. Indeed, the completion of my own PhD coincided with the end of my relationship with my then-partner who was also a PhD student in the same department. This was traumatic, to be sure, but though many of Gwendolyn Beetham's statements about her own trouble returning to the dissertation ring true for me, I don't think my own reluctance to return and revise stems from the same place (it certainly is reassuring to hear someone else think through these issues though!) After the dust of the defense settled I went through the steps to publish my dissertation. I contacted a Big University Press, sent in a proposal and a revised manuscript and then stopped thinking about it entirely. I heard from the Big University Press about a year and a half later: the manuscript had been sent out and unfavourably reviewed by two reviewers (one advised heavy revision, the other advised that the thing should be burned) and so the editor did not feel as though the time was right to go forward with the project. Needless to say, I was devastated. Garments were rend, teeth were gnashed, wine was drunk, tears were shed. There was some yelling, and there was despair. I shelved the thing and did not look at it again for a year. I thought dramatically that there was no point. My career, I decided, was over before it begun.

Happily, I have a few mentors in my life who know how to walk that line between caring benefactor and cold authoritarian. 'Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do not tell me that this one bump in the road is enough to derail you,' wrote one. And so, I did. I have published at least an article a year since my defense, and I am working on a new book project. It is slow going for all of the obvious reasons, first among which is time. But every now and then I look over to my bookshelf and wonder about my dissertation. Should I try to do something more with it? 

If you were to Google 'dissertation to book' one of the first articles to pop up is this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Leonard Cassuto's article brings together advice from publishers as well as professors. The advice centres mostly around the perils of putting your dissertation online with ProQuest. Kathryn Hume offers similar cautions. While both of these articles are incredibly interesting, informative, and a little nerve-wracking they both focus heavily on the assumption that one will publish the dissertation as a book. Ultimately, it was Jo VanEvery's advice that came closest to answering my seemingly inarticulable questions.  She suggests that while there are compelling and indeed career-mobilizing reasons for publishing your dissertation, you may not necessarily choose the manuscript as the ideal format. VanEvery notes that the dissertation is a "particular kind of document" whose primary purpose is to fulfill the requirements of the degree. Most importantly for me, she underscore the necessity of moving forward. 

I may return to the dissertation and heavily revise it. That said, I am really jazzed about the new manuscript project I have begun, so perhaps I'll only pull a few more articles out of the thing. I am not sure. One thing I do know, however, is that moving forward is essential. 

What about y'all? Did you/will you publish your dissertation as a book?

6 comments:

  1. I'm at the same stage you were five years ago. I want to/intend to publish my dissertation as a book, and the feelers that I've sent out to the most suitable publisher have netted some positive interest. There's definitely the pressure of one-upmanship to motivate that intention--nowadays, it seems like everyone has a bunch of publications going on the job market, and it seems like the only way to do one better is to have a book contract in hand. But who knows? I would be sad if the book never materializes, because I really do feel like my research could make a significant and necessary contribution to my field. But I'm also fully aware that once the dissertation is done, I'm going to need a break from it and I don't know where that time will take me, or indeed the world of scholarly publishing and the state of the monograph.

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  2. I'm in the process (5 years after defending) of revising my dissertation for submission to a publisher (I don't want to jinx it and say that it is for publication; it still has to go through the peer-review process). I am also working with EMiC to digitize the archival and manuscript materials I uncovered in my research for my dissertation. I think that the two projects are related but also quite different. I had to curate the research that I found in order to create a kind of narrative for my dissertation, while what I want to do digitally is more of an opportunity for people to create their own narratives (as well as interact with translations in a more meaningful and dynamic way). So, I want to publish a book because I think that what I had to say and what I found is interesting, and hopefully will lead people to the (eventual) digital elements.

    I'm not on the tenure-track and I'm not sure if I ever will be. But, it would be nice to see all the work and research I did for my dissertation (and it was uncovering a lot of previously unseen archival documents) in print for a larger audience.

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  3. For those on the tenure track. I think the best advice for this is going to be pretty discipline-specific, and will even vary within disciplines, even in the humanities. As Jo Van Every notes, there are some disciplines where a book really matters for T&P. But even within departments, that can vary a lot depending on your sub-discipline, and some people get in trouble for trying to get a book put together when a couple of hits in good journals would have meant more. So if your chair says "no book, no tenure", double check that with people closer to your own sub-discipline ... if your tenure file has to go to reviewers at other universities, they won't agree with your chair if that's not how business is done in your own field, and so some well-intended advice could spike your career. (Anyway, I think the "book or else" idea has to lose its sway more generally as better academic presses face financial pressures and choke back on the number of titles they publish, so people have to publish even good material with lower-tier publishers that don't offer the same prestige.)

    One thing seems clear to me from sitting on a few T&P committees at different levels: it had better be clear by tenure time that you're not just continuing with your thesis project in various forms. So being sick of your dissertation topic is probably a good thing, if it means that you're publishing stuff that's clearly a departure from it.

    As for people not on the tenure track, I'd be much less confident about my comments (which, admittedly, rarely stops me from making them) ... I expect this is also specific to my own field, but I think it's more important to be publishing consistently than to have a book. A few articles, especially if they show that you're not a one-trick pony (and so evidence of teaching versatility, for instance), will count for more with a lot of hiring committees than a book.

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  4. Thinking of my dissertation AS a book has kept me motivated, feeling that more than three people might read it. It has also slowed me down, as I have had the book as my objective, rather than the credential-granting document. I hope my choice means less revision and less angst in the post-dissertation period when I have to decide whether I ever want to look at the thing again. For now, a finished dissertation is the first order of business!

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  5. Fantastic comments all, and what a range of perspectives.

    @Melissa: Though there seems to be a 'recommended timeline' for these things, I find myself heeding the words of a wise friend of mine. She told me that I shouldn't publish until the book was ready. Simple suggestion, difficult to follow in so many ways.

    @ Lee: Thanks for underscoring the number of venues opening up. I think that both you and Melissa have excellent points about the changing landscape of scholarly publishing venues.

    @ddvd: What excellent advice. Thank you for addressing this from a perspective I've not yet experienced. I really appreciate (as, I'm certain, do others) the emphasis on continual scholarly production rather than recycling and reiterating. Is there a fine line between becoming and expert and rehashing?

    @ Sonnet: I love your perspective, thank you for sharing it! I wonder, too, if your experience with writing and publishing in other venues opens you up to a kind of awareness and tenacity that I certainly didn't have in the writing stage. (OK, I was tenacious, but maybe not patient?) I can't wait to read your book!

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  6. This post, and the comments, give me a lot to think about :) I haven't started the dissertation writing process yet, but most of the people I know want to publish their dissertations. I'll try to keep all of this mind while I move forward. As for ProQuest--the copyright issue is one I am all too familiar with from the committees I sat on during my MA.

    Some people parcel out their dissertations on a chapter by chapter basis as articles, but I am hoping to get a book out of it.

    @Erin: Good luck with everything! And enjoy your new manuscript project! :)

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