Summer Writes: Week 11–The Penultimating

We are solidly in the homestretch here, folks. As you’re making your goals for the week, take stock of where you’re at. If your goal for the summer is within striking distance, what do you need to do to make that final push? If you kind of went off the rails–and we all do–how can you still finish strong?

On the subject of writing and dissertations, some of you have probably been at least osmotically following the debate about dissertation embargoes touched off by the AHA’s new recommendations. At US Intellectual History Blog, Rachel Shelden has a piece about the common wisdom of writing the dissertation as a book–something Holger commented on in some frustration earlier in the summer. Those of us who share a certain adviserial persuasion have heard this advice many times before–but what does that even mean? For those who have cleared that hurdle (and are buying houses, super natch), how book-like was your dissertation? Anything you would have done differently to hew closer to that old saw?

As always, leave your goals in the comments, FOR THE SECOND TO LAST TIME.

Melanie: Average a page or two a day, and start outlining latter part of chapter, to avoid Washington schlep-fest.

Matt: Finish good draft of article for end of the month.

Dan: Six pomodoros of work a day, on top of archives trip. UPDATE: As of Thursday, adding a Grafton Line of 1000 words a day.

Brenna: Two days of archival research, finish first draft of ch. 3, apply for job.


6 thoughts on “Summer Writes: Week 11–The Penultimating

  1. I had to change my goals mid-week last week because my apartment is being torn apart by maintenance and I couldn’t get anything done. I decided to take my dog and escape to my parents’ in North Jersey as a sort of mini-writing-retreat. This was great and I got a ton of writing done (a little over 15 pages) but I was obviously not in Philly to do any research. I also finished almost all of my application documents for the first job I’m applying for (it’s getting real). So, this week I’ve got a lot to do: 2 days archival research, finish first draft of ch. 3, actually apply for my first job!

  2. In response to Dan’s question: my dissertation was nowhere near a book. It hurts to go back and read it, but I don’t wish that I would have spent an extra year polishing the manuscript.
    I now realize that when most advisors say write a book not a dissertation, they don’t mean that you need to write a polished draft that you can hand to a publisher. They mean try to stop writing like a third-year grad student. Stay away from jargon. Stop filling chapters with “as X historian writes….” That’s why footnotes exist. Don’t let a simple narrative take over chapters. In other words, make sure your interpretive voice is the dominant voice in every chapter.
    This is the piece of advice I wish someone gave me when I was in grad school: think about the dissertation as the thing that will get you a job; think about the book as the thing that will get you tenure. They are two separate endeavors and will be judged differently. For 99% of jobs, the only thing the search committee will see of your dissertation is the 1-2 paragraphs you include in your cover letter (and if you’re lucky enough to get a campus interview, a forty minute presentation). So the most important things about your dissertation are the questions you ask, the big claims you make, and the historiographical interventions you make–those are things that you will include in your cover letter and talk about in your presentation. The way you interpret a piece of evidence on page 130 or whether you make a dubious claim on page 98 will have no bearing on whether you get a job. You will get an interview if you can convince three people reading 100+ cover letters that you are doing something cool and important (along with establishing you’re a good fit, ect.). For most of you, you’re already past the stage of figuring out what is cool and important about your dissertation. Now you just have to finish the damn thing.
    The person who wrote the intellectual history blog piece might be a superstar and her manuscript might have been ready for a university press to review not long after her defense. If so, good for her. But for the rest of us, we become very different (and much stronger) scholars just a year or two after graduation. No matter how polished you thought your dissertation was, you’ll figure out it’s actually a crappy rough draft (and that’s putting it nicely). You’ll come up with new questions that you didn’t think about in grad school, you’ll find new methods you want to employ, and you’ll find new audiences with which you want to communicate. Rushing a lightly revised dissertation manuscript to a publisher ensures that you will miss out on this process. And your first book–a book that will define the early part of your career–won’t be as strong as it should be.
    The author of the blog piece does make a good point about newly minted PhDs who find jobs at 4/4 teaching institutions. A 4/4 load makes it difficult to find time to make major revisions. While that’s true, a 4/4 didn’t stop most of my former colleagues at Mary Washington from making considerable revisions to their dissertations.
    If you’re like me–someone who is not a superstar–don’t try to write a book. Write a dissertation that will get you a job.

  3. Regarding this productive dissertation/book discussion, it’s something that I think about frequently, but mostly because of the kind of dissertation I’m writing. A few years ago, when I sat down with my advisor to talk about my dissertation proposal, he asked me what my favorite books in my field were. I was drawn to stories that followed individuals and told history in narrative form (this is also what he tells me to think about and re-read to get inspired when struggling with a chapter). My favorite is still Jane Kamensky’s The Exchange Artist . So, I’m writing a cultural biography for a dissertation. However, with that said, I know it’s not going to be perfect and it’s organized in sometimes neater, sometimes messier ways so that I can actually accomplish it as a dissertation in a reasonable amount of time. I know that there are things that it needs to do as a dissertation that won’t work in the book. What it also means, though, is that I don’t have a published article as I go onto the job market, mostly because none of my chapters really stand alone outside of the narrative arc of the whole diss. This gives me anxiety, but I like to think I make up for this by being able to state clearly why my dissertation is interesting and why it matters. So, I agree with Matt, but I also think that it’s still important to have that book-thinking-stuff in the back of your mind while writing the diss. Not because it will produce a perfect manuscript, but because how you approach and write really does define who you are as a historian.

  4. I think Matt’s spot on. And I think it’s worth emphasizing the labor dynamics at play. There was a time when a strong dissertation with the promise of potential publication, along with an article in a decent journal, was your ticket to a good job. Revising and publishing over the following five years then got you tenure. That’s not the case anymore, or at least that’s not the perception. I think graduate students feel this pressure to create something fantastic the first time around because they believe they’ll need a book contract just to get that first job. (It’s not true, but that’s the vibe I get.) The market is so saturated with good people doing good things that there’s an arms race to stand out from the pack. I remember one of the old farts at Temple (who has since retired) bragging that he got tenure there simply on the strength of an AHR article. (He was kind of a prick.) Would an AHR article even be a guarantee of a desirable job (like one at Temple) today?

    It’s important to also point out that none of this is our fault, so if you’re feeling stabby, you’re justified.

  5. Glad to read all of your wise words (no sarcasm here, I really mean it). Looking back at the many, oh so many and ultimately too many years in grad school, I wish I had been more proactive in engaging my adviser and other faculty members in my writing process. There has never been a conversation remotely similar to what Brenna experienced and I enjoy hearing from Matt how important the interpretative voice is. Sadly, that’s also the part that is the most labor-intensive, at least from my perspective. As for goals this week, I expect to finish reading (and taking notes of) 1-2 books, make it back to Atlanta on Thursday, and get back to regular work after three weeks in Europe. #firstworldproblems

  6. Like all of you, I heard repeatedly throughout the writing process that I should be thinking of the dissertation as a manuscript that would require some—not major—revision after I completed the degree. Farber was adamant about that (he estimated I would need 3 months to revise and submit to a publisher). Some concrete examples: he had me strip out most of the jargon, drop much of the historiography into the footnotes, and all (of what I thought were pretty neat) Habermasian references to public sphere, etc.
    I did not look at the diss. for about a year after completion because I just didn’t want to—I was sick of it. But when I did pick it up again, and wrote the extra chapter it needed, and revised for submission, I think I was in a much better place intellectually to do that a year on. I agree with Matt on that point.
    I took a different path than you all have (and maybe will), so it’s difficult to say what a hiring committee would have thought of my project. I guess I didn’t see the dissertation and book as separate endeavors. Would it have gotten me a TT job? I would like to think so, but who knows. I did add new material, rewrote the intro and added an epilogue, and tried to purge any remaining traces of the “third year grad student” voice. But I didn’t consider these changes to be major revisions (I knew, for example, that the intro was crap when I defended, but I wanted to BE DONE). I’m not shooting for “superstar” status here with that admission, and I don’t deserve it.
    And while this may seem like contradictory advice given my above comments, I can’t stress enough the following point: get the damn thing done.

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