On Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Graduate Research Cluster hosted a panel on academic publishing. Douglas Ishii, one of our panelists, was kind enough to write up some thoughts he did not have a chance to share at the panel. Here they are:
BOOK AND STUFF
Someone asked me directly (I am so sorry, I know your face and the hue of your background walls) about my experience of revising the dissertation into a book. I am dissatisfied with my answer! I will take this unsolicited opportunity to elaborate on my thought.
What I mean to say is that, as you fashion and refine your original contribution to a scholarly conversation over the course of one to four years, while also finding your place in the larger scholarly community, your ideas will inevitably change. Some of those ideas will make it to a dissertation revision; others will not and will wait until “The Book.” Your dissertation might go forward with some parts that you know are not as relevant to your thinking now as when you wrote that chapter. Similarly, when your committee reads your dissertation, they will provide some revisions that are required to graduate, and others to think about for “The Book.”
So, my experience is particular to me because it’s been six years since graduation; it also is rather applicable as more people aspiring for tenure-track jobs take on one or more contingent or postdoctoral positions before landing one (or changing career paths). I did not choose to focus immediately on getting a book contract, though I did do archival research and figured out chapters to add that spoke to a key question that both interviewers and my committee had about the scope of the project. I did focus on expanding my range of scholarly publications. The article (a part of the dissertation that did not seem relevant to the new direction of the book) and the two chapters for edited volumes (one is thinking through my “Second Book”) I wrote in my postdoc and my second lectureship provided the space of thinking and feedback that clarified the direction of the book, as opposed to the dissertation, as well as the opportunity to crystalize some conceptual issues I had been thinking about toward the end of the dissertation process.
In sum: The Book is different than the dissertation, not only because of matters of genre and audience and professionalization, but because your thinking should necessarily always be growing and shifting and reframing and crumbling in on itself and meandering in new directions. For now, focus on your dissertation without worrying so much about The Book until your adviser says so.
Laura posed a question about following trends. I am ambivalent (as I am about most things – except for following your publishing aspirations and being present at conferences). It is absolutely crucial to have your fingers on the metaphorical pulse of your fields, which is one way I interpret the word “trends,” because this is a way of being part of the conversation that drives us to new avenues of inquiry. However, I disagree with people who try to frame their projects to whatever’s popping for the sheer fact that it seems buzzworthy/marketable. Yeah, some people do get ahead by riding trends – and others don’t. I think that writing a longer-form article or a dissertation takes so much focus and energy and work that I turn most to the vocabularies, recent scholarship, and field conversations that feel authentic and necessary in propelling my own thinking.
An anecdote: I was pulling together my exam list during the affective turn in cultural studies, and, you know, affect is one of those theoretical turns that both became part of the water while also continuing to move in new directions. Affect theory was the beginning and end of so many conference panels those years, and it has and continues to shape my thinking. In seeing what parts of my dissertation fit into the book, the chunk of pages in which I read an Asian American music film to speak back to the deracination of certain new materialisms was the first to hit the cutting room floor. However, the larger questions that the affective turn has helped me ask and answer about emotionality, collectivity, and political inclination remain relevant as ever.
Laura posed a question about if and when to start doing book reviews, and Marshall offered a great answer. I just want to build on that advice. I will be encouraging my grad advisees to think seriously about their first book review post-exams. Since the purpose of exams is to demonstrate your knowledge of cultural and critical fields, all of that reading becomes the foundation from which your review will draw. As you think about your prospectus and dissertation, you will have to make the full transition from identifying what a piece of scholarship doesn’t do to recognizing what a piece of scholarship does do, and how that makes an intervention in the larger critical conversation. With a fresh take on the state of the field and a mind toward thinking seriously about contributions and interventions, graduate students, I have found, make for really great reviewers. (Do not write the snarky yelp-style review focused only on shortcomings and limits. No one likes that dude.)
Another anecdote: my first academic publication was an unsolicited book review. I chose a field-specific journal in which I wanted my name to appear that I knew also published book reviews. I went to the journal’s site and read their note from the Reviews Editor to see if they took unsolicited book review proposals. (I hope you’re not reading this as talking down, sometimes I literally needed and still need someone to tell me to check with the publication.) The way my experience worked out is that I wrote an email to the Reviews Editor with a fresh-off-the-presses book in mind; I was already a fan of the author, and from watching her at conferences I knew that the book would be relevant to my dissertation. The Reviews Editor agreed and, after a 4-month period of submitting an original draft, revising, and checking proofs, the rest is history. The Reviews Editor remains a treasured mentor I delight in seeing at conferences; the author read the review in preparing her tenure file and we had a wonderful conversation about my dissertation; and it turns out some people found it helpful!
A side note: after your first book review, I might encourage you to look seriously into your first full-length, peer-reviewed article. Especially if you do a great job, the journal or related journals might solicit a book review from you. Which is great! But know that a 3p. book review will not carry the same value as a 15-24p. piece of original inquiry.