Friday, September 26, 2008
I'll take Eighteenth-Century Studies off the list, and instead blog about other scholarly journals where I don't plan to send my work. And as for VQR? Hmmmm, haven't figured that one out yet. If some of my Georgetown faculty readers have read about VQR and now feel inspired to send, however, that would be great.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Does this sound like beginner's advice? Then you'd be surprised how many famous scholars come to me with end notes that are a mess, and without complete certainty that x set of notes came from y archive. One stopped by recently with over 500 haphazard citations and a pitiful question, "Will someone in your office please check all of these for me?" The answer is of course was no (it would take months if not more than a year of quite a few hours per week from one individual), but someone must do it before his book is published.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! If you do just a few citations as you write, you'll get there, and you'll be so relieved not to have to face it all at once.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The first time I heard this from a faculty member, I assumed that he simply had personal issues with boundaries and saying "no." The second time I heard it (this time the professor was female), I thought perhaps it was a characteristic of a certain type of individual who needed to feel needed, even during the time for travel, research and writing with which universities have traditionally rewarded their successful post-tenure faculty. By the third time, however, I realized we have a mini-epidemic on our hands, and one that every university should address: sabbatical is sacred, and it must be respected both by the individual on sabbatical, and by the colleagues back in the home department. Allowing oneself to be dragged back from sabbatical for meetings, political squabbles, personnel matters, and other department business is a disservice both to oneself and to the home university. No other profession is so generous in offering an academic year off for travel and research, and everyone should treasure it and work to preserve it.
But what really happens? How does sabbatical break down, and why? I'd love to hear from readers about it, and why you think it's so hard to stay away. Is it the individual professor's fault? That of the department? The university as a whole? Is it just human nature? I'm sure that many people take their sabbaticals and return with manuscripts in hand, but what happens when that doesn't happen? I'll hunt to see if there are any journal articles on this important subject.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
[As background, I've been up to my dusty eyebrows in library materials about an 18th-century subject that I'm planning as a book. Right now I'm deep in the research stage for the sample chapter that will go out with a book proposal (in this case a hybrid between a scholarly prospectus and a trade nonfiction proposal) to potential university press publishers. I'm noting progress on this blog in the hope that others will also share their book writing experiences and chime in.]
In the middle of all this, the odd dread came upon me, and I had to sit down on the floor of the library stacks to get over it. Perhaps it was the fumes from all of those old books (I'm working with some of the oldest that are still on our shelves in the hope of finding traces of my author mentioned in works by others, with many of them pointing to books and documents that no longer exist except as reference notes), but I had a vision of turning a page or completing a computer search and seeing my own words under somebody else's name, but not plagiarized, because the article had been written years ago! Of course it was all a fantasy, but it had the effect of reality... I had to step outside for some fresh air and a reminder that nothing is new, it's what the researcher brings to the study that matters most. Most of us strive for originality and unique contributions, but we so often find traces of others in the scholarly past, laboring quietly in a solitude now covered over by time and quaint obscurity. I just know that I have a 19th-century intellectual doppelganger who touched the same pages, took similar notes, and drew startlingly like conclusions about our shared 18th-century interest. I just haven't found her or him yet. If I do, I'll simply travel back in time, crying "Thought thief!"
Monday, September 22, 2008
My answer is to step back and ask if any nonfiction book is really more than a collection of essays. Theoretically any chapter should be able to stand on its own with a reason for its existence, and a beginning, middle and end. There is a sort of ideal model that wants all of the chapters to be necessary, and that hopes they will link somehow to keep the reader interested and turning pages, but readers tend to dip in and out of books (especially nonfiction, but even fiction sometimes... have you ever heard of the mystery reader who gets the gist and then turns to the finish? They're out there!), and we know that many nonfiction readers prefer going back-to-front, whether in a magazine or in a book. Some magazines actually structure themselves that way, to reward the right-to-left reader who likes to start at what English-speakers would consider the back of a publication. And think of all the major world languages that read right to left. There is nothing particularly special about left to right and about the order of chapters as many of us in English-speaking universities understand them.
A book is what an author decides it is, and its chapters relate to the extent that the author declares it so. If two chapters don't seem to connect naturally, then it's the author's job to build a helpful bridge that demonstrates the link the author perceives. Just as transitions take us from one idea to the next in a well-structured essay, so chapter transitions lead us from one to the next, preferably with a bit of enticement so that we don't do what most readers do at one time or another -- drop in a bookmark and never pick up the volume again.
Keeping readers is a secondary challege to getting them in the first place. There are a number of ways to do this, and building engaging and easy-to-use transitions among chapters is surely one of the most helpful. Then it won't matter whether a book is at risk for falling into essays... for the infrastructure will be there to keep it together with much more than just two covers and some library stitching.
Eh, I'd say sort of, but most authors who come to Booklab have no trouble motivating themselves to write. They have earned their jobs because they did and do write and publish, and typically by the time they find themselves with a job at Georgetown they've overcome most issues they have with time management, deadlines, goal setting and more. Although this office was originally imagined as a resource for all book authors, but especially first-time ones, it was surprising to observe that most of the people who consult Booklab have published before and are now interested in moving their careers into an even higher sphere of literary influence. (I eventually learned that it is a characteristic of many well-published scholars to ask for help. It is often a characteristic of the unpublished to disdain it. Ponder and report.)
The issues that I address with our faculty usually involve this bigger career picture, tackling questions such as how one transcends mere productivity and moves into becoming essential in one's field, or where the prizes are for particular kinds of scholarly publishing. What is out there to reach for besides tenure, or the rank of full professor? What university press titles win the Pulitzer and why? How does one become a public intellectual and participate more consistently in the discussions on NPR, CNN, C-SPAN Book TV, MSNBC, and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and, for that matter, The Chronicle of Higher Education?
This may be coaching, and I certainly enjoy the psychological aspect of this job, but it is also envisioning, and it involves me and my own writing trajectory as much as my authors. We're all in this together, imagining among ourselves what Georgetown can and should be in terms of its publications, and how we as colleagues can challenge ourselves to think about our books and articles in ever-more ambitious and publicly necessary ways. In a media-soaked world still thirsting for meaningful intellectual conversation that speaks across disciplines and to thinking people outside of academia as well, what we do is vital. Fun, yes, and rewarding as can possibly be imagined, but also darned important in a world that likes to say "publish or perish" as though that's all the goal is about.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
You can also listen to his interview with Lewis Lapham on The World in Time, his weekly program on Bloomberg Radio.
Alternative thoughts about approval (helpful when submitting work to book publishers or journal editors)
This was interesting for me to read, and my new answer to it is to more regularly send work to editors without confusing their responses with approval. Publication is not validation. If I desire to feel better about myself as a person, a scholar, an artist, then I meditate or seek guidance. If I desire someone to publish what I have written, then I seek an editor. I try not to confuse the two.