Publishing your Dissertation

March, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

A few weeks ago the University of Saskatchewan Department of History held a “Publishing your Dissertation” workshop. Organized by the graduate students, the workshop was an important opportunity to treat grad students not just as students but as junior historians, as future professionals. And the benefit was not limited just to them, the postdocs were avid participants as well. None of us are writing dissertations and manuscripts purely to earn a credential, but rather as a first step in a professional trajectory that will include publication and dissemination of our research.

The most important and inspiring statement of the day was a comment made by our department Chair, Valerie Korinek. She concluded by assuring the audience that they had already made the first step to publishing their manuscripts simply by participating in the workshop. By attending, by engaging, we had taken ourselves and our work seriously on a professional level, and this was truly the first step to publishing our work as professional historians.

I was inspired by Prof. Korinek’s comments more than I expected.

The workshop included a variety of speakers, and should be a model for similar events at other universities. One postdoc spoke of the experience of revising his dissertation into a manuscript and the process of seeking a publisher. A junior professor who was currently involved in press negotiations described her more advanced relationship with a publisher. And finally our department chair spoke from the perspective of a published author and also as a senior historian. She described her successes, what she’d do differently, and what we needed to do to position ourselves as professional historians. We also heard from executive editors from the University of Manitoba Press who relayed to us their guidelines and what they looked for in a publishable manuscript.

I’ve been sitting on my dissertation for a year or so now. Partly because I was devoted to looking for employment, and partly because I needed a rest, I just haven’t returned to it till recently. But in the last six months I’ve made some small revisions, done a bit of extra research, and asked scholars outside my dissertation committee to read it and offer feedback. So, I’ve been thinking about the next step, but until the workshop I was unable to make the leap. Anxiety, fear of rejection, uncertainty about my own skills maybe, all of these fears kept me from moving forward until now.

But I already knew which press was the best fit for my project. Even though the Manitoba editors were helpful, I knew that my project and priorities fit better with a large US university press. I researched the press’s online presence, so I also knew the other titles in its series, the editorial contact, and the submission requirements. I didn’t know what goes into a book proposal, but I learned that at the workshop. The UBC Press even gives examples of successful book proposals. (Read them, they are invaluable guides.)

So, using these as a model, I wrote my own book proposal, asked a former professor for a letter of introduction to the executive editor, and threw caution to the wind. Now, the press is interested in my work, I have a schedule for draft submission, and a goal. I also feel more and more like a professional historian with something interesting and important to say.

Perhaps I flatter myself, but I hope some of you will read this post, check out the UBC Press submission examples, and then write up your own book proposal. Maybe you’ll send it off to a publisher. And maybe you’ll get a positive response too. Good luck!

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
17 March 2011.

A Postdoc’s Life: Can you publish too much?

October, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’ve written before on the issue of publishing, and whether graduate students should actively publish their work. Consensus would seem to show that yes, they should, so long as they do so strategically and effectively without compromising the timely completion of their own degrees.

But what about postdocs? We’ve already finished our degrees. We don’t necessarily have a concrete deliverable (dissertation) expected of us at the conclusion of our contracts. What should postdocs consider when thinking about publishing more articles, or even a monograph?

This is a concern of mine for several reasons right now. I have two peer-reviewed articles already in print, another that is forthcoming, and I am thinking about submitting a fourth. At the same time, I want to start thinking about whipping my manuscript into shape to get that all-important first book out there. I’ve been soliciting advice on both these issues for some time, and have been given a great deal to think about, and to balance, as I try to navigate my postdoctoral path.

The first issue is actually not unlike that encountered by graduate students. If you are spending all your time churning out articles, reviews, and other writing, you might not leave yourself time to revise your manuscript. Now, of course this varies from discipline to discipline depending on the relative importance of articles and monographs, but in history, a book counts for a lot. And if you never get to it, or you end up giving away all your chapters as articles, you are potentially jeopardizing future opportunities that a book might offer.

The other issue, the one that caught me more off guard, is timing. When should you seek to get a book contract? When should you aim for your book to be published? (Remember of course that from submission to publication we’re still talking in terms of years of lag time and continued revision and preparation).

I was advised by one professor to seek out a book contract as soon as I could. It would make me more competitive for future postdocs and that golden dream, the tenure track assistant professorship. But, she warned, once I had the contract, linger on it and negotiate as much time as I could before final submission and publication. The danger, she advised, was having a book in print before getting that first job. Disrupting the natural order of things in this way could have multiple effects.

Of course a book, particularly a successful one, is a great boost to one’s professional credibility and could increase chances of landing that job. But, it could also backfire, she worried, advancing one too far down a career trajectory without yet even having a career. If a book is a common requirement for tenure, she warned, having a book in print before getting even a first job could disrupt the normal hiring process.

Similarly, another professor at another institution warned me to avoid publishing my monograph too soon. He worried that, depending on the institution where I might be hired, the requirements for tenure would only count from the time I would be hired. Pre-employment publications could help me land the job, but might not be counted toward advancement and promotion once hired, effectively necessitating the speedy production of a second monograph in short order!

So, here I am enjoying the first months of my first postdoc. I don’t know whether this will be followed by another postdoc, an academic job, or paths I haven’t yet fully considered. But I am considering writing my book proposal and starting down the path toward its future publication. For those of you in this position, or those who have lived through it, what have you been advised? What are your plans? Are you anxious about publishing too much, or too soon?

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
25 October 2010.


Review of Reviews: Should Grad Students Review Books?

July, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

I’m of two minds regarding grad students writing book reviews for publication. On the one hand, they give you regular and consistent publication credits, access to the newest monographs in multiple fields, and of course free books. They are never as valuable as peer-reviewed articles, but they do keep your CV active and up to date. On the other hand, unless the books are directly related to your field of study, reviews divert your attention away from completing your own research and writing. As a grad student, however, there can be few opportunities to publish, particularly in major journals. Book reviews offer an opportunity to get your name out there.

But how can you be considered for review opportunities? And how do you get the most out of them?

My best luck has come simply through word of mouth. Friends, colleagues, and sometimes even scholars I don’t know have recommended me for particular titles. Journals also have book review editors whom you can contact to express your interest and describe your specialization. I’ve never contacted journal editors, but I have recently submitted my details to H-Net lists, which offer the opportunity for a larger online profile as their reviews are published quickly and archived on the internet. I’m certain, however, that most of my review opportunities came out of scholarly conferences, where other scholars have come into contact with my work. Build you profile in the profession, and opportunities of all sorts will begin to flow toward you.

I’ve written 4 book reviews in journals ranging from the Journal of British Studies to Urban History, have two forthcoming in even more divergent journals, and have just committed to writing a review essay of three books for another journal. Each has been a completely different experience.

Those that overlapped with my own field of research were the easiest to write. I was most familiar with the literature they drew upon, the sources they used as the bases for their arguments, and felt more than capable of identifying strengths and pointing out weaknesses. These reviews sharpened my own scholarly skills and allowed me to contribute to the profession in a public and meaningful way.

But I’ve also reviewed books outside of my specialization and only peripheral to my own knowledge base. Similar to concerns expressed by medievalist blogger Squadratomagico, I have  encountered books that may have been good enough, but were also unoriginal and unexciting. These types of reviews were definitely harder, sometimes to the point of debilitation. I sometimes had to reposition myself as an educated non-specialist to comment on how understandable, useful, interesting, and applicable such books were. It was challenging to offer something useful to readers as a non-specialist commenting on a field in which I did not participate.  Though I knew little, I learned a lot.

Of course, at the same time I was writing my own dissertation, and it necessarily suffered somewhat from these moments of anxiety, distraction, and lapses in confidence. Worst of all perhaps, writing reviews allowed me to procrastinate while still feeling productive. I was getting work done after all (wasn’t I?), just not on my dissertation. In the end, I completed my dissertation, but lost weeks of work time to the stress of reviewing books.

I was only a grad student then, so publications of any sort were valuable. The Tenured Radical, however, offers some sage advice about focus and priorities once we’re on the job market:

Whether it is submitting an article, finishing revisions on an article that has come back with reader’s reports, writing a book proposal and sending your manuscript out, whatever. You need to show that you are moving forward in your career. … the further out you are from graduate school, the higher expectations are about your scholarly trajectory. Do not agree to write any: book reviews, encyclopedia entries, or anything else that fills up a curriculum vita with entries that have nothing to do with original scholarship.

On the whole, however, I would have to conclude that in grad school the benefits of reviews outweigh the challenges as long as you can manage your time, prioritize more beneficial work, and complete more important tasks.

If you choose to take them on, the lesson I’ve learned is to budget time for reviews. Make reviewing a specific task, like completing a chapter by a certain date, rather than an imprecise activity that can grow to consume whatever time you allow it. Reviews can be a dangerous opportunity to procrastinate, but used effectively, they can also stimulate your thinking, offer new insights in your own work, and increase your professional profile and publications credits.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
29 July 2010.

History Matters: The High Stakes (and Higher Value) of History

March, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

The Texas State Board of Education’s changes to the state’s social studies curriculum have highlighted the political motivations behind the histories that are taught in schools. In response to the board’s conservatism, the left wrings its hands in dismay, the right smiles with vindication, and centrists ask to restore some kind of balance. But we should be concerned about more than political allegiances. There is more at stake than “correct” or “balanced” or “fair” histories. We need to question not only the power of political factions to promote particular visions of history, but also the profit motives that have made some histories more saleable and therefore more powerful than others.

Many are decrying the board’s revisions for putting a “conservative stamp” on the state’s curricula. According to the New York Times, they endorse the superiority of American capitalism, question the history of secular government, and promote Republican political philosophies. Even just a cursory look over other recent commentary on the subject shows how high the stakes are and how strong the divide remains, even outside Texas. Famously conservative Phyllis Schlafly welcomes a turn away from the imposition of liberal “revisionist histories,” while on the other side Diane Ravitch accuses Texas of promoting ignorance. Other commentators worry about wider effects on education. If textbooks modeled on the Texas state curriculum are successful, they could enter classrooms throughout the country. Such is the power of a large state to influence how history is taught across the country.

Ok, how surprised should we be that history is a fraught and disputed subject? Of course it is. It’s invested with diverse meanings that inform personal beliefs and collective identities. We are heavily invested in history, and that shows up in the Texas textbook debates. Nor should we be surprised that groups on either side of the political divide are deeply concerned about what appears in textbooks, each accusing the other of promoting a particular agenda. Both sides, of course, are correct to question what appears in textbooks. We should constantly re-evaluate received knowledge, question “obvious” wisdom, and be prepared to refashion textbook histories. The point that critics and commentators alike miss in this debate, however, is the sale of history. Money over content.

I would like to be able to blame extremists for the bastardization of history. But I can’t, at least I can’t completely. Even those with whom I disagree, whose positions I abhor, are using an existing opportunity to put forward their values and beliefs. That isn’t the fundamental problem here. The content of textbooks is up for debate not because zealots have undermined history, but because publishers want or need to make a profit off of it, and worse still may be less concerned about content than contracts.

Textbooks will be rewritten because Texas represents an enormous market. And books that meet that market’s “needs” stand to gain enormous readerships, and perhaps lucrative ongoing contracts. Their potential influence and authority in schools and among pupils will not necessarily be based on their historical and intellectual rigor, but on their ability to sell to the Texas market. So, the problem might not be so much that history is politicized. That is, after all, why history is important. The problem is that politicized history is up for sale.

Further Reading:

For an overview to this issue see the History News Network roundup of coverage.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
26 March 2010.