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From the History and Technology column of the May 2007 Perspectives

Talking Shop with the "Gutenberg-es"

Elizabeth Fairhead, May 2007

LogoBecoming an accomplished academic historian, as with a career in any field, is a stressful and burdensome process. The demands of an academic career come from many directions and the American Historical Association has been aware of some of the difficulties in meeting all of the requisites for success: landing a tenure-track position, publishing the first monograph, teaching heavy course loads. Several years ago, as a partial response to one of these—complaints about inadequate publishing opportunities for first-time authors—the AHA, in cooperation with Columbia University Press, launched the Gutenberg-e Prize. The project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, awarded a prize of $20,000 and the opportunity to publish a dissertation or first manuscript electronically. Robert Darnton, president of the AHA at the time of Gutenberg-e's launch, who was the prime mover of the prize program, hoped it would offer an alternative publishing option for strong, recently completed dissertations in many fields of history and "set standards for electronic publishing." (See "What is the Gutenberg-e Program" on the AHA web site, www.historians.org/prizes/gutenberg/rdarnton2.cfm.)

Competitions for the Gutenberg-e Prize were held, one per year for six years, and dissertations were selected for publication. The project was, by its very nature, experimental. Electronic publishing was still so new when it started in 1999 that the mechanics of making it work successfully both for the publisher and the authors could only be imagined. There has been much interest in the scholarly publishing field, to see whether the prize would meet its dual goals of legitimizing electronic publishing by holding included publications to the highest standards and of helping new scholars to advance in their careers. Since the launch of the Gutenberg-e program, electronic publishing has not only become legitimate, but electronic resources have become a fundamental part of all scholarly research.

Now, after the 36 prizes of the project's first phase have been awarded, the recipients of the prize can share some of their experiences in what ways the prize has affected their careers. I discussed with the winners of the last two competitions their impressions of the benefits of the prize and the opportunity to publish electronically. (see "On the Tenure Track with an E-Book" by Deirdre Murphy in the May 2003 issue of Perspectives for a discussion of the earlier winners.) In response to an open-ended question, the awardees stressed three interrelated ways the prize contributed to their careers: by helping to land a tenure-track position and advancing within the tenure system, by providing time and resources to grow and develop creatively as a scholar, and by helping to balance the personal and professional sides of one's life. It seems appropriate to acknowledge that not all of recipients indicated that the prize has made a significant difference in their careers; a perception held mostly by those in careers outside academia. No one, though, expressed any serious reservations about having accepted the prize.

Here, below are some of the comments of the winners. Grouped by topic, the recipients speak for themselves.

Congratulations on landing that much sought after tenure-track job:

Erika Lindgren: This wonderful news [of the prize] buoyed my spirits in what was already a three-year job search and kept them elevated as I continued to search for a permanent position, moving from one annual position to another across the country. The prize sparked the interest of search committees and was the topic of spirited conversations at many conference and campus interviews over the last several years. During this time I have seen the interest in electronic media pick up and the excitement about the possibilities of the medium grow. I can definitely say that the prize, and the book contract that accompanied it, gave me an edge in a tight job market. It was certainly a "feather in my cap" for my new department, which recognizes that although we are primarily a teaching institution, a historian must remain active in the realm of scholarship.

Rhonda Gonzales: I can't help but believe that the AHA Gutenberg-e has made a significant difference in my career. After all, since receiving the award a number of things have gone oddly well for me. And while I do not want to think that these things would never have come my way, I think the difference has been in just how early in my career they have. Just to summarize, in 2006, I have been awarded two internal awards from UTSA, a faculty research award and a faculty development leave. Then in February, I was offered a position at Texas A&M University in College Station. While the offer was generous, I was in the fortunate position to have UTSA put forth a competitive counteroffer, which I accepted. Then just yesterday, I got the Ford news [a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship]. In each of these cases, I firmly believe that having the AHA prize on my c.v. as well as the book contract that Columbia commits to has made a huge difference early in my career.

The prize and the resulting electronic publications received positive responses from foreign instituitons as well:

Bin Yang: Finally I was offered [a position] by National University of Singapore. And I believe that the prize has significantly built my c.v.

Maria Rentetzi: The prize was the most important credential I had when I applied for the position of assistant professor at the National Technical University of Athens. Recently, securing an academic job in Europe has been a real feat as positions are rare and the system still requires strong patrons to support each candidate. In my case, having the prize made patrons less important and positions more available. Moreover, as we know about the world of science, prizes and distinctions work as money in a bank account. The more of those you receive the more rate of interest you get. After receiving the Gutenberg e-prize I also received a Honorific mention from the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science, Division of History of Science (IUHPS/DHS) and an Outstanding Dissertation Award in Social Sciences from my own university, Virginia Tech.

Some bumps in the road for the acceptance of electronic publications remain but in new forms:

Josh Greenberg: Overall, the Gutenberg-e prize has enabled me to make great progress on my writing and scholarship, even with the time commitments [standard 4/4 load] associated with a job at a teaching institution. One funny thing that comes up sometimes when I tell people I am publishing as part of the Gutenberg-e series is that they get confused with Project Gutenberg. On one hand this speaks to the growing familiarity people have with online resources, but on the other it speaks to the challenges of fighting for attention or market share as academics move to integrate internet or electronic materials into their worldview.

Jeri McIntosh: It is has become clear to me that there is a psychological reaction to the prize: the prestige of the AHA, Mellon, and Columbia UP is warmly appreciated but the fact that one's book is an e-book presents some obstacles. The problems are not at the level of enhancing an individual scholar's reputation but rather at the department level. Academic departments are flummoxed by how to exploit the e-book for the purposes of elevating the profile of the department within the university and also within the profession at large. The usual vehicles for proclaiming the accomplishments of faculty—the glass case and the waving of hard copies—are frustrated by the e-book format. Unfortunately, if a faculty member cannot help the department by producing a traditional book (with an easily removable and displayable dust jacket!), then there is a worrying suggestion that the department may not be enthusiastic about helping a faculty member move forward in their career.

The prizewinners stressed, though, that for many of them finding a position or getting tenure was not the whole story. For many, the process of readjusting to scholarly independence after years of carefully balancing the demands of department and committee as a graduate student has been less stressful with the encouragement that comes from receiving the prize. Jennifer Langdon-Teclaw stressed that the electronic publishing is perfect for her film history project. In a print publication, a reader would not be able to view clips of the films central to the analysis. The creative possibilities inherent in publishing electronically have provided them with an outlet for many exciting ideas.

Robert Kirkbride: The award has also contributed in other less direct, yet equally substantive, ways. To complement the digital translation of my dissertation, students at Parsons have explored alternative online formats that would enhance the navigational experience of the e-book. In late July, I was able to present this work at an invitation-only conference, SCI4 (Scholarly Communication Institute), where I received valuable feedback for this work. Furthermore, I was introduced to a network of scholars and specialists whose passion for digital evolution will provide a valuable resource for work I am currently doing at the New School for the strategic planning for a new digital library.

Shah Hanifi: The award has been recognized and opened up doors for me in the US, Australia, and Europe and I hope the e-format allows those interested in Afghanistan to more easily access my treatment of the colonial period and to more readily integrate historical and contemporary analysis of the country and the communities forming it and formed by it.

Timothy Hodgdon: It's hard to say, yet, what effect the prize has had on my career. It has certainly given me a boost—I've been able to conduct research that otherwise I could not have done; I've been able to skip the long process of shopping a manuscript.

Laura Mitchell: Community and security: like love, they can't be bought. But not having to worry about money sure helps them blossom. The Gutenberg-e prize opened a range of long-term possibilities, some of which are latent in this book, but will develop more fully in subsequent projects. Belongings is improved by maps, genealogical tables, and landscape photographs that would have been prohibitively expensive in a printed book. Working in a digital medium is teaching me to think differently about presenting source materials, especially for undergraduate classes. Most significantly, a contract with a two-year horizon afforded me time to hone my prose, in addition to improving the argument and evidence in the manuscript.

The prize is helping to overcome one of the most complicated but also most behind-the-scenes aspects of career development. Advancing in one's career is important, but for most of us doesn't mean much without being able to have strong and lasting relationships with our families. The prize has helped to maintain the balance.

Daniella Kostroun: I landed my first job at a small New England four-year college, but I was living hundreds of miles away from my husband, a political scientist, who got a job offer the same year I did at a big urban public university in the Midwest. I was not thrilled about being in a commuter marriage, and I felt that my future book was my only good leverage for getting us a situation together. In other words, I was not just interested on how the e-book would stand for tenure, but also how it would look on the market. Thanks to my e-book, my husband and I were faced with a dilemma that we never could have imagined. We had to make a choice between two joint positions! In the end, we decided to stay in the Midwest, mostly because of family considerations. These days, I still pinch myself in disbelief. After living in a commuter relationship for more than five years, my husband and I now work at the same school. In fact, we are not just teaching at the same school, but on the same hallway! We get to pass a quick word to each other at work or over the occasional lunch, which is a good thing, because with tenure looming for each of us we are both quite busy.

Sarah Gordon: I learned I had been awarded the prize when I was pregnant and thinking about how I would balance a new baby and work. The prize helped me make the decision not to teach for a while, and it has been a gift to be home with my daughter. Meanwhile, I am engaging my "scholarly brain" and contributing to my field. The Gutenberg prize has offered me a wonderful opportunity to be published in an exciting medium that suits the nature of my work while finding a rare balance between professional and family life.

The project has seen some bumps along the way, partly because the original parameters (publishing within a year of receiving the prize) did not fully take into account the varied demands, stresses and strains of beginning a career. Additional evidence for this is seen in the fact that those winners who were more established have run into fewer obstacles during the process of converting their dissertations into electronic texts. Originally, it was imagined that any problems with the project would come from the acceptance (or lack thereof) of electronic publishing. But, one of the largest hurdles has been only peripherally related to electronic publishing. The very years a new academic must commit to publishing for the first time are also the years when families are started, homes are being bought, big moves are taking place. It is also a time of adjustment intellectually, as scholars "find their own voice" in a field where change comes slowly but new ideas are extremely valuable. For many of the recipients, all of this combines to create a time of huge transition—personal and professional. The prize has been valued and valuable in helping the recipients make that transition and become accomplished academics.

—Elizabeth Fairhead, research associate at the AHA, has coordinated the Gutenberg-e program at the AHA for many years.