Townhouse Notes: Is Revising Your Dissertation the Only Path?
It took about four years to research and write my dissertation, and about that long to decide that turning it into a book was not something I wanted to do, at least not in the immediate future. I received a great deal of help in attempting revisions in those years: a two-year postdoc, feedback in workshops, continuing encouragement from friends and mentors, even some time off from my work at the AHA. I sedulously tore my dissertation apart but couldn’t imagine putting it back together. For now, the dissertation is the end stage of the project, at least as currently conceived.
Unsurprisingly, a Google search for articles about deciding not to revise a dissertation for publication turns up resources for people who do want to revise and find a publisher. There is no guidance for those who, having attempted revisions, wish to turn to another project. Naturally, the nature of historical scholarship, in which the cradle-to-grave production of a monograph often takes a decade, means the discipline favors endurance and single-mindedness. For those in tenure-track appointments, the tenure clock all but requires new assistant professors to pick the project they are closest to finishing—the dissertation—over the “second project” they might have described in their cover letter or at their job talk. To contract faculty seeking to secure permanent academic employment, polishing off the book is often key to a second look by a search committee.
In the absence of suggestions about making an informed decision about turning to another project, and in the presence of professional pressure to do everything right and on time, there is little incentive to devote much effort to a new project before the dissertation is revised and published. But as vaguely conceived as those second projects might be, they can also represent more fallow intellectual rows than the dissertation, at least for a time. They might be more ambitious where the dissertation was narrow, more creative where the dissertation conformed to the demands of the genre. These properties, however, usually belong to the magical post-tenure project—the one where you can really let your hair down, because what are they going to do to you? Such is the myth, at any rate.
The scholarly monograph is the coin of the realm, but it’s not sacred—like a dissertation, it’s a genre, and not the only one out there. Just as true-crime writers might struggle to produce a dating advice podcast, the monograph isn’t suited to all scholars or, I would argue, to all scholarship. When I consider my dissertation honestly, I see five or six set pieces inspired by rich archival sources, but the connection to a through-line or even to the main topic seems tenuous.
Because I am not an academic historian, I have the luxury of conceiving other projects without the ticking of the tenure clock. I’m working now on a seminar paper based on some of my dissertation research, and it’s liberating to be able to reread sources without shoehorning them into this or that chapter. It’s a challenge to incorporate current scholarly literature without ready access to a university library or scholarly databases. Working full time doesn’t leave you much room to think. And additional trips to archives will cost me vacation days. But I do feel more comfortable with shorter formats and less formal writing. If I had any of the academic jobs I interviewed for, this realization might lead to anxiety about the profession I’d chosen.
Historians have questioned the monograph-as-gold-standard since at least the 1990s, in Perspectives and other forums. They’ve also ruminated on the dissertation’s worth. If I can add anything to the conversation, it would be that there are many kinds of historians who do their best work in scholarly genres other than the monograph. It’s worth encouraging graduate students to think about the formats in which it feels most natural for them to analyze sources, in addition to completing dissertations. But we should also keep that in mind as we continue in our careers as historians.
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @Cliopticon.
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