Disserations Are Not Books

Fredrika J. Teute | Apr 1, 2015

Published monographs are usually a prerequisite for securing permanent membership in the history guild. Although dissertations are frequently submitted for publication as books, dissertations rarely are books. Indeed, if humanities departments did not require publication, some dissertations would not, and some should not, become books.

Graduate students produce dissertations to demonstrate their ability to formulate a question, comprehend the relevant scholarly literature, do research, and write up the results. Prospectively, the finished product contains analysis of the evidence and an interpretive thrust. However, dissertations at base are journeymen’s work. They serve the purpose of establishing professional credentials and gaining access to the academic guild. As such, they demonstrate technical competency in but not necessarily expansive command over a subject. The two genres, dissertations and books, have distinct functions and represent different stages of development. Some dissertations lend themselves better to being turned into a series of articles based on individual chapters. A scholarly book transforms the content in a graduate thesis prepared for an examining committee into contextualized knowledge meant for a wider audience. The monograph at its best presents to the reader a sustained argument and a narrative arc that holds the whole together and elaborates the broader implications across the entire length of the work.

Ideally, universities further human inquiry and support the propagation of learning. The gestation and production of a scholarly work take time and money. Adding to the fund of knowledge through the book form requires a serious commitment of intellectual capital on the part of the historian and an investment in material infrastructure at the school. Yet academe over the past generation or more has been guilty of a bifurcated vision when promulgating standards for joining the guild. Universities have increased pressure for shortening the length of time taken to complete a humanities PhD and have cut support for the publication and purchase of books; at the same time, they have tightened tenure requirements.

All of these trends mitigate against the production of enduring scholarship. Foreshortening the pre-doctoral phase undercuts efforts to master the scholarly literature of a field and craft a well-thought-out and ably written dissertation. Problems ensue from a rush to completion. Under these circumstances, the resulting studies can be thin in their historiographical foundations and come packaged in topical chapters, easier to write but less effective in presenting a chronological narrative and analysis. The consequence is that the newly minted PhD ends up in a hole.

Truncating the pre-doctoral stage shifts the burden to the pre-tenure phase. Creating a mature work of scholarship from an underdeveloped dissertation substantially magnifies the task, just as escalating tenure requirements put a premium on faster-paced publications. Expectations of a book out in the fourth year and a second on its way by the sixth year short-circuit a period of thoughtful revision of first books and cultivation of new projects. With its constrained time frame, the tenure process undermines its intended goal of engendering significant contributions to scholarship.

Equally insidious is outsourcing the validation of a scholar’s work to external evaluation. Departments and administrations rely on university presses to legitimate their faculty’s credentials and even requisition readers’ reports for candidates’ files. Academics ought to be able to make their own critical estimation of their colleagues’ scholarship. In crossing this line, university bureaucracies confuse two states of the manuscript and mix two genres, readers’ reports for publication and evaluation letters for tenure.1

In response to readers’ critiques, authors often effect significant revisions between initially submitted manuscripts and final books. Since university committees presumably are judging the latter, not the former, criticisms of the former should not be used for determining a person’s future academic career. Appropriating peer reviewers as tenure evaluators corrupts both review processes and weakens standards throughout the evaluation chain.

Institutions of higher learning depend on university presses as the gatekeepers to their academic reputations, but university administrations have pretty much abandoned supporting their presses.

Institutions of higher learning depend on university presses as the gatekeepers to their academic reputations, but university administrations have pretty much abandoned supporting their presses. Ten years ago, on average, less than 8 percent of the annual budgets of university presses came from university coffers. The situation has not improved since then. Caught in the vise of economic exigencies, shrinking library purchases, fewer classroom adoptions, rising costs, and changing technologies, scholarly publishers have overall increased the number of books published per season and within that number have put out a higher proportion of popular interest and regional titles. Concurrent with greater volume are shrinking staffs bearing increased workloads. Successful academic publishers like Oxford and Cambridge have robust trade divisions that float the scholarly side; most university presses are increasingly reliant on subvention funds, grants, and endowments, which divert staff attention away from cultivation of manuscripts to development of funds to produce them.2

Universities have responded to the crisis of their presses in various ways, from eliminating them (the University of Missouri, until scholarly outcry reversed the decision in 2012) to absorbing them into digital media publication centers in their libraries (the University of Michigan in 2009).

If universities cannot sustain the infrastructure for supporting the number of scholarly monographs required for retention, they should recalibrate the scholarly credentials for their history faculties. Rather than doubling down on published books as the standard in the humanities, academe should expand the range of criteria for tenure and promotion. As diversity and creativity blossom in multimedia venues, tenure requirements should diversify too, taking into account innovative and substantial contributions in both pedagogy and scholarship. The endgame, though, of both pedagogy and scholarship is furthering humanist inquiry, and the printed book is the long-form model for inculcating intellectual discipline and transmitting knowledge. These constitute the purpose of the university; it does need books.

Fredrika J. Teute is editor of publications at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and author of “To Publish and Perish: Who Are the Dinosaurs in Scholarly Publishing?” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 32 (2001): 102–112. She has been in charge of the Omohundro Institute’s book program for 25 years, during which time she has reviewed hundreds of dissertations and has published about 60 first-book authors.


1. In the past decade, authors’ requests for copies of their readers’ reports made me aware of this practice at some research universities. At best, the comments can be taken as a measure of the work’s promise; at worst, they can be twisted into an unwarranted condemnation of the book’s overall worth. If the goal is to counteract a trend toward uncritical tenure letters, incorporating readers’ reports into the process is not the means to achieve it. The danger is that letters and reports will become one and the same thing, bland endorsements of a scholar’s work. People who serve on tenure committees also write readers’ reports and outside letters for tenure files. Over time, the peer reviewer will know full well that the ear of a tenure committee is just outside the door, listening in on his or her critique of a book manuscript. Blurring the uses of readers’ reports in the long run will further subvert the very purpose they were originally meant to serve: ensuring high standards for academic publishing.

2. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011), 157–158. The University of North Carolina Press in the past 25 years has gone from an average of 30 books per season to about 50 and from about 12 percent popular/generalist books to 27 percent (based on enumeration of all new titles in fall/winter season catalogues every five years beginning with 1989 and ending with 2014).

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