Image: Johnny Depp as Kemp in The Rum Diary (2011, Bruce Robinson)
In 1999, down in the sub-basement of the University of Minnesota library, I found the Exuviae Sacrae Constantinopolitanae, a 19th-century two-volume collection of medieval sources on the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Each of the sources told the story of the transportation of Christian relics from Constantinople to Western Europe. I was quickly riveted by the idiosyncrasies of the various accounts and wondered what they might reveal about the constructed memories of an important event.
So I wrote a short paper about the collection, then a long paper, then got a grant to look at the manuscripts, and eventually used the topic for my dissertation, which I defended in 2006. The next fall, I started a tenure-track job at a teaching-oriented small Roman Catholic university on the outskirts of Chicago.
On February 16, Pennsylvania State University Press published my book, Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. If you’re doing the math, that’s about 16 years from my first read of the sources to final publication, and eight years on the job as a tenure-track faculty member. What took me so long to get published?
For one thing, I didn’t have to write the book to get tenure and I had a lot of teaching to do to keep my job. Moreover, I have kids, and I do a lot of the parenting, both because I want to and to support my wife’s career. But there are less personal issues at play here as well.
Books don’t just happen. Research universities and elite liberal-arts colleges require faculty members to produce books, but also have a system in place that enables success (in theory). A low teaching load is the most important feature of that system, but other features include: access to research assistants (often with advanced language skills), experienced grant-writing officers, junior sabbaticals, internal funding sources, and colleague-mentors (ideally) to guide new scholars through the process.
One of the real problems in contemporary academe is that less-prestigious universities believe they can improve themselves just by requiring more and more for tenure, ratcheting up the pressure without providing the resources to faculty members. I worry about junior scholars caught in such systems, and consider myself lucky to be at an institution in which resources and expectations are matched. At Dominican, we are expected to devote ourselves to teaching and service, while remaining active participants in our fields. The latter means going to conferences (for which we get good support) and doing some writing. But producing a scholarly book is a choice at my university, not a requirement. Absent the external pressure to write, making that choice can be difficult.
In graduate school, doctoral students don’t get a lot of guidance on how to maintain a scholarly career at a teaching-oriented college. How could we? By definition, all of our mentors are people who have ascended to the lofty heights of tenured positions at Ph.D.-granting universities. Most, in fact, have more prestigious Ph.D.’s than their students will ever have (my mentors at Minnesota were from Yale and Cambridge). Our role models are not modeling the kind of work that most Ph.D.’s wind up doing, so we have to figure our own way.
For me, the key was realizing that I was writing this book solely for myself. I believed I knew some things about history that were important and would contribute to a field of study to which I have dedicated much of my life. I believed that the best way to communicate my findings was via a long-form monograph, rather than chopped into discrete articles. I did not, and do not, expect this book to transform my career. A new study shows that perceptions of prestige matter at least as much as quality of work in terms of hiring at top jobs, so no matter what I write, those perceptions are static. Furthermore, the constriction of the faculty job market has made it much harder, if not impossible, to publish your way from a lower-tier to a higher-tier university (although people do seem to move comparatively regularly within the R1 subset).
Writing a book for yourself is liberating. During the summer after my fourth year on the job, for example, I realized that the middle chapters of the book simply weren’t good enough. Had I been chasing tenure based on a monograph, I’m not sure I would have had the flexibility to make the decision to stop writing and overhaul the middle. Turning 45,000 words into 18,000 was the hardest writing task of my life, but it definitely made the book stronger. I had other similar hard choices in the process, each one slowing my progress but resulting, I hope, in a better book.
Having reached the end of this process, I’ve realized something new. For all that I’m proud of mine, there’s nothing inherently special about writing a book. As academics, we need to stop lionizing this particular form of production above all others. Contributions to fields of knowledge can come in many forms – short and long, digital and tangible, formal and informal, public and paywalled. What matters is the quality of the contribution. The publishing landscape is in flux. Too many publishers are either allegedly predatory or vanity presses without adequate review or quality control. Getting published by a reputable press is more and more difficult.
We need to develop new ways, even new metrics (I hate metrics), for assessing quality. Moreover, as I’ve argued before, it’s the people who have tenured jobs, especially those with seniority and name recognition, who need to chart this path. We need to break systems that mandate certain kinds of scholarly performance, and instead experiment with form and structure, and reward those who do good work, no matter the format.
We need to let books be books – well packaged long-form arguments – rather than demanding that they continue to serve as mandatory professional stepping stones. The old system isn’t sustainable. A more flexible system will better serve the people trying to make their way through an increasingly precarious profession. And perhaps best of all, allowing book-writing to be a choice will lead to better books.