Monday, July 27, 2009

Blog XIX (19): Career Plans and Publishing Strategies

Some of the more successful people in life are those that sit down and create goals and a plan. There is something to be said for plotting your academic career. Now, a lot of that goes back to what I wrote about in Blog II—you can have any type of career you want. Do you want to teach undergraduates? Do you want to train a generation of Ph.D. students? Do you want to write a biography? A textbook? Do you want to testify to Congress on your expertise? Do you want to be a regular source for journalists? Do you want to be a popular historian writing for the general public? Do you want to be an influential intellectual who offers new historical interpretations that dominate the historiography of your sub-field for generations? In any of these cases, writing and publishing is going to be necessary. It might be an end or a means, but you will have to do some of it.

As a result, you should have a some kind of career plan. The details of that plan will be up to you. Your publishing strategy should serve to advance that career plan, though. There will probably be a good deal of overlap between these two documents. For example, let us say that that in your career plan you state you want to hold an endowed chair at an Ivy League school and write a New York Times best seller. Great. That is your career plan and probably about half of your publishing strategy.

With the strategy you will need to flesh out the details. It will be part end (getting to that best-seller) and means (how you get to the Ivy League). You need to explain how you will reach these objectives. Goals are good, but not all that helpful if you do not have ideas on how to get to where you want to go. You want to avoid being so rigid that you are not able to respond to new opportunities when they open up. On the other hand, you want to want to be avoid being so vague that your guidance is useless.

A publishing strategy will vary from individual to individual, but one part should focus on big, long-term projects (books) and the other should be on smaller, short-term projects (articles and other types of essays).

The blog entries that follow in the weeks ahead will first focus first on articles and then on books.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Blog XVIII (18): Book Reviewing

Since I started this blog, I have become a book review editor for Presidential Studies Quarterly. So, this essay on book reviewing is a topic on which I should have some real expertise. Writing book reviews is important, but it is not an activity that is going to fundamentally alter your career.

Do not get me wrong. Book reviewing is something that young scholars should engage in to one degree or another, because it is a form of professional development. Reviews show that you are staying active and engaged with the rest of the profession, and are keeping abreast of new developments. It is also a good way to get some publications under your belt when you are in grad school, or at any time when you are unable to engage in larger research projects. Book reviews are also a nice way to add books to your own collection.

When you are in graduate school any type of publication is a good thing. So, you should be willing to review for any periodical that offers you the chance, and you should be willing to review any title, even if it has little or nothing to do with your main area of specialization. Of course, if you are a historian of colonial America and you get something really outside of your field like a book on late imperial Rome, that might be something you want to consider passing on, but if it is a biography of John Adams and you are writing a dissertation on Scots-Irish immigrants to Massachusetts—close enough! Reviewing in the main publications in your field is nice, but not that crucial. Attending the right conferences and publishing articles and books are far more significant in determining how your career advances.

Now, why are book reviews all that significant? Good reviews are important, because they tell the reader if this book is one that they should consider investing their time and energy in reading, or if it is one they can safely skip.

Publishers regularly use good reviews in their marketing efforts, depending often on a review in a publication as a way to target certain audiences. Reviews have been a major tool for both academic and commercial publishers. The fact that most magazines and newspapers are reducing the number of reviews that they publish is a major issue that is becoming a crisis for publishers specializing in fiction and commercial non-fiction. Book reviewing is holding its own in academic publishing—because of the different economic model in use—but that could easily change in a year or two if library budgets shrink and the circulation and page counts of academic journals contract as well. So, the time to do reviews is now.

Collectively, book reviewers also evaluate the importance a work makes to the field. Remember from 2002-2003 when a number of prominent historians ran afoul of charges that they were plagiarizing and several suffered significant professional setbacks as a result? Well, most of those incidents developed when book reviewers noticed passages that were not attributed to their original authors.

So, how do you end up doing book reviews. Most book review editors are always looking for new reviewers. Some publications have a rule that you cannot review a book until you have had one published, but most academic journals—even major ones—are more than willing to commission reviews from graduate students. When I was in grad school, a buddy of mine, just wrote a letter to the book reviewer of a state history journal and included a copy of his vitae. I have used that approach time and time again even long after leaving grad school.

In fact, as an editor it is easier to get junior scholars to review books than it is get senior types. Most book review editors develop some type of database of reviewers. They try to use a variety of reviewers, but many end up using some individuals repeatedly.

Something that many reviewers fail to keep in mind is that the author of the work under review is another living, breathing individual with feelings. They have invested years of their life in the book, even if it is a bad one, and reviewers often fail to respect that fact. In graduate school, it is easy to write slashing reviews that dismiss authors with unrestrained brutality because it will never be published. That type of review can and does get published. Here is the problem: if the author is still active in the profession, they might end up in a position where they can have some type of impact on your career. Now, if a book is bad, it is bad and your job is to offer your analysis. The tone of the review is a different matter all together. If your review is going to be negative, fine, that serves a purpose, but keep it professional. An honest disagreement over evidence is more than acceptable. Reasonable people can disagree over these matters, but avoid making the matter personal. Make it clear you are assessing only the work under review and nothing else like the author’s competence as a scholar, teacher, or his/her character.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blog XVII (17): Conference Strategies

Why do historians do conferences? There are any number of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is to communicate new interpretations about the past. In theory, if you are presenting a paper, you are trying out new ideas to get feedback from your peers. Others, though, are spreading news about new publications that they want people to buy, read, and assign to their classes. And many more scholars are going to conferences to listen to these presentations and keep abreast about new discoveries and interpretations that are changing our understanding of the past.

Okay, now all of that is true, but individuals attend these conferences for a number of other less intellectual reasons. Depending on the conference and where it is held, people are at these gatherings to take part in early job interviews, meet with publishers, buy books at reduced prices at the book displays, do research, and develop contacts. (That last point cannot be overestimated. A friend of mine who is the editor of a small journal went to the American Historical Association conference to find potential authors for his publication. I recently did the same when I became a book review editor.) Sometimes people go to these meetings to do nothing more than just see old friends. With all that said, conferences are neither the most cost effective or important of professional activities for a historian—publishing is, but that is the subject for a later entry—these meetings are important nonetheless and grad students and new Ph.D.s need to have a plan, a strategy for participating in these gatherings.

The first point of your strategy should be to attend regularly the meeting of the main organization in your subfield. If you are a diplomatic historian that is the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, if you are a military historian it is the Society for Military History, if you are a southern historian then it would be the Southern Historical Association, and so on. You should begin doing this even before you are ready to present or publish.
Why? Well, early on you need to make contacts with senior people in the field and with others that are your peers at other institutions, and you also need to get a feel for the atmosphere in the field and just how things work at that particular conference. Then, once you have something to contribute, which can and should be while you are still in grad school, present a paper.
Why? Well, you need to start developing a reputation in the field. You want people to read your stuff and consider your argument when it comes time for you to be published. Another consideration is that when it comes time for you to apply for jobs, the people on the committee will be historians, but usually of different time periods and areas. As a result, they will be entirely unfamiliar with your topic and even the historiography of your subfield. They will be cutting corners to evaluate the candidates and one of those will be looking at the conferences in which you have participated. A strong candidate in diplomatic history will have presented at that SHAFR outfit, a strong candidate in military history at the Society for Military History, and so forth.

How do you go about getting on a conference program? Well, most programs committees prefer to see proposals for entire panels. So, you have to spend some time putting together a panel. Sometimes people will contact you, asking you to participate in a panel they are assembling. Both of these approaches are generally the product of having gone to conferences beforehand just as an audience member. In short, you either need to know people or you need to be known.

A second point in your strategy should be to get on the program of the major umbrella organizations: the American Historical Association, and/or—if you do U.S. history—the Organization of American History. (If you are a historian of Japan, the other major organization might be the Asian Studies Association. The important point is not which organization is your umbrellas and which is the main group for your subfield, but that you are going big.) It might be very tempting to present only at the annual meeting of your subfield. That inclination is understandable after all this gathering is usually full of people that have similar interests as yours and a meeting in which you will find many papers and panels to your liking, but this inclination is wrong. You need to go big in conferences.

Why? Presenting papers at the annual meeting of organizations like the AHA and the OAH are important exercises in professional development. It will also have an important impact in the job hiring process. The people on search committee quickly realize how little they know about other fields—trust me, I know of what I speak. Conference names and journal titles on a resumé mean little if the field is far from the research and teaching interests of the individual committee members. For instance, does the average U.S. diplomatic historian know what the best forums are in Texas history, agricultural history, or medieval European history? Do you?

Everyone, though, recognizes the significance of organizations like the AHA or the OAH. Put bluntly, it is to your advantage to have a major presentation on your CV. These achievements also impresses tenure committees and deans. One last point, engaging with the larger historical community is a good way of enhancing both your own reputation and the reputation of your area of specialty. Active engagement with the rest of the profession can persuade historians in other fields that their home departments need to add positions in the area of your sub-field, and the growth of your sub-field is ultimately in your interests.

Now to be more specific, here are some of the insights I have to offer in putting together conference panels for the major umbrella organizations:

1. Be patient. I applied three times to the AHA before getting a panel accepted. Since then I have gotten a second and third panel accepted there and another at the OAH.

2. Play by the rules. Abide to the letter of the panel requirements of each organization. Sometimes they vary significantly.

3. Be optimistic. Getting the program committees of these major conferences to accept your panel is not as impossible as you might think.

4. Be concise. Remember that program committees are a good deal like search committees. The members might not know the important figures, issues or journals in fields other than their own. Make sure to state clearly and concisely the major issues your panel is addressing.

5. Go historiographical. You should emphasize the impact your panel will have in your subfield. Acceptance requires more than having three papers on topics that relate well to one another. Given the specialization in the history profession these days, one can argue that it is possible to have a successful and rewarding career without ever participating in an AHA conference or publishing in the American Historical Review. That organization and journal, however, still matter. Proposals should stress the historiographical significance of the panel. Program committees are a lot like search committees, the individual members quickly realize how little they know about specific subfields. As a result, imagine, for example, a submission for the 1980 AHA meeting that included the early pioneers in Eisenhower revisionism: Robert A. Divine, Stephen E. Ambrose, Richard Immerman, Fred Greenstein, and Burton Kaufman. This proposal would have said something like: “The individual research and findings of these papers challenge the dominant belief that Ike was a Nimrod.” Another point worth noting, I do not think that having a proposed panel where every member has had at least three books published is going to have as much impact as a panel that makes a notable contribution to historical understanding. As a result, a panel with a graduate student as a presenter is not dead on arrival even at a major conference.

6. Keep it short. Keep your panel proposal as short as possible. The submission guidelines for the AHA suggest that a five-person panel proposals can include fourteen pages. If every proposal for an AHA conference submitted fourteen pieces of paper, the program committee would be looking at going through roughly 4018 pages, or slightly more than eight reams of paper. I doubt every member of the committee has time to look at every page of every proposal. Accordingly, the cover proposal, the synopsis of each paper, and each CV should be no more than one page long. A good deal of time and craft should go into the cover proposal, since it might be the only part of the submission that gets much attention.

7. Go Big. Try to address some issues that affect the profession as a whole. I found that the program committees of major conferences are receptive to proposals that address big topics. In one of my proposals, I stressed globalization, internationalizing U.S. history, and the use of new sources. In this particular situation the new sources were the Lyndon Johnson telephone tapes. I also asked the paper presenters to stress these issues in the synopses of their papers. Other members of the history department where I worked had similar experiences with the AHA program committee.

8. Know the stats. If your proposal is rejected, try to keep your panel together and resubmit for the next meeting. Statistically speaking, the odds are in your favor. During the time I was sending in proposals, the acceptance rate at AHA meetings fluctuated between 45 percent and 80 percent. There is also a good deal of turnover in membership of the program committee from year to year, so your submission will be new to many of the people serving on that body.

9. Talk to others. Talk to a lot of others that have put together panels for the big conferences and ask to see their proposals. Weigh and evaluate this different information, and come to your own conclusions.

Administrative Note 2

Normally I try to write one essay a week for this blog. Because of the long delay in late June and early July in posting anything new to this blog, I will post another one tomorrow.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blog XVI (16): Scholarly Production

Should you publish in grad school or engage in other areas of scholarly productivity? To be blunt, the answer is yes.


Well, every one coming out of graduate school has a Ph.D. Everyone should have good letters of recommendation. What do you have that will make you stand out from the rest of the crowd? You need some ink on your resume, when you go to apply for a job after you have finished your degree.

Now, let me share a little story that an old Sunday school teacher of mine shared with me. She was and still is an academic, and was president of the American Public Service Association, the main organization in the field of public policy. (This position is the equivalent of being president of the American Historical Association.) She asked me which candidate do you think will look better to a search committee: the person who has a bright, promising Ph.D. topic, but has done no publishing, has presented at a graduate student conference, and is only thinking about taking an article from the dissertation and submitting it to some journal; or the individual that has already had an article published, has written five published book reviews, already has their dissertation under review for publication at an academic press, has another article under review at a journal, has presented twice at legitimate academic conferences, and already has started some of the research for their next book project?

Think about it. The answer will not be long in coming to you.

But do not take that argument too far. You still needed a finished Ph.D. dissertation and good letters of recommendation. Those things are your foundation, but there are things you can do to add to that bedrock.

Some of you might be thinking that you want to teach and are not interested in doing that much publication work. That attitude is more than acceptable. As I stated back in Blog II you can have any type of career you want. You will, however, have to temper that attitude a little. As I mentioned in Blog IV the supply of history Ph.D.s exceeds the demand for them. As a result, even schools with primarily teaching missions can and do demand that their faculty publish. It might not be much, but it will be something.

The “I just want to teach” response is also something of a dodge. While each scholar will be stronger in one area over another, very few get a D+ in one area of scholarly activity (publishing), while getting an A+ in another (teaching). Your skills are going to be more tightly clustered. It is going to me more like a B+ in one and an A- in another.

In short: everyone needs to publish, even if only a little.

To be specific, there are four areas of scholarly production where you can help yourself. They are in increasing importance: 1) conference presentations, 2) review work, 3) article publishing, and 4) book writing. Over the next several weeks the essays in this blog will focus on those four areas.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Administrative Note 1

For a number of reasons: conferences, construction work at the office, the July 4th Weekend, and so forth, there is going to be a short break in the posting of blog essays on "In the Service of Clio." There will be a new one on July 13. Please check it out then.