Commencement 2018

I attended my first Boston College Commencement this morning. I served as a faculty marshal, which meant I arrived early to Alumni Stadium and was able to greet most of the class of 2018 as they processed in for the ceremony.


the view from aisle D, before the procession

I was glad to be invited to serve as a marshal. This was a meaningful year for me to attend Commencement, because I’ve been at BC the same number of years as the graduating seniors. I’ve gotten to know many of them from my courses. One student, C., wrote a stellar honors thesis on medieval literature under my supervision this year. Another student, O., is off to law school and gave me the incredibly thoughtful thank-you gift of personalized stationery, which I discovered in my office this morning.

It was an appropriately celebratory event, on a warm sunny day. At the Provost’s reception this afternoon, I had the chance to catch up with some English Department colleagues outside of the grind of the semester. It’s been a good year. Now I’m looking forward to the summer.

How to turn your dissertation into a book

In talking with advanced PhD candidates and junior faculty in the humanities, this topic has come up often. I have some thoughts on it.

CUNY dissertations.jpg

so many dissertations

It’s in the nature of the task that you only do it once, so I can’t claim to be an expert. To turn my dissertation into a book, I added one chapter, substantially rewrote the introduction, and revised the whole. I get the sense this is on the lighter end of the scale.

(By ‘book’ I mean a scholarly monograph. How to turn your dissertation into a bestseller is not advice I am qualified to give.)

The worst case scenario is that you compose an entirely new book as your first book and publish little or nothing from your dissertation.* I have seen people do this and come out OK. However, I recommend avoiding it if at all possible. Your first book doesn’t have to be perfect in every way, it just has to exist in the world. Your Big New Idea for Revolutionizing the Field can become book #2.

My context for the following remarks is the North American research university, which inculturates PhD candidates to publish books and requires the same of new hires. At some colleges and in some places outside of North America, there is less pressure to publish a book soon, or at all.

  1. Consider timing. I was fortunate enough to be hired directly into a tenure-track job, but that’s rare nowadays. You may be facing a familiar dilemma: you need a book to get a full-time job, yet you need a full-time job in order to make the book count professionally. My advice is to complete steps 2-7 below before winning a job offer. But know that if, down the road, the book appears in print before you take up a tenure-track position, some departments may expect you to make significant progress toward a second book for tenure. In some cases, it can be to your benefit to have a long publication process. (Luckily, the publication process for humanities monographs is quite long.)
  2. Take your dissertation reports seriously. The dissertation reports are a good place to start. Their authors are, of course, advanced scholars in your field, and they possess valuable information about how your ideas will sound to the field. There are roughly three kinds of reports: (a) laudatory, (b) descriptive, (c) skeptical. Bask in (a). Then launch into revision on the basis of the insights and objections in (b) and (c). As with revising articles, your goal is to retain what is distinctive and new in your work while addressing alternative theories and alternative construals of surviving evidence.
  3. Add a chapter. I haven’t met a dissertation that couldn’t benefit from an extra chapter (or two). In my case, adding a chapter brought the narrative I was trying to tell to a conclusion. Alternatively, a new chapter might expand on a suggestion, create symmetry between elements in the project, or demonstrate that your idea works outside of its initial historical context. In addition to the intellectual reasons to add, there is the professional one that adding a chapter tends to please academic publishers (who are looking to publish books, not dissertations) and hiring committees (who are looking for a colleague, not a student).
  4. Revise. The difference between a dissertation and a book is above all a rhetorical difference. The occasion of the dissertation is a demonstration of mastery, at most places (but not my PhD-granting institution) formalized as a dissertation defense. The occasion of the book is exposition of mastery. At least in my field, the difference appears especially in the footnotes. My dissertation had long, argumentative footnotes citing every relevant secondary source. For the book, I trimmed down the footnotes to essential clarifications that weren’t suitable to the main text, and I cited only the secondary sources that I was quoting or which were especially pertinent.
  5. Workshop. One of my PhD advisers was fond of saying, “No one gets smart alone,” and it’s true. Seek out an opportunity to present a chapter at a conference in your field–or better yet, at a graduate colloquium or workshop, if you can get invited. Boiling down your chapter(s) for oral presentation will inevitably suggest ways of streamlining your ideas for the page.
  6. Focus on the introduction. As I revised, I kept reminding myself that many readers would never read past the introduction. I anticipated that readers would engage with my book the way I engage with books that I do not teach and am not commissioned to review: read or skim the introduction for The Big Idea and positioning in relation to scholarship I already know, and read or skim the chapter(s) that most closely relate(s) to my interests. I designed my introduction to facilitate this expected reading practice. Once you’ve revised it, the introduction can make an effective writing sample for both jobs and presses.
    • In a dissertation in many humanities fields, the introduction must survey, exhaustively and at length, the ‘literature’ on its topic. A book introduction has a different function. It must declare the salient features of the book; define, explain, and illustrate its methods; and summarize its contents. A rule of thumb is, if it’s an important component of the book, it needs to be represented somewhere in the introduction. Many book introductions share a basic syntax: summary of the argument; statement and defense of method; illustration of reading or historical practice; chapter summaries; discussion of prior scholarship on the period, topic, and/or texts; closing reflections.
  7. Initiate correspondence with a press. (A topic for another post.)

*For a different view, from someone who did take this route, see the exchange below in the comments.

How to get your research published

This post isn’t about getting a monograph published or getting published in edited collections. It’s about publishing articles in academic journals, which in most humanities fields and many social science fields make up the bulk of your research record. Articles are generally considered less prestigious than books but more prestigious than essays in edited collections.

Neophilologus Editorial Manager

Neophilologus Editorial Manager []

I’ve been publishing articles and scholarly notes since 2011, and I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error. To date, I have around 30 journal publications. I’ve been a reader for several journal submissions, too, and since 2016 I’ve been a co-editor of the Yearbook of Langland Studies. At this point, I understand the process from all sides.

The mechanics of getting published in humanities journals are not completely intuitive, so I’ve compiled this how-to. I just assume that you have a well-written, fully documented piece of original research in hand. (How to compose academic research is a subject for another day.) This advice may only hold true for the humanities, which tend to have a slow and contentious publication process.

  1. Select a journal. This is the most important step. If you submit to an inappropriate journal, your essay will get rejected regardless of how good it is. One place to locate possibilities is your own footnotes. Which journals keep cropping up? Another is articles in your field that you admire. Where were they published? Sometimes a particular journal becomes known for a certain approach, topic, or text. If you are responding directly to a previous article, it can make sense to submit your essay to the journal that published that article. Know the hierarchy of journals in your field and subfield and aim high: you can always resubmit elsewhere. For MLA fields, I’d say ELHModern PhilologyPMLA, and Representations are considered a cut above the rest. They get many, many submissions.
    • Sidebar: select a journal with the appropriate audience, or revise your essay to match. For example, there are certain things I need to explain when writing about medieval poetry in ELH that can go without saying in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology.
  2. Follow the style guide. It’s a small thing, but bringing your article into alignment with the journal’s style guide demonstrates that you are serious. You can usually find the guide on the journal’s website. Yes, this means that if you end up sending it elsewhere you’ll have to redo the style.
  3. Send it in. Most journals these days accept electronic submissions. You want your e-mail to the editor(s) to be polite and brief, 1-2 paragraphs. The purpose of this e-mail is to
    • introduce yourself,
    • identify the title and topic of your work,
    • explain its relevance for the journal, if that is not obvious,
    • attach an anonymized copy, and
    • identify any scholar who should not serve as a reader (useful if your essay strongly disagrees with someone).
  4. Wait. Personally, my favorite part of the process. I like when things leave my desk, freeing up brainspace. If you have not heard from the journal for six months following their initial response to your submission (or shorter if they specify a shorter turnaround), then it’s OK to politely inquire about the status of your submission. My record for longest wait time between submission and readers’ reports is two years. . .and counting.
  5. Read the report(s).* It might hurt. Anonymity can cause readers to adopt an aggressive tone they wouldn’t use to your face. Plus, they’ve presumably been selected because their research overlaps with yours, triggering turf wars. A good editor chooses readers with open minds–where available!
  6. Pause. Don’t immediately fire back with a lengthy self-defense. Let the reports sit for at least a day or two. In my experience, most reports contain a kernel of truth. Even when they’re hostile, they might unintentionally indicate a better way of stating your case. (Sometimes it’s as simple as modifying the wording of certain key sentences.) If your essay has been rejected outright, you can now go back to step 1 and choose a different journal, after making any changes that this set of reports might prompt you to make.
  7. Revise. In most cases, your essay won’t be rejected outright, and it won’t be accepted outright, either. Based on the reports from the reader(s), the editor(s) will request revisions.
  8. Know your audience. At this point, your audience is the editor. The editor will make the final decision in light of your correspondence plus the reports plus the editor’s own reading of your essay. It follows that your task is not to do everything the reports recommend, only what the editor asks. Pay close attention to the wording of e-mails from the editor. Often editors look more favorably on an essay than the cranky reader(s) they’ve commissioned; they may be looking for a reason to say yes.
  9. Account for changes. In your next e-mail to the editor, attach your revised essay and explain what you’ve done. Some journals ask that you highlight changes in green font or track changes. This e-mail should be 1-3 paragraphs. The goal is to demonstrate
    • that you understand the reader’s or readers’ criticisms, and that you are grateful for the time they’ve devoted to your work;
    • that you are willing to change aspects of your presentation, citations, or wording to match industry standards as interpreted by the reader(s) and editor(s); and
    • that you can defend essential aspects of your ideas politely but firmly when challenged.
  10. Repeat. The editor(s) might send your essay out to the same readers or new readers, initiating steps 4-9. Or the editor(s) might request a second round of revisions without sending the essay back out, initiating steps 7-9. Or the editor(s) might now accept the piece outright or (much less common in my experience) reject it outright. After one round of revisions, you can assume the editor is at least partly on your side. They want you to succeed.
    • My record for rounds of revision with a single reader was four. The reader clearly wanted the piece to be something other than what it was, but I made small concessions without fundamentally changing the piece. Eventually, the editor acquiesced. (Who wants to read four reports and four versions of a long essay, only to turn around and reject it?)
  11. Acceptance! Everything after this is clerical: cosmetic edits, publication agreements for you to sign, page proofs for you to proofread, and electronic and/or physical publication.

*At some journals (such as the Yearbook of Langland Studies), editors regularly read and comment on submissions before they go out to readers. In these cases, steps 7-9 occur prior to steps 5-9.