Monthly Archives: January 2012

Journal or no journal?

One of the questions that many graduate students ask is whether or not they should try to publish chapters of their dissertation in journals along the way. Given the pressure to publish and the competition on the job market, the answer may seem obvious. However, in some cases it’s not that simple. Here are some of the things you might want to consider.

On the positive side:

1. Publishing an article or two does give you something to put on your CV. It can be an indication that you are someone with promise for future publishing success, as well, and some institutions place more weight on refereed articles than they do on books.

2. The readers’ reports can help with you with your revision process. You should be getting feedback along the way from your advisor(s), but outside readers have no vested interest in your success in graduate school (they don’t even know who you are), so their assessments will (or should) be unbiased and fair. Being shown a glaring methodological error in chapter 2 of your diss can allow you to fix it chapters 3-5, as well.

3. If your article is well-received, then it can be advanced press for the eventual publication of your book. People who loved your article may be very eager to get their hands on your book.

On the other hand:

1. Some scholars are of the strong opinion a graduate student’s energy should be wholly devoted to finishing the dissertation, and there is some reason for that. Finishing is hard, and the more potential distractions one introduces, the more chance one might be overly delayed in finishing. (And the extra work involved in formatting and preparing a journal article will take considerable extra time.) If your advisor thinks this way, then you need to proceed cautiously.

2. Some people – and some institutions – are ‘book people.’ Articles are fine, but they are primarily interested in seeing if you can maintain an argument that supports the weight of an entire book. They may assume that your pre-doctoral articles are from the diss, so they may tend not to count them very heavily when you apply for a job at their school.

3. Some publishers will not publish a book if any part of it has already appeared in print. The press of the Society of Biblical Literature, for example, has this specific condition in the contract. If you have in mind the ‘perfect’ publisher for your project when it’s done, then it’s a good idea to do some research sooner rather than later to see if they have a policy. Even an informal question in the book center at a conference might suffice.

At the end of the day, you should think through this and make your own decision based on your situation, desires, and commitments. Just know that people who have taken both routes have gone on to very successful academic careers.

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Style points (continuation of SBL article)

[This post is one in a series of follow-ups to an article I recently wrote for the newsletter of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Student Advisory Board. The original article was entitled “From Dissertation to Book: A Few Suggestions.” I’ll add the link as soon as it’s available, and also be sure to check out some suggestions in the Resources section.]

Style is one of the main elements that can separate a dissertation from a book. During our time as students, we tend to write defensively. We want our professors to know that we’ve done our homework, and we tend to be tentative to put forth any strong theories of our own. Fortune may favor the brave, but yet the brave are also more likely to be shot down in front of their peers in a seminar. Safe can indeed seem better than sorry. When we reach the dissertation stage, we are suddenly expected to become THE expert on our topic, yet the old, tentative ways are constantly trying to bubble up to the surface. Book editors spot this hesitation a mile away. I often tell people that I had to re-learn how to write not once, but twice in the process of completing my dissertation book. I had to move from feeling tentative to feeling competent, and then from competent to confident. This meant taking risks, but it was a necessary step for ending up with a book that a publisher found fresh and compelling.

Here are two common examples of tentative writing, along with suggestions for fixing them:

1) Over-use of the passive voice. Prose that consistently employs the passive voice comes across as tentative and even rambling. It can create the impression that the writing is not “tight” and that the author wants to hide behind others. Do you know people who can’t ask a simple question or give you a straight answer when you ask a question? Don’t be that person when you write. Use active verbs. They make your writing clearer and more vibrant. Publishers want authors that are not afraid to state their ideas assertively. This does not mean that you should make reckless statements, gloss over the finer nuances of issues, or toss in sweeping generalizations. However, clearly articulated arguments using active verbs are easier to follow and more compelling than arguments made by passive attempts to avoid a mistake. Don’t go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house if there’s a perfectly good road that can take you directly there.

2) Citing extended quotations from secondary sources. There are times when the precise wording in a book or article must be reproduced exactly, but there is a tendency to over-use secondary citations, and this tendency is obvious to book editors (who also have to pay attention to copyright and fair use laws in the books they publish). Some of my old papers look like collages of quotations from other scholars (with bits of commentary sprinkled in from to time), and I had to break that habit. To fix this, maintain your authorial voice. Extensive quoting from other authors dilutes that voice. Of course, you will thoughtfully engage the work of other scholars, but whenever possible, paraphrase and explain their arguments in your own words. Your footnotes will reveal the sources. (That is their job after all, and even footnotes want to feel important.) You are the one leading your reader through the story that you have to tell, so don’t hand over the microphone to others too easily. Oh, and one more thing: Long quotations are a quick way to beef up a word count, but padding a manuscript in this way is not worth it in the end. You are the author, so be the author.

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Publishing the dissertation resources

There are various books out there on moving from dissertation to book, but in my opinion these are the 2 best (links to Amazon):

1. Beth Luey, Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors, Updated Edition. I actually read this book BEFORE I started writing my dissertation, and it helped me avoid some major mistakes the first time around.

2. William Germano, From Dissertation to Book (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing). This book contains lots of good advice, but be aware that he advocates for some people NOT publishing their dissertations.

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Grab your compass

There are many images that I could have chosen as themes for this blog, and for the most part they have cool 80’s songs to go along with them: “Welcome to the Jungle” or “Crazy on a Ship of Fools” come to mind. But those are both so pessimistic. Granted, this seems to fit the Zeitgeist. Have you ever read anything in the Chronicle of Higher Education and felt encouraged about your career choice to enter the Academy? Maybe I have, but that memory is overwhelmed by recollections of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The truth is that the academic route is not the easiest in the world, but I love it. I love it because my job is to think, talk, and write about the topics that I find most interesting – and I get to meet some amazing colleagues and students in the process. If you’re reading this, it probably means you feel something similar.

I’ve chosen the navigation model, because it seemed most apt at the end of the day. When you’re on the open sea, there are some things you can control, but many you can’t (unless you’re Jesus). It’s just like an academic career. Sometimes the tides take you where you want to go, and other times you end up on a lonely voyage to the Bermuda Triangle. Having been in that Triangle a few times (and not always of my own doing), I don’t want to see my friends and colleagues stuck there if I can at all help it. This has led to many conversations over the past few years about various elements of professional development, and on multiple occasions people have said that I need to start writing down some of what I’ve learned for the benefit of others. I particularly blame my good friend Ed Waggoner of Hartford Seminary for his arm-twisting. (Shout out to you, Ed.) I don’t claim to have all or even most of the answers, but I think I might have figured out a few through experience and careful observation.

Maybe your ship is just setting sail. Or maybe you’re in choppy seas. Or maybe you’ve been in a storm for so long that you have no idea where the heck you are. Whoever and wherever you are, grab your compass and come to the bridge. It’s time to tap your inner Captain Jack Sparrow.

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