On Thinking About the Dissertation AS a Book
by Rachel Shelden*
As a whole I think historians are impressively aware of and interested in problems and changes in our profession. We are constantly self-evaluating, as books by Peter Novick and more recently James Banner have illustrated. We endlessly consider our role in public life; William Cronon’s 2013 AHA presidential address serves as a great example of this. Recent conversations across the internet about Alt-Ac jobs similarly get to the heart of how we as historians represent ourselves and our profession.
Thus it was no surprise to me that the recent controversy over the AHA’s statement on dissertation embargoes has produced an important set of conversations about the role of book publishing and the future of scholarly contributions, the protection of young scholars and the concerns of those young scholars, the difference between Research 1 jobs and those at liberal arts colleges, and a number of others. The level of interest and passion on behalf of many of the parties involved in these posts (and I recommend reading the comments), on Twitter, and elsewhere proves just how important these issues are to scholars at all stages of their careers.
From my perspective, one of the best conversations to come out of the embargo controversy is what a dissertation should look like in the first place. Over the past couple of weeks, I have seen blog posts (such as comments from LD Burnett and discussion by Neville Morley) and twitter explode with discussion, particularly among younger scholars and graduate students, about how dissertations differ from books. Last week I could not help but respond to a thoughtful tweet on this subject from Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library (an awesome project) and professor at George Mason University. Dan has argued against the new AHA policy and tweeted that this is partially because a dissertation is different from a book. “Revise your dissertation *considerably*” he wrote. “Like any worthy book, it should be well-written and cast to the widest possible audience.” I appreciate Dan’s overall point about what a good scholarly book should look like. My question to him was why shouldn’t a dissertation also be well-written and cast to the widest possible audience?
When I entered graduate school at the University of Virginia in the fall of 2005, my adviser, other professors, and even other graduate students repeatedly told me that I should think about my dissertation as a book. I followed this advice and I value it so much that I routinely offer it to other graduate students. This is not to suggest that dissertation-as-book is the model; there are lots of ways to go about tackling the dissertation and different programs (and even advisers) have different standards. But, as I will further explain in a moment, conceiving of my dissertation as a book was instrumental in my development as a scholar.
Let me first give a quick overview of my path from dissertation to book to provide some context. I defended my dissertation in April 2011, at the end of my 6th year in graduate school. By the time of my defense I had talked with University of North Carolina Press about my project and I was invited to send the manuscript upon completion, which I did. The reviews came back quickly and I was able to finish my revisions the following summer (2012); these included some basic editing, a reworked introduction, and the addition of a short prologue and epilogue. My book (excuse the self-promotion) is set to come out in December, less than three years after I graduated.
There is no doubt that I was able to publish my project so quickly because I had already written my dissertation as a book. In large part because I had always thought about it in book-like terms, however, it did not take me longer to write in dissertation form. This did not mean going easier on the research (I went to over 15 archives) or on the historiography (it was just carefully embedded in the footnotes). What it did mean was clear writing, a compelling narrative, a strong introductory argument free from academic jargon, a critical contribution to my field with appreciation of and deference to the scholars who came before me, attention to chapter and manuscript length, substantial research with ample documentation, and wide-ranging appeal (in other words marketability). To me, each of these items was critical to both a good dissertation and a good book (a quick survey of “how to turn your dissertation into a book” advice suggests I am not alone).
Thinking of my dissertation as a book throughout the writing process also began to strengthen the sense I had of my role in the historical profession more generally. Rather than focusing on my status as a lowly graduate student, I began to really think of myself as a historian. This has helped me, I believe, in my post-graduate life: I do not teach at an R1 school and there was not intense pressure for me to publish right away, particularly with my 4/4 teaching load. Still, I wanted to publish my book quickly so that others could see what I considered to be the capstone of my time in graduate school. I emphasize this because I think it improved my work and my education in three critical ways:
First, it motivated me to finish quickly so that I could share my knowledge with others (both through my book project and also in my teaching). This may be the most important aspect of the process. The current time to completion of a Ph.D. in the humanities seems to be holding steady at about nine years. To think that graduate students must spend nine years to produce a dissertation that is not publishable and then spend another six years or more trying to turn that product into something worth publishing seems downright cruel. As a colleague of mine, Megan Kate Nelson, recently told me in an email, it may also be detrimental to historical scholarship as a whole. Megan wrote, “If committee members (presumably, people who have published at least one book) are passing PhD candidates based on un-publishable work, what does that mean for our profession?” I wholeheartedly agree; we are a community of scholars who should be encouraging each other to produce good history.
Second, I was able to talk more confidently to professors in my field. When I described my project in book-like terms to senior scholars, I always received positive feedback and a willingness to discuss the broader implications of my work. From this perspective I was not a graduate student looking for help, but a colleague intent on making a strong contribution to nineteenth-century American history. It also made the transition from graduate school to professor easier both in the way I thought about history and the way I taught history.
Finally, because I was conceiving of and writing my dissertation for the broadest possible audience, I was able to discuss my project lucidly with curious relatives, friends outside academia, and colleagues in other disciplines. Writing accessible history is something that so many graduate students are already doing by sharing their work on academia.edu, Twitter, blogs, and other great forums. If young scholars are already formulating their work in accessible terms on the web, why should they be forced to re-package it in an un-publishable dissertation?
*Rachel Shelden is an assistant professor of American History at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, GA. Her work focuses on the intersection of politics, law, and culture in the nineteenth century. Her book, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War will be out with UNC Press in December.