U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lost and Found

Last September, I made one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made in my life: I decided to set aside what had been my second book project, my study of Leo Strauss and the Straussians in American academic and public life. I had been working on it for almost a decade. I had just finished a sabbatical year in which I hoped to complete the project. I had a book contract. I thought – and to some extent still think – that I more or less knew what I wanted to say and that what I had to say was interesting, new, and significant. And yet…I found that I couldn’t write it.  Those who know me know that there were some extenuating circumstances that made last year particularly difficult for me. But I think those circumstances just exacerbated some underlying problems with my relationship to this project. At any rate, I found that the project had become nothing but a source of guilt and fear for me. And that is not a foundation from which productive work will ever come.  Perhaps I’ll return to this project in the future; for now it is set aside.

When I came to this decision I knew that I’d write about this choice on the blog eventually. But I put off doing so initially. I wanted to make sure that my editor, my colleagues, my academic unit, and my university heard about it from me personally.[1] And I didn’t want to write about this until I had some idea what my next scholarly move would be.  By last November I had developed an idea for a (very different) new project, which I’m already in the midst of writing.  And yet I still put off writing about my experience on the blog.[2]

One of the first things that people say to you when you tell them that you’re setting aside a major project is that your experience is not unusual.  Second projects are famously difficult to finish.  Plenty of books encounter problems along the way and never get written. Some senior colleagues shared dramatic (and hopeful) stories of projects abandoned and scholarly agendas successfully reoriented. And, in fact, most of us know these things. And yet, uncompleted projects are not something that we much discuss. [3]  So I felt that it was particularly important that I discuss my experience here. [4]

I think it’s in the nature of academic work that much of one’s identity is wrapped up in what one is working on at the moment. Writing requires a sense of authority and we get that sense of authority in part by embodying – for ourselves and others – the role of expert on the topic on which we’re working.  The culmination of this role, at least in history, is the publication of a book or books. And when that doesn’t happen, it raises all kinds of questions about one’s professional identity.  At least it did for me.

A number of things got me through this experience. First, the support of friends and colleagues within the profession who had a sense of what I was going through and who gave me tons of support and good advice that helped me get through it.  You know who you are; I am eternally grateful to you all!

But almost as important was this blog.  Perhaps more than in any other field, in history, the monograph is the thing. And this means that we tend to put all our scholarly eggs in one basket.  Writing for the USIH Blog meant that all my eggs were not, in fact, in the basket of my Strauss project.  This was important for three separate but related reasons.

First, it meant that I was writing regularly.  As Claire Potter pointed out in an excellent post earlier this year on her Tenured Radical blog, one of the great benefits of blogging is it gets one writing. And writing is good. It’s worth reading Potter’s whole post, which is full both of tips for writing more and of descriptions of how her writing has benefitted from her blogging; much of what Claire writes matches my own experience. But one aspect of what Claire discusses was most significant for me. The single most important thing about blogging for me is that, while I was feeling entirely stuck on my Strauss project, I never felt that I couldn’t write or think.  Writing for the blog kept me writing and meant that my identity as a writer and a scholar was not 100% tied up in a project on which I was making very little progress. Moreover, blogging involves sharing one’s work, which was also incredibly useful, both intellectually and psychologically. Simply blogging was thus of great benefit.[5]

Secondly, as I was trying to reorient my scholarly agenda, my work on the blog provided me with a wide variety of possible new directions to pursue.  Early last October, I was briefly back in Berkeley, where I grew up. I had a conversation about my work with an old family friend who happens to be a fellow historian.  “When you wake up in the morning, what is it that you want to read?,” he asked me. “That’s what you should work on…what you really love.”  A couple weeks later, I was visiting friends of mine from graduate school (also historians) and I told them this story.  “That’s such Baby Boomer advice!,” one of them said. And indeed, it was. But the Boomers aren’t wrong about everything.  And in this case, the advice was very good.  In fact, writing about what I want to write about is very much how I approach my work on this blog. And, as it turns out, I found the germ of a new major project in a post that I wrote for the USIH Blog.

Finally, this blog is fundamentally communal.  Scholarship, in the humanities at least, tends to be a solitary pursuit.  Especially when work isn’t going well, it’s easy to feel isolated, intellectually and personally. The USIH Blog meant that I never entirely felt that way.  I’m very grateful to the entire USIH Blog community – the bloggers, commenters, and (silent) readers – for helping make this a lively and friendly place that has always felt like home.

There’s more to be said, certainly about my new project and about the ways in which I’ve changed my writing process so that I’m already writing and not getting stuck this time around.  But I wanted to at least report the outlines of my experience on the blog, both because the blog was one of the keys to my getting through this and, more importantly, because, I suspect, many of you have gone through or will go through a similar experience. And I do think it’s important that we are able to talk about these things a little more openly than we usually do.


[1] I did speak to my editor, colleagues, academic unit, and university. My editor and colleagues responded with lots of understanding and support; my academic unit with understanding, support, and some concern.

[2] I hope to say more about this project on the blog at some later date.

[3] Though, to its credit, Perspectives on History has published a number of pieces in the last year that, in various ways, address the issue of problems with a second book.

[4] It also means that I can stop having the same conversation about my Strauss project that I’ve already had with most of my fellow bloggers and a number of regular readers of the blog.

[5] The passage in Claire’s post that most resonated with me was this:  “Departments should encourage people to keep writing in any way they can. This would mean taking blogging and other forms of short-form writing, on and off the Internet, seriously. This is different from the ‘How should XYZ count for tenure and promotion?’ conversation. That is an important discussion, but what is more important is that short form writing is a serious way for scholars to stay in touch with their own intellects and, better yet, to communicate as humanists with a broader public.” As it turns out, this is not the attitude that my academic unit has toward my blogging. Instead, they tend to see writing as a zero sum game. Since I was unable to complete my book during my sabbatical, my blogging was surely a distraction.  I still hope to convince them eventually that quite the opposite was the case. If nothing else will do so, I hope that the completion of my second book will eventually do the trick.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben: I’m looking forward to your future posts on the new project! In the meantime, I’m happy that you’ve now powered past the impasse. Until someone rises up to the challenge, I’ll still consider you an important figure for knowing Strauss, book or no. Through this blog you have, in the past, demonstrated your knowledge of him and other Straussians. That’s something. – TL

  2. The one item I take issue with Ben — more, really, that I have a different experience of the problem — is this line: “I think it’s in the nature of academic work that much of one’s identity is wrapped up in what one is working on at the moment. Writing requires a sense of authority and we get that sense of authority in part by embodying – for ourselves and others – the role of expert on the topic on which we’re working.” For me, the issue of writing a book is not about authority but about having a project that keeps me going and occupied. Along the lines of what Sherlock Holmes says in The Sign of Four: “My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.” Without a book project, I feel like I’m not sure what I’m doing. Shorter projects can fill the void but ultimately there’s that larger abyss that lies waiting.

    • For me it’s both-and. I’d also add that the authority issue cuts both ways. One of the problems, for me at least, of getting stuck not writing a book is that one quickly feels that one cannot write it, that one somehow lacks the authority to do so….which in turn makes writing it even more difficult. Intellectually, I knew that I knew enough about my Strauss material to write it all up, but as time went on and writing didn’t happen, I began to lose my faith (if I can use that word) in my own knowledge and authority. And that can be deadly to progress on a project.

  3. Ben: Thanks for the thoughtful comments and honesty. I remember hearing you talk about Strauss a few years ago (at a USIH conference) and it was obvious that you knew your subject quite well.

    For those of us who are young historians (pre-career/post-doc) what are you recommendations for choosing future projects? And are there certain signs to look for when beginning a new venture, etc?

    Thanks,

    SB

    • Thanks, SB. I think we’re all wired differently and there are probably different sorts of projects that each of us would find possible or impossible. So I suppose my advice would be: know yourself (there’s some old advice!) and choose projects wisely based, in part, on that self-knowledge. We always face a complicated set of external pressures that guide our choice of projects. These will not go away (and, indeed, some of them are good kinds of pressure: scholarship is a conversation and one needs to produce work that will talk to other people). But it’s important to take internal pressures and tendencies seriously, too.

      That being said, you can never wholly anticipate what project will or won’t work for you. My only regret about my Strauss project is that I should have–or at least I might have–realized years earlier what I came to realize last fall. And part of the problem was that I was much more prone simply to blame my own inadequacies for my lack of progress, which created a lot of guilt and shame, rather than to see that it was something(s) about my relationship to this particular project that was the core problem. And of course, we can all get caught up in the sunk cost fallacy (as I think I did).

      So the process of having and using self-knowledge is ongoing.

  4. Ben, thank you so much for writing this.

    Thanks especially for this:

    I found that the project had become nothing but a source of guilt and fear for me. And that is not a foundation from which productive work will ever come.

    I mean — thanks.

  5. Ben,
    I echo all that has been said above. I deeply admire your courage and self-awareness both to make this decision and to discuss it openly.

    FWIW, American Literary History had a group of scholars who are on their second book project discuss their experiences a few issues back. It’s a great symposium–excellent and honest writing, very interesting projects, great diversity of approaches.

  6. I really appreciate this post, thanks for writing it Ben. I sometimes find that the posts that go beyond the content and methodology of our work are the best ones, the ones that engage head on the affective dimensions of what scholars do, from both an individual and a social perspective. Such a self-reflective spirit should guide us always in building intellectual communities, beyond the individual, romantic sense of authority/expertise that continues to cut down intellectual culture.

  7. I’ve said it before to many of you here, but to me this blog is the most rewarding endeavor of my career. This blog, the society, the conference, the community keeps me constantly engaged, thinking, tinkering with ideas, and frustrated that I don’t have more time to produce witty replies to great posts, like the many that come from my sharp and prolific colleague Ben Alpers. I hope that the collective experience and success of many bloggers will substantiate that our academic world has a new platform for writing–you know, that practice of communicating serious and complex ideas, even on the internets!

  8. Thanks, Ben, for his honest and bracing post–inspiring, too, for the affirmation of the communal nature of scholarship and the value of this particular community. Nothing is wasted, of course. For better or worse, you have absorbed an enormous amount of Strauss and Straussianism, much of which you have shared and much more will, here and there, come out in the future, I am sure.

    I think George Cotkin shared a story at one of our conference plenaries about a party he hosted in which people through various albatross-like items from their lives on an enormous bonfire in his backyard (he pitched a manuscript into the flames, I believe). (Come to think of it, I think Martin Sklar also threw an entire manuscript in the fireplace before starting on the research that became his big book on the reconstruction of corporate capitalism. You are in good company.) I take it you will not be consigning your notes to the incinerator just yet, but the moral of George’s story was the joy and release (and renewed creativity and energy) that comes with unburdening ourselves. I am envious!

  9. Ben, this is a beautiful and brave post. Thanks so much for writing it and sharing it with us.

  10. Ben–
    Let me echo everyone else, and say thanks for this post, and especially thanks for all the blogging you’ve done here. Intellectual historians have written books for years, and will continue to do so (I hope!)–the blog this community has created, on the other hand, is something new, and it, along with the academic society that sprang from it, are really the best things that have happened to our field since I’ve been in it.

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