So I got a book contract…

20 08 2012

…which explains why I want to write about publishing academic history from the author’s point of view. Normally, I save my history blogging for the nice folks at the Historical Society, but this is going to be too personal for there. However, I promise what follows will be more than just a victory lap as I think I’ve actually learned a few things during this very long project which I want to share.

Seven publishers rejected my revised dissertation. My evenlual publisher required me to buy ninety-five copies (at $34.95 a pop that’s quite a hit) in order for them to put the book out. This alone was enough for me to get tenure, so it was a good investment. Still, I was deeply ashamed for a long time even after I found out that this has become increasingly common practice in academic publishing.

I started the book I just got a contract for in 2000, while I was waiting for something to come together on the dissertation. [Yes, you read that date right, but to be fair I have published two other books in the interim, including one you can pre-order right now.] This newest one is a history of the American ice and refrigeration industries, tentatively titled Refrigeration Nation: How America Learned to Control the Cold.* The publisher will be the Johns Hopkins University Press. The Johns Hopkins University Press was one of the seven publishers that rejected my revised dissertation. Since the manuscript is done and has survived peer review, I suspect it will come out sometime early next year.

So what changed between then and now?:

1) Topics matter. My dissertation was on labor policy in the American steel industry. It’s an interesting subject, but it is hardly empty historiographic space. In contrast, the last monograph on refrigeration in America came out in 1953. Even then, that book was a business history. I spent years reading old trade journals so that I could learn the details of different refrigeration technologies. As a result, my book should be close to unique. For a technology this historically important, I still find that fact amazing.

2) Learning by doing. While there was merit in my dissertation (particularly the research) I wrote myself into a corner early on and couldn’t get out. What does that mean? I structured the entire book before I finished my research and couldn’t adapt it well when the peer reviews came in. To make matters worse, I kept trying to change that manuscript to meet the demands of the last review anyway. This time, I took lots of time to decide exactly how I wanted to organize the manuscript, and tried to be flexible. I think this is one of those lessons you just have to learn by doing it wrong the first time so that you never forget its importance going forward.

3) I took it on the road. Some people think that conferences are just glorified vacations. Sure, we all sneak out for a few hours at some point during the weekend sometimes to see something historical, but I’ve been giving parts of this manuscript as conference papers since around 2006 and I can’t tell you how much that’s helped. A Hagley conference in 2006 is where I figured out my argumett for the first time. It was at a food studies conference at UC-Davis in 2009 that I realized that I needed to include a global perspective in order to demonstrate the fact that America is particularly refrigeration crazy. That took about three extra years, but it’s a much better book as a result. Most importantly, it was at the Society for the History of Technology meeting three years ago that I got recruited by the JHU Press straight out of my session. All they knew was the subject of the book and the contents of the paper I had just given, but that proved to be enough (See change #1).

4) Arguments matter. The problem with my dissertation was that I wrote it story first, argument afterward. As a result, my argument was overly simplistic. When I started this project, I actually thought describing a dead industry (I started with just ice, but then went forward to the present) would be enough to justify publication. That might be true if the book were just for refrigerating engineers, but it’s not. An argument shouldn’t overwhelm a story, but it needs to be there nonetheless in order to make your expertise interesting to people who wouldn’t care otherwise. It’s sad that I didn’t figure that out while I was still in grad school, but I’m glad I at least figured it out now while I’m still young enough to have a few more books in me.

Speaking of more books, I get to use my sabbatical this semester to start a biography of Harvey Wiley, the guy who was the first head of what would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration. I want to use his life as a way to discuss the adulteration of foods of all kinds. This will include meat, bread, sugar, whiskey – even Coca-Cola.

Continuing my uphill climb, my plan this time is to get an agent and a contract with an advance from a trade press. If you happen to have an agent – or even better, if you happen to be an agent – you know how I write if you read this blog regularly. Any interested parties should use my contact info on the right.

PS Regular snarky technoskeptical blogging will resume with my next post.

* Yes, I know the “nation” title formulation is now cliché, but it really fits the argument. Also, it rhymes! How many other historians do you know have books with titles that rhyme?

“Sclemeel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated.”

18 04 2012

I love Wisconsin, but there aren’t a lot of reasons to go there unless you’re driving from Chicago to Minneapolis. Sure, the House on the Rock is the coolest thing ever, but I’m not going to fly out there just for that. That’s why I’m so happy that this year’s Organization of American Historians convention is in Milwaukee.

I’m on the program. If you’re there, you can come say hello when I don’t read a paper about the origins of the American ice industry at 1:30PM on Friday. However, I wouldn’t blame you at all for going to see the panel at the same time with Bill Cronon, Eric Foner, Linda Gordon and Mary Beth Norton instead.

I mention this here only to explain why this blog is about to go dark for about a week.* I don’t leave for Milwaukee until later this afternoon, but I can already tell that this is going to be the busiest convention I’ve ever been to in my entire life. It makes sense when you think about it because an awful lot of ex-cheeseheads like me got on the program probably because they didn’t have much reason to visit the Badger State otherwise either.

Too bad the OAH didn’t organize a field trip to the House on the Rock. Or the Mustard Museum. Or the World’s Largest Six Pack.

* I may tweet a bit, but I refuse to live-Tweet anything because tapping into your phone while someone is talking is rude. And I don’t want any guff about that because you all know in your heart of hearts that that’s true.

Your scholarship won’t pay their bills.

11 02 2012

Judging from the number of mentions in my Twitter feed, this appears to be the blog post of the weekend. It describes a question from the Grafton-Lemisch jobs for historians session at last month’s AHA:

The very first question from the floor came from a historian who was also an administrator at a small regional college — the college president, if I am not mistaken, though I didn’t write it down in my notes and so I couldn’t swear to it. Anyhow, coming from a small department at a small school, this questioner had served on every search and been a part of every hiring committee for history professors at his institution since his arrival there.

Here is part of what he had to say about why history PhDs are having trouble finding jobs: “A large percentage of the graduates from your programs are not really worth looking at.” Out of scores of applications, this commenter said, “maybe the top ten percent are head and shoulders above the rest,” and the rest do not seem to be qualified for academic work period. He said that PhD programs are producing sub-par scholars. “And,” he concluded, “I haven’t heard any of you address this.”

My first inclination was to think that the author of that post must have misheard something, but then I remembered this guest post from the Professor Is In that made me cringe in the exact same way:

The administration did not waste time wringing its hands and piously invoking our teaching mission. “Teaching mission?” Please. That’s for the public. As they told the department in no uncertain terms, active scholars make the best teachers. Indeed, they promptly took the opportunity to chastise the “teaching first” crowd, publicly, that their tenure cases would be at risk if they didn’t step it up and publish more themselves.

The message was very clear: anyone can teach, and the administration is tired of professors who come here, settle into teaching and then do a minimal level of research and service both. The research-centric post-2009 hire, by contrast, are competitive with junior faculty at higher ranked schools with lower teaching burdens. Apparently, this boosts the campus’s standing with the state, which brings more money in, which makes administrators happy.

I happen to love doing research. It’s fun. It’s useful. It’s the reason I have a sabbatical coming up in the fall. I actually agree that active scholars make the best teachers. If you can’t do research, how will explain to your students where historical knowledge originates? if you can’t write well, how will you teach your students to write? Yet in the end, the vast majority of us have to be teachers first and scholars second. Nobody would ever pay me do research if I couldn’t teach. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be contributing to the university’s revenue stream.

Notice the similarity between those two accounts. Both locate the scholarship-first position among administrators. You’d think that administrators would know better. After all, your scholarship won’t pay their bills. Students don’t pay tuition to watch you work in the library.

Call me paranoid, but I have a theory. I think the cringe-inducing implicit and explicit belittling of teaching on display here is camouflage. Your scholarship is the best way possible to put lipstick on the pig that is our glorious online future. “See we are a real university!,” they’ll tell the prospective parents who’ll be paying most of the tuition bills. Then they’ll farm their online curriculum out to adjuncts and the 90% of new Ph.D.s who don’t “deserve” tenure-track jobs because these unworthy souls don’t do work that gets the kind of attention they need to put their evil plan into place. Your scholarship won’t pay their bills, but it will serve as an excellent fig leaf to cover the exploitive system that will.

Scholarly superstars, are you going turn a blind eye to this exploitive system? In the age of austerity, research time is a luxury that they’ll eventually feel comfortable eradicating for everyone. If I’m right, your scholarship eventually won’t pay your bills either.

“To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals.”

13 12 2011

I believe that the anonymous author of the blog “100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School” is an absolute bloody genius, and certainly more deserving of higher education industry-wide fame than that Pannapacker dude. To me, this post on academic conferences (#74 for those of us who are counting) stands out as the crème de la crème of one of the great academic blogs of all time:

The ostensible purpose of an academic conference is to provide a forum in which scholars present and critique research. Rarely, however, is the emptiness of academe put on more public display than in the context of an academic conference.

To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals. At various sessions, speakers present their own research by reading aloud to an audience. Someone who has attended a full day of sessions will have listened to people reading for five or six hours. How well do you suppose the audience members are listening? They sit politely and at least pretend to listen, because when their own turn comes to stand up and read aloud, they would like others to extend the same courtesy to them. Sparks fly occasionally during question time, which can be mean-spirited or (less often) enlightening, but decorous boredom is typically the order of the day.

I have already come out against reading conference papers here and here. To me, the sort of bemused detachment present in reason #74 really drives home how stupid reading a script for twenty minutes would look to anyone but an academic. Indeed, as my brother the economist loves to point out, absolutely nobody in his profession ever does this. Therefore, it’s actually just a few of us academics from a limited number of disciplines who seem to like to torture one another. Seriously, would you ever consider teaching this way? Ever? Then why subject your colleagues to this kind of cruel and unusual punishment?

That said, as I’ve been not reading papers at a lot of conferences lately, I’ve noticed another really interesting development that has to do with technology. Powerpoint is now practically required at all the conference sessions I’ve attended lately. If you’re a participant in the session (or even if you just go in about ten minutes before start time) everybody will be dutifully loading their presentations onto someone’s laptop so that they too can seem as 21st century as possible.

Yet they still read their papers from a script. I am always part of that PowerPoint ritual when I do papers now, but I have resolved to do conference presentations the same way I teach lecture courses. The slides are almost entirely pictures (with the occasional film clip) and they serve as prompts for me to talk off the cuff about my topic. I do not read anything verbatim.

My colleagues who read their papers, on the other hand, have to stop their reading in the middle to advance the slideshow and talk about what’s on the slide. This seldom jibes with whatever they happen to be reading at that moment, making the entire exercise even more awkward than simply standing up and reading from your script. At least if you go totally old school, there’s no chance of getting lost. Clarity inevitably suffers otherwise.

The other funny thing about PowerPoint in conferences is how the whole layout of sessions has to change in order to accomodate the technology. If everyone is showing PowerPoints and the screen is at the front, then the entire panel has to sit in the audience in order to see them. Those waterglasses on the front table? Useless. And do we really need all those chairs up front for just ten minutes of questions?

Yet there the old setup remains, which should make the entire ritual of the academic conference seem even stranger to any casual non-academic observer who cared enough to visit. By the way, did I mention that I’m going to the AHA in Chicago this year? Just try to tell me that going to Chicago in January isn’t bizarre. I dare you.

Nobody wants to read an entire book on a computer screen.

9 12 2011

This starts off as another grading story, but doesn’t stay that way. Google Books has not only been a Godsend for my own work, it has substantially improved the quality of the research papers I have to read at this time of the semester. So many excellent pre-1923 sources are so readily available that I can be certain that any student with a topic before that date who doesn’t have at least five primary sources in their bibliography wasn’t trying very hard.

However, there’s sources they read, and sources they don’t. By way of illustration, a really good student of mine cited Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography twice in her paper for my grad class on slavery. Once the citation came from the book itself, the other time it was as a quote excerpted in a secondary source. To me, this is a pretty good indication that she didn’t read the entire book.

More obviously, I’m pretty sure this is the same reason why two different students both told me that Theodore Dwight Weld was a slave. They didn’t look beyond whichever page of American Slavery As It Is that Google led them to in order to see that its subtitle is “testimony of a thousand witnesses.” I can’t say I blame any of them though as nobody wants to read an entire book on a computer screen.

When I was an undergrad, one of my TAs told us that the key to success in history was not knowing what to read, but knowing what not to read. In other words, he was advocating skimming. By giving us the ability to search whole texts by the word, Google Books eliminates the need to do precisely the kind of single subject-centered skimming that my old TA was recommending. The problem with this new ability though is that it means that students (or historians for that matter) citing out of Google Books risk losing the context for their quotes unless they read the whole thing and the interface in Google Books is not exactly reader friendly. It’s bad enough having to page back through a scan of a late-nineteenth century magazine to get the volume number for the citation you need. Who wants to read an entire book that way as long as theirs a paper alternative?

Maybe using an e-reader might make this process easier, but most students don’t have Kindles or Nooks…at least not yet. They access their electronic sources mostly through laptops and the desktops in the university library. I suspect they’d often be better off getting the paper copy of the book and taking it home. After all, contextual knowledge is often more useful than any particular quote they might find, but then again sustained, critical reading is so Twentieth Century.

Larry McMurty has a short review of a book about in the new Harper’s that I think is highly relevant here. As I write this, it’s not even on the Harper’s subscribers-only web site yet, so you’ll have to trust my transcription from the paper magazine that arrived in my soon-to-be-extinct mailbox yesterday afternoon:

“Jeff Bezos and his colleagues are free to make and sell as many Kindles as they can, but Bezos shouldn’t be persuaded that our Gutenberg days are over, at least not from where I sit. One thing we offer [at McMurtry’s gigantic used bookstore in Texas] that he can’t is serendipity – a book browser’s serendipity, the thrill of the accidental find. Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”

Serendipity is also an important part of historical research. I still remember the thrill of the first time I went downstairs into the stacks at the Hagley when I got my first fellowship there. I just pulled stuff off the shelves and browsed for hours, counting only on the titles on spines and the proximity of Library of Congress numbers to guide my wandering. I can’t tell you how much great stuff I found that day for my dissertation that I wouldn’t have found otherwise, but I’m sure it was a lot.

To play off McMurtry some more here, stirring the curiosity of students is an important part of any history professor’s job. I certainly hope our apparent post-Gutenberg future doesn’t kill that feeling entirely. I am certain of this though: Jeff Bezos doesn’t care one way or the other as he’s only in it for the money.

What is the difference between MLA and Chicago anyways?

8 12 2011

Like many of you, I’ve been grading a lot of student research papers lately. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve noticed some key changes in their bibliographies this semester for the first time ever. For example, a couple of grad students did there bibliographies through something called I know this because leaves a note on their bibliographies that reads something like, “This bibliography was compiled through” [I can’t be sure of the exact wording because I’ve already handed back those papers.]

They were both perfectly good bibliographies except for one problem: They were in MLA format. “In history, we use Chicago Style,” I explained dutifully when one of those students turned in their draft. “What’s the difference between MLA and Chicago?,” he asked reasonably in return. I know it has something to do with the order of the information, but I couldn’t answer him exactly. “In history, we use Chicago Style,” was all I could say.

I have all major citation formats for Chicago/Turabian pretty much memorized by now, but it wasn’t always like that. I went through graduate school using a 6-page yellow pamphlet I got when I was a Freshman in high school. None of my professors cared. When she was reading my dissertation draft, Colleen Dunlavy, the last of my readers I added from inside the history department at Madison, said to me, “You know, historians tend to use Chicago Style. You should probably convert your footnotes and bibliography to that.” It took me about 24 hours to get that done.

Many of my colleagues (some of whom who have been known to read this blog from time to time) have a reputation among our students for being “footnote fascists.” They see the comma in the wrong place, and they’ll demand it be moved for fear of offending Kate Turabian’s sanctified memory. I used to joke all the time about a now-retired professor here who graded with a ruler which he used to measure the margins on title pages.

I have never been a footnote fascist. My sole concerns have always been that the footnote or bibliographical entry had enough information in it so that I can find the source if I am so inclined and that the style is consistent throughout the paper. Some of this comes from the wide variety of journals in which I’ve published. I’ve been in more than one economic history journal that uses some strage variation of APA. I’ve also been published in Technology and Culture, which, if I remember it right, has an attribution style that I’ll just describe here as uniquely its own.

So on one level, I really don’t care what the difference is between MLA and Chicago as long as students follow my rules as outlined above. But there was another “innovation” in bibliographies that I first encountered this semester. A whole bunch of students in my survey class turned in papers with the words “print edition” after each book in their bibs. At first, I figured that the English 102 instructors had all started telling students to do that because of the rise of e-books. Then I asked the one student in my upper-level class who had the same phrase in his bibliography why he did it that way.

He introduced me to I haven’t played with it at all yet, but I do understand why students might want to use a site like this. After all, if they’re facing the footnote fascists, a computer program should assure them that all those stupid little rules are getting followed.

But what if your appreciation of why attribution is so important gets lost (like the dodo) by doing your bibliography this way? More importantly, what if the program doesn’t attribute your sources right (due to poor data entry or some technical glitch)?

Then there’s the matter of pure spite. I see that while MLA citations are free at, you have to pay $19.99/year in order to cite material in the Chicago/Turabian format. Which one do you think most students will use now? Why should we have to accept the bibliography format that English professors want rather than the other way around? Are English professors happy that their entire discipline is now a loss leader?

I think I feel a bout of footnote fascism coming on fast.

How do you skim an e-book?

19 10 2011

I’ve been spending a lot of time this semester re-reading classics on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American history in order to improve the book manuscript that I have to submit in December. Yesterday, I decided it was time to pick up John Higham’s Strangers in the Land again, since my editor had said that my immigration chapter needs improvement. The copy in our library was checked out. Those at my university do, however, have access to an electronic version of the manuscript!

That’s wasn’t good enough for me because I want to browse it. My manuscript is already done. All I need to do is find the parts that Higham wrote that will be most relevant to me quickly and move on since I’ve got a lot of books to read before the deadline (and three courses to teach when not writing).

Higham’s chapter titles aren’t specific enough for me to find the relevant parts, and I don’t have any particular search terms in mind since I’m interested in juicy details I can add to the narrative rather than any particular subject. In an e-book, it would take me far too long to page through everything. I’m not sure the entire page would even fit on my computer screen.

Codexes (to steal yet another term from Historiann) seem to be taking a lot of flack these days. Some libraries are getting rid of them because of budget cuts. Some libraries are getting rid of them to make room for coffee bars. Amazon is trying to wean us off them so that they can control the universe. Yet sometimes a physical book is just what the doctor ordered since they’re easy to navigate when you’re not planning on reading every single word.

That’s why foregoing the e-book was a no-brainer. The real question was whether or not to recall Higham from whichever undergraduate has it. Since they’re probably doing their research paper for my America 1877-1945 course, and not wanting to undercut the quality of the research papers that I’ll eventually have to grade, I decided to get Higham’s book through interlibrary loan.

After all, waiting three days for a book is no great burden. People were doing it for decades before Kindles came along.

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