Wednesday, July 08, 2009

In Which Crazy Contemplates a Next Book

So, it's a funny thing, this idea of a "next" book, as opposed to a "first" book. As recently as the start of this year, I really had no ambitions toward a "next" book. Or rather, I actually felt a real antipathy to the idea of writing a "next" book - haven't I done enough for Jeebus' sake?

This resembles not at all how I felt about turning the dissertation into a book, which I was highly motivated to do. I really don't feel a great compulsion to write a second book, nor do I think doing so or not doing so bears any real relationship to my worth as a professor or scholar or person. With the "first" book, I felt, deeply, that I would suck if I didn't get the thing done. A lot of that had to do with lingering grad school demons about what it means to be a worthwhile person. A lot of it had to do with proving that I was a worthwhile person in spite of the fact that I didn't land at an R1 university for my tenure-track job (and combine with this my desire to be a viable candidate those few times when I sent out applications for other jobs over the past years). But it's interesting, now that I'm post-book, post-tenure, I don't have the same kind of self-worth things bound to my scholarship.

Part of this is because I do have this feeling that I'm done with jumping through hoops. I mean sure, there is that final hoop of going up for full, but even if I never did that, I would still have a job and a professional life. Part of it has to do with finally - after the final tenure decision - coming to grips with everything I've achieved to this point. That's actually something I've been spending a good deal of time processing this spring and summer. Most recently, I've been working on updating my cv, and what is more than clear in doing so, and which probably should have been clear to me before now, is that I have a very respectable profile as a scholar. Period. Not "oh, I'm good enough for this place," or "well, I guess I have a few publications," but rather, no, I'm a respectable scholar by anybody's estimation. I've done good work that has been received well by people whom I respect, and if I just keep a steady pace, I will continue to do good work, not because I've got a gun to my head but just because it is fulfilling to me to do good work. No, I will not publish at the rate that people at research universities publish. No, I may not transform into some kind of superstar (although I'm not willing to give up on that silly possibility yet, even if I don't actually care about it really). But I will continue to have ideas that matter to a small group of people, that continue to make a difference in how I teach literature, and that continue to make a difference in terms of my ability to help my students navigate the field of literary studies, should they choose to navigate this field in their own professional lives.

So I suppose there ends the context of this post.

Where I really began thinking in earnest about a "next" book was with the idea that I really, really want a sabbatical. Sure, it will only be a semester long (for I cannot afford to take a full year at half pay), but I think that a break like that will really go a long way toward rejuvenating me. I feel kind of... out of gas... after the past, oh, 30 years without a break. That's right - I went straight through - from kindergarten through the tenure track - without any time off doing anything else. I mean, sure, I temped in the summers and such things, but I never had sustained time where I wasn't teaching or in school or whatever. I think I'm about due for 6 months away from teaching and service (it would be eight, but I'll need to teach summer school next summer to make a house a reality). And the best way to ensure that I've got a project worthy of a sabbatical in these tough economic times is to design a project that has a book-like weight.

Now, when I ended the spring semester, I wondered whether I might be able to do a sabbatical that would involve multiple journal articles and have that be a substantial project that would get me to full. The problem is that nobody in my department has ever gotten full without a book. Now, let's note, I've got a book. But I'm the only person in my department in the past 20 years (or more - I believe the only person who may have had a book before tenure is my mentor in the department, who, we should note, got tenure in the 1970s) who's ever had a book out before tenure, and going up for full does require only counting those things one does once making associate. The guidelines for full do not stipulate that a book is necessary (either the university-wide or department guidelines) but this is past practice. Now, I should note that "book" is a pretty loose term here in these parts. It could be a textbook. It could be a novel. It could be an essay collection. So it's not like my institution would require me to write a second scholarly book. And I have toyed with the idea of trying my hand at those other types of books. But I keep coming back to the idea of a "next" book, as opposed to a textbook, or a novel, or an essay collection.

Now, why do I keep coming back to a "next" book? First and foremost, probably, it's because I feel like I know how to write a scholarly book now. I feel like I've found my voice as a scholarly writer in literary studies, and I think I understand the scope of such a project. I'm not trying to minimize the hard work that would go into a "next" book, or to ignore the fact that I will encounter new roadblocks in writing one. I have, however, gone through the process of shopping such a book to presses, I've written a book already that is, as far as I can tell, doing decently well for a newly published academic book, I've been through the process of getting copyright permissions, and I've been through the process of refining a scholarly, book-length manuscript. In other words, this is familiar territory. And for me, that is a good thing. Second, I actually do have an idea, and an idea that I think is really interesting. In some respects, it's the flip side of the idea of my first book. My first book was all about analyzing the representation of pleasure (generally), and this next one will be all about (generally) looking at the representation of violence and shame. (Funny aside: I told my mom about this, and her response was, "but that's so dark, Crazy!" When I noted that this was just the flip side of what I'd already done, she said, "but it's so dark! But I guess if you want to do that....")

Here's the thing: I know that nobody else has written about the "next" book idea in quite the way that I plan to. And I do have a plan. Sure, it's rough at this point, but I start with a title and an outline - this is how I start all projects - and so I'm not just meandering through a hodge-podge of ideas. I should also note that who I am as a scholar is that I tend to start where I'm comfortable - with authors whom I've taught or written about previously, and then to throw one new thing into the mix. I do not chart entirely new waters - ever. I build on what I've done before.

This practice has developed in part out of self-preservation: this is how you have new ideas with a 4/4 teaching load. But it also feels very organic to me, and is something that I've "always" done. For example, I wrote my senior thesis on Famous Feminist Woman Author. I then did a master's thesis on Manly Man authors of the same period. I then went on in my dissertation/book to return to Famous Feminist Woman Author (FFWA) and Manly Man Authors that I'd studied extensively in coursework, also of the same period, but different from the Manly Man Authors I worked on in the thesis. So now, I'm going back in another direction, not in terms of my authorial choices so much, but rather in terms of the themes that I want to think about. I'll talk about FFWA (whom I now realize may be the reason I decided to become an English professor and who may really be central to any interesting idea that I have, in spite of my resistance against being categorized as an FFWA scholar), as well as about FFWA2 (the author on whom I started working intensively, and on whom I've published some, since getting this job) and then finally on FFWA3 (whom I've not done any work on nor taught ever, but just totally love). There are also a few others I may or may not throw into the mix. But the point is, I want to explore what lies on the other side of pleasure, and, in particular, where those other things are housed. And the things that I have to say would require me to engage deeply with theory that I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to before now, as well as to see authors whom I love in ways that are challenging to me. This seems like a very exciting project.

And, indeed, this may be why I've chosen this project as opposed to others on which I've might have embarked. I really want to figure out why this idea is interesting to me, and I really want to figure out a way to make it interesting to other people. I also think this idea connects deeply to my teaching and to how my field is transforming in general. Also, and maybe this is most important, I'm excited about undertaking such a project without a committee to direct it. Yes, I need to think about audience and editors and such, but I don't have to worry about this being a "job-seeking document," as my adviser rightly told me my dissertation was. My mentors in grad school made a big deal out of the fact that I could write what I wanted to write after tenure. That the dissertation (the draft of a first book) was about getting a job, not about defining me as a scholar. Well, I feel like that was great advice, and I want to believe that it was true. I want to believe that I can write the book I want now, and now with a first book under my belt, I feel like I might know how to do so.

That's really the exciting thing. You don't get another bite at the apple with a dissertation or a thesis or a seminar paper. You don't get another bite at the apple with an article, even, or at least not in as substantial a way. You do get another bite at a book. You do get to decide things based just on your preferences with a second book. I don't have a committee telling me I shouldn't just write about women, or that I shouldn't write about authors across periods or countries. I get to make those choices, based on the things that are interesting to me now. Yes, I have to be aware of the market for a book, and I have to be aware of how to get publishers intersted in it, but I don't have to be aware of the job market as I conceive the book. I don't have to prove that I can teach x,y,z courses through my book. I can just write a book that matters.

Now, I'll say this about the going up for full business, as it relates to this. I'm going to do my damndest to make sure that my department addresses the question of what is required for full in a more specific way in our handbook. I think this whole, "in the past people write a new book for full" is crap, given the fact that with the current market saturation it's entirely possible that many new faculty might have a book before tenure. I think that we should have criteria that are more clearly flexible, that are outlined, about the kind of achievement that merits full professor. I think that we should state clearly that it can be a scholarly book (a), an equivalent number of journal articles in peer-reviewed venues - like 4-6 - thinking that some of these would be pedagogical pieces (b), a textbook (c) a novel or collection of poetry (d), or editing a collection plus 2-3 articles (e). I think that such specificity would result in greater fairness, and it might encourage more people (and in my department, women) to go up for full professor, which is a huge need, since we do not have a single female full professor at my university, which, in a feminized field like English, is an abomination. (Patriarchal equilibrium much?) Because here's the thing: it's ridiculous at a university like mine to expect two fucking scholarly books for full professor. Whether we're talking about men or women or whatever, but particularly if we're talking about women, who may feel (or experience) the need to write a book just to be secure in getting associate.

In other words, I'm not certain that this new book, this "next" book, will be the thing that I need to get full. In all honesty, I hope that I can work (as a tenured professor) to make sure that it's not the prerequisite for that. I want, if I have other kinds of productivity, for those things to count for full. That's not to say I don't want to write this book: I do. But I want to write this "next" book for me and for people who will care about what I have to say, not for a promotion. That said, I'm not going to use this sabbatical for something that won't get me full, if that makes sense. I care about making full professor, and I want to use what benefits I have wisely toward that goal. I guess what I'm saying is this: I don't think that I should have to write a book at my institution in order to make full professor, given the fact that I have already done. That said, I'm not going to organize my career as if I don't have to do so, given the fact that this is the common past practice. So yes, I'll use my sabbatical for a book project, because it's the best insurance that I've got for getting full most quickly. That said, I'm not going to wait for the book in order to go up for full. Rather, if I think that I've done the equivalent pre-next-book, I want to be in a position where I can go up with a reasonable assurance that I will meet the full professor standard.

So. I'm fairly committed to a "next" book. I think it's a good idea, and I'm excited about the prospect of it. I'm not entirely sure what such a project is going to mean, though I do feel confident I can manage it because I've already achievced a "first" book. At the end of the day, though, I do know that a "next" book isn't me. It's just what I'm thinking about.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

It sounds good to me! I'm curious about starting to write with a title and an outline, because my process is so different. Could you write about that, or if you already have, direct me to the post? Thanks!

Susan said...

It sounds great. And I love your organic process -- it makes lots of sense. As a historian, I feel as if each project builds somewhat one something before, but adds another layer to my understanding!

Bavardess said...

It sounds like you really want to write this book regardless of career/promotion issues. That's a strong position to be in, as it will generate the necessary passion and energy to get through it.