Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why “Focus on the Book” Is Bad Advice

To achieve tenure at most research-oriented institutions, you either need to publish a series of articles or a book in addition to some articles. The exact number of articles you should publish will vary from one institution to the next. What does not vary much is the fact that “only” writing a book is often not a good strategy for achieving tenure.

There certainly are many fine institutions that have granted faculty tenure on the basis of their having published a single book. Many bright junior faculty are successful at achieving tenure with the only line on their CV under “Publications” being a scholarly book. Nevertheless, I assure you, you do not want to be that person. First, I will explain why. Secondly, I will describe how to publish articles in addition to a book.

I have spoken to many junior colleagues whose mentors and advisors have told them: “Focus on the book.” They encourage them to transform their dissertations into a book that will be published by a major university press. They tell them not to worry about publishing articles or even attending conferences, because their main focus should be on publishing the book. Every time I hear someone tell me they were given this advice, my heart sinks. “Focus on the book” is bad advice for several reasons:

  • 1) Having your entire tenure case rest on one piece of work puts an enormous amount of pressure on you to craft a grand piece of scholarship. For many academics, this stress is ultimately counter-productive, as the pressure to write an opus magnum makes the project seem too overwhelming.
  • 2) If you do not publish articles or attend conferences, how will people know who you are? When you submit your tenure packet, you have to list the names of six to ten people in your field who can vouch for your contribution. If your only contribution is a not-yet-published book, it will be hard to find people who are familiar with your scholarship.
  • 3) Publishing articles in your field can help you get a book contract. The editor of a very well-known university press once assured me that having a high-profile publication on your CV is indeed impressive to acquisitions editors.
  • 4) It takes a long time to write a book. Spending years and years on one project with no tangible results can be depressing. If you send articles out, you can feel a sense of accomplishment with each stage of the article submission and publication process.

If you are still with me, perhaps you now believe that new faculty should not pour all of their energies into writing their book. How, then, do you balance multiple projects? I have three suggestions for successfully balancing more than one project at a time.

  • 1) Different stages: It generally works best when you are working on two projects at different stages. For example, you might be revising a chapter of your book while you are conceptualizing an article draft. Having projects at different stages allows you to capitalize on the writing energies you have and to work on projects in the order that feels best.
  • 2) Different times: I prefer to have one project as my priority for no more than two weeks at a time. For example, the last two weeks my priority was a substantive chapter of my forthcoming book. This week, my priority is revising the first chapter of another book. These are two different projects that I can turn back and forth to and from. The down time also allows me to request feedback on one project and work on the other while I am waiting.
  • 3) Different sizes: If you have a big project (like a book), it can be helpful to have smaller projects that can be finished to keep you going. Working only on a book manuscript for two years without seeing any results can be a long time. In contrast, an article can be published relatively quickly (or at least more quickly than a book)!

Having more than one project going on at the same time (such as a book manuscript and a journal article) permits you to focus your energies where you will be most productive. If you get stuck while writing your book manuscript, you can turn your attention to the article you are working on. If you finish an article draft and ask a colleague to read it, you can return to the book manuscript while you are waiting for feedback.

Rather than focusing all of your writing energy on one book manuscript for six years, it works better to switch back and forth between articles and the book manuscript. The first thing you publish from your dissertation should be an article in a highly visible journal. The steps it takes to publish the article – writing it, revising it, getting feedback, and finding a home for it – will give you a better idea of how your scholarship will be received by scholars other than the members of your dissertation committee. Finally, success at publishing an article can be a great motivator to finish and publish the book.

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