12th 2009
Of heresy, fun, and gatekeeping speech acts

Posted under: class, jobs, publication

It's. . . The Bishop!

It's. . . The Bishop!

Go read Prof. Zero’s “A Heretical Post,” subtitled, “writing is fun, and publishing is easy.”  Here’s a sample:

The book I am reading now has one of those prefaces I dislike, that list all the funding, leave time, help, and culinary support the author had. Without all of this they could never have taken the first step toward formulating their book. This kind of preface makes sure we know the writer has an élite lifestyle, and intimates that writing is impossible without that. These prefaces thus perform a gatekeeping speech act: if you are not in my social stratum, you cannot write. But it is not true that one cannot write while also doing one’s own research and cooking, and it is not true that one cannot do one’s own editing.

.          .          .          .        .          .          .          .          .          .          .       

My theory on it was that the life of the mind was fascinating, being a research professional was interesting, teaching was fine, and service/administration was all in a day’s work. I had also noted that fieldwork = adventure travel = fun, and because interacting with other intellectually oriented people = fun.

What I did not expect to encounter was the investment of so many professors in suffering and/or false stoicism, and the common idea that suffering = research. I also did not expect to have to work with the assumption that writing + publishing = pain you must endure for survival’s sake only.

I think those proclamations are gatekeeping speech acts like the kind of preface I criticize above. I say that to be a professor you have to like to write academic prose and have some research questions you really want answered. You have to be in a position to insist on pursuing those questions, not just “more sensible” questions (according to someone else).

I remember that in grad school, it was fashionable to complain about how much “work” one had to do.  I tried to resist the one-upsmanship of misery then, and I try to resist it now.  Most of my friends and I talk all of the time about writing and publishing–about how to do it better and more successfully, because that’s the part of our jobs we love best.  What do you think?  Do complaints about how hard we have it serve as “gatekeeping speech acts,” as Prof. Zero suggests?  I think she may be on to something.  (I must confess:  my book has a pretty florid and extensive acknowledgements section, but at the time, I was so happy to have finished it that I thought I had to thank everyone I had ever met!  I don’t thank anyone for cooking my meals, though, because that is thankless work I perform myself, for the most part.  I realize how silly my acknowledgements section looks now, and promise to be much more abstemious in the future.  Merci, Prof. Zero!)

On the broader subject of “writing is fun, and publishing is easy,” I’m going to have a special guest blogger here in this space very soon who wants to help you get your articles published.  Stay tuned!


52 Responses to “Of heresy, fun, and gatekeeping speech acts”

  1. Tom on 12 Mar 2009 at 7:57 am #

    I want to second your position, Historiann. For me, research and publication are the places where I get to a) continue learning, and b) share the exciting things I think I’m learning with the world (or at least a tiny little corner of the world). I can’t see why anyone would wish to complain about either thing. Unless they think that learning is hard and not worth the effort, or if they think the academic research enterprise of generating understanding is not worth the effort.

    But is it gatekeeping to acknowledge that I felt lucky indeed to have the support of friends, colleagues, and an external funding agency in the production of some of my work? I was contractually bound to acknowledge the external funding, and it seems ungenerous not to acknowledge the support and encouragement of friends and colleagues. But then, I, too, cook a lot of my own meals.

  2. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:14 am #

    Tom–I didn’t read Zero’s comments on the acknowledgements as saying that one shouldn’t acknowledge intellectual debts and friendships–just that going on and on about the wives and servants who abet the lifestyle of the gentlemen scholar are sometimes a bit much.

    My acknowledgements are just a little embarassing in retrospect, because I do just go on and on and on. But, maybe when I wrote them (4 years ago?) I secretly feared that this might be the only book I’d ever actually get published, so I had to go for it!

    I agree with you that we should thank the people who have kept intellectual company with us in the process.

  3. Lilian Nattel on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:26 am #

    I think that acknowledgments are an opportunity to express appreciation, and if you are generous with appreciation, all the more power to you. That isn’t the same as giving the impression that writing is only for the extremely privileged. The gate keeping point is an interesting one, and I personally dislike the equation of writing=misery. That goes along with the idea that you should be happy to put up with any conditions to do work you love with little or no financial remuneration. As if everyone should hate their job unless they are also extremely privileged.

    Goldman Sachs execs gave themselves billions in a bonus out of the bail-out money, while the employees of one of their companies, Burger King, average $14,000/yr. This the privileged get to be bailed out by citizens’ taxes, the same citizens who are not privileged to be creative. I don’t go for that notion. Not at all.

  4. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:30 am #

    Yes, Tom, I too have had funding I was contractually bound to acknowledge, and to turn it around a bit, I’ve been acknowleged in prefaces by people who in my view have done more for me than I for them and from whom I have learned more than they from me, and I’ve felt massively honored. (At this point I feel like saying, DUH, Tom, don’t you think we know those things? Please don’t turn out to be another of those condescending pedants.)

    I am just massively intimidated when I see how happy and un harrassed and supported most people claim to be. If they would not say they could not have done this work without that situation then that would be fine. But when they say it is a sine qua non, it is either scary because it means that I can never do anything, or sad because it means that you do not have to renounce love and friendship to write books (in my upbringing, including my academic one, only men deserved support for writing; women deserved punishment and must renounce everything if they were to commit the crime of doing it).

    I think one of the worst gatekeeping speech acts is the way tenured faculty tell graduate students and assistant professors, nyah, nyah, you’ll spend too much time on teaching and not enough on research, nyah, nyah, we know it, we know it. My father started in on that with me when I was about 3, actually. It was supposed to be a word to the wise but actually I heard it repeated so much and by so many that I have concluded it was a bad spell, something people say so you’ll be nervous no matter what you’re doing and always convinced it’s too much or too little, regardless of your own judgment.

    I think the reason people suffer over research is that they start being mistreated by faculty in graduate school and then in assistant professordom over it. Faculty start telling them instantly that whatever it is, it isn’t enough or it is in danger of not being enough, or not being well enough reviewed, and on and on.
    So they start associating it with being abused, being mistrusted, etc.

  5. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:33 am #

    Prof. Zero–Tom is not at all a condescending pedant! I think his comment/question was aimed more at me, and my embarrassment about my acknowledgements.

    Tom is one of the people who (when he lived nearby) was an important member of a reading group I belonged to, and whose advice and counsel was very important to me and several others as we all finished our first books (while Tom finished his third, I think? Darn those overachievers…!)

  6. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:33 am #

    And: I think a *lot* of advice on how to be faculty is actually a form of mistreatment in disguise. Don’t be seen drinking coffee with that person because that other person doesn’t like them. Don’t this, don’t that, danger danger warning warning!!! We know you’re going to screw up, we know it!!! The fact that you haven’t yet is just a sign that when you do, it will be bad!!! And on, and on.

  7. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:34 am #

    Zero–I hear you on that, completely.

  8. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:44 am #

    Historiann & Tom — “just that going on and on about the wives and servants who abet the lifestyle of the gentlemen scholar are sometimes a bit much.” YES, this is what I mean.

  9. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:49 am #

    And re my other comment, on advice and warnings as scare tactics and mistreatment – I think it combines with the lofty acknowledgements as a way to marginalize people. I don’t think it’s done to men nearly as often as to women.

  10. Kathie on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:55 am #

    As an independent scholar, I will agree that writing is fun and publishing is easy. But I take issue with the critique of long acknowledgments. In doing research in Africa it has often been very difficult to manage many of the logistical issues, so people commonly thank those who housed and fed them on research trips to places remote from their home universities.
    However, on a different note, I recall an article from many years back that discussed how male scholars used the acknowledgments to thank their wives for extensive support, but almost never listed them as co-authors despite their (sometimes) deep involvement in research and writing the book. Some of the examples were really egregious, but I can’t find the article and can’t remember the specifics now.

  11. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 9:03 am #

    Kathie–I remember dimly hearing about that article. If anyone here has a citation or a lead, please leave it in the thread!

    The kinds of acknowlegements you describe sound totally appropriate–and only considerate. I don’t want to get into any more details about why I think my acknowlegements are embarassing–just trust me on this! It was a comment just about my book, not a complaint about anyone else’s acknowlegements.

  12. ej on 12 Mar 2009 at 9:07 am #

    While I am absolutely in this gig because I enjoy the process of research and writing, I do think that it can be more stressful for some than for others. I wanted to start out my book acknowledgments with a paragraph that went something like “this book was written without the support of an NEH, ACLS, Guggenheim, etc.” I often have the same reaction as Prof. Zero when reading the books of others who have enjoyed way more institutional and external support than I have. It isn’t that I don’t think they deserve it, and its not the absence of the time afforded by such grants makes me less committed to my work, but I do think the process would be a lot less stressful personally and me more productive. Getting out of my 3/3 teaching load would be great-throw in a cook and a nanny, and I’d be on cloud nine!

  13. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 9:25 am #

    I like ej’s suggestion–pointing out all of the support one wasn’t granted in the acknowledgements! But then, that might look like the culture of complaint that Prof. Zero also calls out in her post…

  14. K.N. on 12 Mar 2009 at 9:34 am #

    ej–I’ve often thought of taking it a step further and thanking the very many foundations for their kind rejections! But then, I would not want to waste the ink. If my book ever gets finished, I’m thinking of writing the acknowledgments in haiku.

    I’ve not found research and writing to be painful. More like liberating, actually–it really does make me feel great. The pain comes when I struggle to stay with it as the teaching and service responsibilities come cascading down. I will say, though, that the question of foundational support/release time/full-time cook has tended to bleed into the research itself, but I think this has been more a function of the basic structure of the academy than anything else. We are expected to go great guns in the first 5-6 years of employment, and if the project(s) take a bit longer, and we don’t have all of that support, then we can really feel the heat rising.

  15. Tom on 12 Mar 2009 at 10:12 am #

    Thanks for the kind comments, Historiann–as you know, I’d probably describe myself as a ‘mid-career curmudgeon,’ which may, in fact, come frightenlingly close to ‘condescending pedant’ at times. But I actually almost wrote in my first comment above that one of the group of friends and colleagues I thank in my (third: I can hardly believe it myself) book is Historiann hirself.

    And any apologies for my obtuseness about context: I merely wanted to say that thanking those who’ve been helpful is totally appropriate, whatever their roles, though I’d probably agree that a claim that one _must_ have the support of X, Y, and Z or one is dead in the water is probably incorrect and misleading. But I hope even Professor Zero will agree that books like ej’s, which are largely unsupported financially, put the lie to those claims, and readers of ej’s acknowledgments will see the level of support ej did or did not have, even if ej doesn’t say it explicitly! But if people who are blessed with wide and extensive support can’t see how there’s any other way _they_ could do it, they still could be right, even if it is annoying to the rest of us, who often do find a way. But lucky them, too, to have the resources they seemingly need?

    Bu what I really want to second is the notion that scholarship ought to be work that is its own reward, not an impossible chore that can only be managed with various kinds of aid. I certainly like to complain more than my fair share, but I’m much more likely to complain about being kept from my research, than to complain about the burdens of learning.

  16. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 10:15 am #

    K.N.: yes, it’s a time management issue. I’ve never bought into the notion that research and teaching are natural predators of each other-but there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a week–and one can only be sleep-deprived for so long without suffering consequences to one’s health and relationships.

    Have any of you read that old children’s fairy tale, “The Good Elves?” (Beatrix Potter published a version of this as “The Tailor of Gloucester,” featuring as you might expect, mice skilled at fine needlework rather than elves.) I’ve often fantasized about some Good Elves sneaking in not to write my books for me, but rather to wash the clothes, do the dishes, cook the meals, and generally keep the house functioning. Every householder needs some Good Elves to set things aright, no?

  17. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 10:17 am #

    And, Tom–thanks! This is a good way to think about the work: complain about being kept from one’s research? Yes–a legitimate complaint.

    Writing is fun, and publishing is easy!

  18. squadratomagico on 12 Mar 2009 at 10:40 am #

    “Finally, he [i.e., the author] is particularly grateful to his wife for typing the text, sorting out the notes and bibliography, and compiling the index.”

    Direct quote from an academic book published 1987. And, by the way, he never even gives her name.

  19. GayProf on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:32 pm #

    Hmm – I take the point here. I also agree that complaining about what is a pretty good job sets up a bad sense of the world (Much as I dislike people who complain about “dumb students” day after day).

    To my mind, though, writing requires a community of support (And I suspect some of the people who aren’t able to accomplish this are without that intellectual community, or even in a hostile intellectual community). I think it is a false notion that we are all loner scholars who spin out brilliance toiling away independently in our individual offices. I, for one, depend a lot on the feedback of others and, it seems to me, that most of the best books required the serious reading of colleagues and friends before they went to press. That feedback was serious intellectual work that deserves acknowledgment.

    The swipe at Tom (who I don’t know) also felt less than generous. We can disagree while being civil.

  20. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    GayProf–this is why I thought your advice to new faculty members was so great–you said, essentially, be a part of a supportive community and try to help each other out by (in essence) forming reading groups and other informal strategies for encouraging people. I think you’re right that the best writing “requires a community of support.” At the very least–it sets deadlines for you, but at most it can save you from major errors and your own overreaching, too.

  21. Notorious Ph.D. on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    @ Squadrato: Holy crap. 1987?!?

    My dissertation thanked my favorite baristas by name. I think my book may do the same.

  22. Notorious Ph.D. on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:41 pm #

    Also, to both of the boyfriends who dumped me during the book process, first making writing or even getting up in the morning hard, then making me write all the more, and better, out of a desire for revenge.

    How’s that?

  23. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    Bitter? Why. On. Earth. Would. You. Be. Bitter. ?

    I double-dog dare any of you to combine ej’s thanks to all of the funding agencies that did NOT support her work, with Notorious’s catalog of the exes. What else could we include?

    Right around the time I started grad school, there was a recent Ph.D. from my department whose acknowledgements in hir diss. were a long and angry screed against her graduate advisor. (And from what I heard, it was justified! This Ph.D. left the profession, you won’t be surprised to hear.) It was a rite of passage to find the “Blibbity Blab” dissertation in the stacks and behold this unique kind of acknowledgement.

  24. Susan on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    I am, I confess, an acknowledgment afficionado. I always read them — almost before I read anything else. They tell me a lot about the person who wrote the book. And some of them still have the life of the gentleman scholar, it’s true. But they also tell other stories, of communities, alliances, etc. Some are long and tell stories, others are just the ones you have to acknowledge. I prefer the former, I confess. So I went back to my acknowledgments in my recent book, which are long. They are long because while I was working on my book my husband was diagnosed with cancer and the university where I worked nearly went out of business: it was a hard time. And I was really grateful to those I named. I did thank my grand-daughter for playing with me, but no one who cooked me meals.

    That said, I think research is fun. Writing, usually but not always. With my colleagues these days when we complain about how much work we have to do, the worst of it is that it is usually nothing to do with our research and teaching. It’s the various committees we are on/chairing etc.

    I do, however, resist the kind of competitive “I’m so overloaded” routine, since most of my colleagues are also overloaded. And if you want to talk to real overload, talk to a high school teacher.

  25. Susan on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:56 pm #

    P.S. Historiann, to connect the discussions this week, one of the things that Lawrence Stone did eventually do is include his wife as a co-author.

  26. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    Susan–I had seen that–that’s good. He was definitely of the generation pre-computers who relied a lot on their wives’ secretarial and organizational skills. (This is not a comment on the Stones’ marriage, of which I have no knowledge, but a general comment about that generation of mid-20th C male scholars.)

  27. Liz on 12 Mar 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    One of my favorites comes, I believe, from Steve Feierman’s “Peasant Intellectuals” (although it might be from an earlier work, I don’t have either to hand right now). He thanks his wife for carrying the wood to fuel the cooking fires. There is a whole generation of Africanists whose wives not only did the secretarial and organizational work (Astrid Vansina always got thanks for her map-drawing) but also spent years living in rural Africa while their husbands did research. Sometimes this resulted in amazing joint projects – Godfrey and Monica Wilson, for example, and also Mary Smith, who wrote Baba of Karo while her husband was doing research in Hausaland. Other times, well, not so much.

  28. Marianaria Bibliotecaria on 12 Mar 2009 at 2:48 pm #

    What I find mildly annoying in acknowledgments is the near-universal (so, maybe it’s mandatory?) practice of saying “any mistakes are mine,” after acknowledging individuals who answered questions, etc., in their areas of expertise.

    It winds up sounding as if the author’s only clear-cut contribution is the mistakes.

  29. Indyanna on 12 Mar 2009 at 2:48 pm #


    I think I remember that legendary diss. acknowledgment (unless there were two of them!). It was a ringtailed howitzer of blunt candor, that much I recall, and didn’t spare the department, either. I wrote a contrib. here this morning that didn’t transmit. But I essentially said that I like thick rather than thin acknowledgements for their empirical contribution to the anthropology of the field in question (who knows/owes who), even if in some cases they are performative, grandstanding circuses. I’ll take the latter part to get the former data.

    As calling out the rejection letters, I’ll not do that. Except of course for the one from the luminous oasis where I applied for a fellowship, only to get TWO rejection letters for the price of one app! They sent the second copy to an applicant/colleague in Texas somewhere, whose name was close to mine. (In the sense of comprising letters, a given name, an initial, and a second or family name). Ze sent it along to me with a nice if smirky note of commiseration. That place will get called out bigtime, if I ever get anything in print from that particular app. cycle!

  30. Marianaria Bibliotecaria on 12 Mar 2009 at 2:58 pm #


    I skim the acknowledgments in the trade (not academic) press books I read, then I check the cover blurbs to see how many of them come from people thanked (and described — i.e., my friend since high school, etc.)in the acknowledgment. The number varies with the number of blurbs, but it seems to average 1 of 1, 1 of 2, 2 of 3.

  31. Janice on 12 Mar 2009 at 3:09 pm #

    Research and writing are fun, publishing is sometimes easy and sometimes crazy-making! I wish I could hire a manager to send my work out and then to micromanage the revision process: “this week you need to ILL those new books and go back to the microfiche for this and that source”. Actually, if my revision manager could also do the ILL orders, that would be even more wonderful!

    Like Susan, I do love reading acknowledgments. Some of them tell such wonderful stories about a roundabout way to the research and writing of the project, along with thanking the people who helped along the way. Others, like that 1987 acknowledgment, are revealing in quite a different fashion. I don’t think that publishers spend as much time fussing over acknowledgments as they do with the rest of a work so it’s also probably where the writer’s personality shines through most clearly.

  32. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    I repeat: “just that going on and on about the wives and servants who abet the lifestyle of the gentlemen scholar are sometimes a bit much” is what I mean.

    Myself, I’ve got a weakness for prefaces that explain from a personal point of view how it was the author came to do this work.

    Clarification: I never said it was inappropriate to give acknowledgment where acknowledgment is due. I only meant that I groan at acknowledgments lists that read like the academic Social Register and appear to have been compiled for that reason. That is minor, though.

    At a more personal level, I have never been able not to burst into tears when I read the phrase, “without which this work could never have been completed.” I know it is a formula and that it is often directed largely at invisible wives or at temporarily neglected children, to let them know they do matter. But it still terrifies me because it suggests I do not have the equipment to do what I need to.

    Tom, it is great that you were not brought up to feel guilty about wanting to enter a community of scholars, or taught in graduate school and assistant professordom that that was only for the other gender, or not repeatedly told that your place was to be the helpmeet of someone doing that, not the actual person.

    In my upbringing and education, writing for academic publication was about suppressing my own interests and voice. This was the price one paid to continue to have access to libraries of interest … but that one had thoughts of one’s own was not something you should let people know if you were a woman. Those were the hobby; writing as someone else was the job.

    This is why, even though I know those ideas are crazy, I chafe when I hear, once again, advice to assistant professors that publications are the only thing that counts. I absorbed it almost as soon as I was weaned – literally! – and I understand it, and I do not disagree.
    Yet when I was an assistant professor and had full professors saying this to me, it still did mean, in that institutional context, that only a very narrow range of journals counted, and that my interlocutors did not believe I could make it into those and would even do what they could to prevent it. And I knew exactly how to get in and did, but it was at the cost of putting off my own work.

    That is why I wrote the post.

    (I could say more but that is why I have my own blog.)

  33. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 4:39 pm #

    P.S. Lumpenprofessoriat wrote this about it.

    Both Historiann and she took the post as a criticism of complaining, possibly coming from graduate school. And some commenters think the complaining is generated by people who don’t want to do the work.

    It’s interesting. What I had in my heart as I wrote it was a criticism of all the hazing I went through in which warnings and exhortations to suffering were given by professors to advanced graduate students and senior faculty to assistant professors.

    A lot of the hazing was outright mean, but the most damaging bunch was cloaked as good and solicitous advice. A lot also involved projection into one by already wounded full professors.

    To this day, when I hear the sentences “publish, it’s the only thing that really counts” and “remember not to spend too much time on teaching” I remember two kinds of occasions that utterly enrage me:

    1) having to listen to this from the same person for the umpteenth time, when I had already been following that advice to the T for a decade and my record showed it, because they just wanted to preach and it would have been rude and, from what I could gather at the time, dangerous not to let them continue, and

    2) having to listen to this from several different people as a response to more specific questions, like about how to handle editors and contracts.

    That is also why I wrote the post.

  34. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    P.S. If there are more complaints and comments on my post or my comments on it here I’d rather respond chez moi. I feel funny getting this personal elsewhere and hogging this much of someone else’s thread.

  35. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 5:07 pm #

    I don’t think anyone is really complaining or disagreeing with you–the thread has kind of gone off on its own direction! I had hoped people might want to talk more about the culture of complaint, but I guess not today? (Maybe after spring break…?) I also loved your phrase “gatekeeping speech acts.”

    I loved your post, and everything you have to say about faculty life is very thoughtful.

  36. Ink on 12 Mar 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    For what it’s worth, I think a culture of complaint can be healthy. Many of us are asked to carry incredibly heavy loads, and we are given very little time or support for research and writing. In my humble opinion, it’s incredibly helpful to hear other’s complaints and to be able to express your own. Takes the edge off. And misery loves company and all that. :)

    Btw, my high-school-physics-teaching husband not only makes far more $$ than I do as an associate prof but also has nowhere near the amount of prepwork (and zero publication) required. Of course, workloads vary from college to college and hs to hs…but I wanted to share that it’s not *always* worse at the hs level. Sometimes I think it would be wise to switch over! But the fact is that I love doing research and have managed to publish some things despite having a 4/4 load, so as long as I can make it work, I will.

  37. Ink on 12 Mar 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    PS: Susan, I’m so sorry to hear about your husband.

  38. Notorious Ph.D. on 12 Mar 2009 at 6:23 pm #


    I think that “Only the mistakes are mine” disclaimer is a piece of academic antiquarianism, a reference back to the classical world where anything you said had to be prefaced by long protestations of your lack of skill in saying them, especially in comparison to other authors who might be your audience.

    I’m probably going to have something like that in there for my former dissertation advisor, but really because I’d like to dedicate the book to him without him having to be embarrassed for the inevitable mistakes I will make.

    Perhaps that’s a cowardly act. But I’m going with it.

  39. Sisyphus on 12 Mar 2009 at 6:53 pm #

    I dunno, I just don’t buy this.

    First of all, when I took a grad class over in women’s studies the prof paid the most attention to the acknowledgments of any part of the book! She read them in this fascinating way in terms of academic gossip — and she really was able to pull out who was married to who and connect all sorts of seemingly-benign compliments to the inter-disciplinary intrigues at the scholar’s home institution. (I figured it was a historian-type thing, as none of my English profs did this. Well, we don’t assign books either.) So I always think of the acknowledgments as a special place to create one’s persona in a way that bridges the real, actual person and the scholarly persona in a wonderful, gossipy, even campy way that gets at how the inside workings of academia.

    Second, people talk about research as hard work because it is hard work. Hard work and “fun” and “easy” don’t have to be mutually incompatible, but the conditions of mental stress under which most of us work (either the tenure track or the push for the first job) often make it so. And some of those same scholars who are getting the wonderful fellowships and research leaves and whatnot at the top schools are also facing enormous levels of pressure to publish in order to keep their jobs — as witness the trend for people two have _two_ books by the time they go up for tenure.

    Third, no fucking way is publishing easy —- or haven’t you heard that university presses are under such dire financial straits that they are cutting entire lines and subfields of books? The MLA has been raising this issue as a crisis for most of the time I have been in grad school — there is an entire “generation” of scholars who were unable to get their books through the publishing process in time for the tenure clock, because academic presses are publishing so much fewer books. Over at Planned Obsolescence Kathleen Fitzpatrick is writing about the collapse of the publishing industry and the difficulties of getting a first book published (her studies show that once you are a “known quantity” and have published an academic book the next ones are a bit easier to place) in an effort to get our discipline to stop relying on the book as the “gold standard” of tenure.

    When I hear people talking about writing being hard and publishing an uphill battle, I feel like my efforts are being validated and that people are recognizing that what I do is, in fact, work. It’s not like just going and watching movies and hanging out and partying and having fun, even though to nonacademics it may look that way. Rewarding, yes; the thing I most want to do with my life, yes. But not fun and easy. My parents think what I do is fun and easy and therefore were totally confused that I took so long to finish my PhD and now want me to go “get a real job” doing real work in the science or business world.

    Finally — emphasizing publishing/research over teaching is the most sensible advice I ever got —- in my dept, every year women get kicked out of the program for devoting themselves heart and soul to their classes and not producing anything by the time they ran out of funding. It’s always the women who don’t take this into account enough in my grad program; the men are doing the bare minimum per class and advancing to candidacy on time. I have friends booted off the tt for not meeting publishing requirements too — why? Because teaching gives immediate satisfaction over the delayed gratification of research, which is hard work.

  40. Ink on 12 Mar 2009 at 8:42 pm #

    Sisyphus, I have to say that I agree that none of it seems fun and easy to me, either! Especially since even if/when you do publish, if it isn’t at the “right” journal or press, the work can be discounted without anyone on the committee even having read it. That seems absurd in this day and age, when the academic publishing industry itself is in crisis. Didn’t Stephen Greenblatt send out a letter to all members of MLA a few years ago, urging schools to rethink their tenure requirements in the face of the downsizing of publication lists by presses? I remember reading it on my front porch and being heartened. Not sure if it has resulted in anyone loosening the reins on requirements, but it was a profoundly important gesture, I thought.

    Ooh, wait, I found it.

  41. Professor Zero on 12 Mar 2009 at 11:36 pm #

    I would distinguish between a culture of complaining, which I do think has or can have healthy features, and a culture of competitive misery, wherein virtue is garnered through suffering. That distinction is important.

    I feel all academic pain, I really do, and I am the last person to say it is not hard. That is what I have the blog to process. It isn’t intended as an academic blog, though, but just as my arty late night blog. It is very subjective, and it does not dispense advice or truth, but songs.

    In my life, as long as I can remember — before kindergarten, even — the cant was always that writing was hard and publishing was impossible, and that these things were inaccessible anyway for girls (and should not be accessible to persons of color, ex GIs, and other riffraff, either). And if you said the wrong thing in print or in manuscript, you would also be axed. And on, and on.

    If now I can say on my blog that writing is fun and publishing is easy, it is because I can at last speak an antidote to terror. I have been advised and warned about the difficulties, the pain, the obstacles, the horror, for so long. But I was born to do research and write.

    And in comparison to the torture chambers of which I was always told and some of which I have actually experienced, YES, writing is fun and publishing is easy.
    I’ll say it again: writing is fun and publishing is easy, SUCKAS!

  42. squadratomagico on 13 Mar 2009 at 9:11 am #

    Great comment, Sisyphus!

  43. Homostorian Americanist on 13 Mar 2009 at 9:16 am #

    I am *obsessed* with acknowledgments. The longer the better, for precisely the reasons that many people have already noted: the stories, the gossip, the sense that a real person exists behind the book. I read them first and then I read them again after I read the book. And I quote them to friends and long remember the funny lines. I still remember the very first book whose author acknowledged — by name — her nanny (Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal) and all the ones who have been absurdly cheesy about their partners/spouses that made me ever so slightly nauseated (I could go on and on and on and they should be embarrassed, embarrassed, embarrassed).

    I wrote particularly long acknowledgments myself and while they did not dwell on my largely nonexistent funding, they did spend an inordinate amount of time thanking archivists and other archival staff by name. I am a big fan of this because I think these people — without whom historians couldn’t do what we do — often go unthanked but I also think (and I’m guilty of it myself) that the endless acknowledgment of archivists also serves the dual purpose of boasting about just how many archives one visited in researching a book. And this has surely got to be the ultimate historian’s pissing contest. Similarly, I always feel like looking at that list of archives visited in the first few pages of a bibliography is the moment that historians are basically whipping it out for comparison’s sake. It’s not that one *hasn’t* gone to all these places or that one *wasn’t* helped — sometimes very much — by these people, but it’s clear to me (maybe I’m projecting?) that there are also ulterior motives.

  44. Historiann on 13 Mar 2009 at 9:25 am #

    Sisyphus, I think your perspective is what it is because you don’t yet have a job (and I wish you all the best in your job search.) For those of us who have jobs, we don’t have to defend what we do as *work* because we have paid employment. I think you’re right that the situation is more difficult for students–my one set of grandparents never understood what I was doing in graduate school, and always asked “when I was going to finally get a job and go to work?”

    If you keep doing your scholarship, it gets more fun and easier because success breeds success. You may not be at “writing is fun, and publishing is easy” yet, but you may get there with time, and luck in finding a job.

  45. Professor Zero on 13 Mar 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    ONCE AGAIN American Historian I never said do not give credit where credit is due. I said I was tired of people flaunting *elite lifestyles* and then using the phrase “without which I could not have written this book.”

    Sisyphus, yes, it’s work and not the easiest work. Usually I think that people like Dead Voles are missing the point when they say “at least we are not at miminum wage” and “at least we are not digging ditches” BUT what they mean is it is *work*.

    I am not saying it is a walk in the park, I am not saying it is not hard work and that it is often insufficiently. I am just saying it is not as impossible as I was always told it would be and that it is something I am interested in – and that sometimes the interestingness really does make it fun.

    I am assuming that you are in graduate school because you were interested in your subject, correct Sisyphus?

  46. Homostorian Americanist on 13 Mar 2009 at 9:56 pm #

    Professor Zero — My comment wasn’t meant to be a corrective to yours, with which I agree for the most part — especially about the elite lifestyles — just an addition to the conversation as a whole, which seems to have moved beyond simply what you had said.

  47. Professor Zero on 14 Mar 2009 at 2:16 am #

    OK — my insight at this hour is that the 2 positions — “it is the best job I could imagine, I would do it almost for free” and “it is so, so hard, and I am starving and people are rejecting my manuscripts” are oddly complementary: it’s great if you’re in (or otherwise wealthy) and less great, or even awful, if you’re not.

    I don’t necessarily think the conversation has gone beyond the post … in some moments it has gone back, with people trying to solidify in one these two classic positions.

    The scandalous positions are different — as in, it’s a professional job like other professional jobs, with the attendant pleasures and displeasures, or OMG this can be fun — !!! — but only when also funDED!!!

    I will freak everyone out royally if I write a post on how service is fun, and administration is creative. I note that one is also expected to groan about these things, because if you see their value it is supposed to prove you are not a scholar.

  48. Rad Readr on 14 Mar 2009 at 9:59 am #

    If I had not mentioned my wife and her labor in my acknowledgements, she would not have shaken the booty for a while.

    The most negative responses to my acknowledgements came from non-academic people — my relatives who were not included. I come from a family where people do not regularly publish books — and I regret leaving out some people. Next book, everyone goes in. The dog, my 77 cousins and Marvin Gaye.

  49. Professor Zero on 14 Mar 2009 at 10:36 am #

    I say that wives who did so much of the work that their husbands say in acknowledgments that the book “couldn’t have been written without their help,” should be listed as co authors — not just listed in acknowledgments.

    So what if that means the professor has to write twice as many books, since he only gets half credit for each … he only did half the work, too!

  50. Veleda on 14 Mar 2009 at 5:39 pm #

    Somebody wrote,

    “I like ej’s suggestion–pointing out all of the support one wasn’t granted in the acknowledgements! But then, that might look like the culture of complaint that Prof. Zero also calls out in her post…”

    Oh good grief, let’s not get caught _complaining_ that would be so unacceptable. It might lower our prestige!

    What’s wrong with protest? I am not embarrassed to say that it makes my stomach tighten when someone lists all the funding and perks they enjoyed while turning out their opus. Good for them, but although i would not use the word gatekeeping, because this is not a conscious act of exclusion, the sum total of acknowledgement build up to create a feeling that this is how it must be done and this is what counts. Insiders, outsiders, all that.

    I don’t mind saying so.

  51. Another Damned Medievalist on 15 Mar 2009 at 8:59 am #

    Notorious — part of me loves the bf thing. But too many of my friends know the one who really was responsible for so much good, and only recently for damage, too!

  52. Professor Zero on 18 Mar 2009 at 10:11 am #

    It just hit me – although I do take Veleda’s point on complaining (it’s indecorous because it lowers prestige):

    People are willing to complain, but not to stand up and say there are things they actually don’t like about the system in a calm way (because they have so internalized its values).

    *That* is why I don’t like all those advice posts – it’s not that the suggestions aren’t good, it’s that they are ultimately (or often) about internalizing sets of values, saying everything is OK if you just understand the rules, etc.

    Up until now I was always embarrassed that there were so many things I disliked about academia. It seemed like a moral failure. But perhaps it’s the opposite.

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