Some additional information about my first book

Hello, again, bolded alter-ago.

I saw online that you received a physical copy of your book!

Right to the point, I see. A pre-print copy arrived with some other book deliveries yesterday. It was quite a surprise.

You promised me news! And here you are just Tweeting it out. What do you think your name is, Donald, or something?

Not a chance. What would you like me to start with?

I didn’t expect you to be so accommodating. How about the title?

I could give you the title, but what about if I show you the cover at the same time?

Fine.

Pretty. How do I get it?

The book is available for pre-order on the University of Michigan Press website. The book is scheduled for release in March and an electronic book will be available at or around the same time.

Since this is an academic book, I assume that this will cost me an arm, a leg, a kidney, and the deed to my firstborn child. Did I get that right?

Do children come with deeds?

You know what I mean.

I do. This is perhaps the most exciting piece of news. The book will be coming out with University of Michigan Press as a hard cover volume at their normal price point (about $75), but I was offered an option for my book to be included in a new open-access program. The book will still be found in the catalog and available for purchase, but, in effect, I agreed to forgo a paperback version of the book and instead make the e-book open-access.

So you volunteered to sell fewer books. Why?

A few reasons. First, there is very little chance that this book will sell enough to earn me meaningful royalties, with or without a paperback run. I tried to write my book to be approachable and hope that it sells well for an academic book, but I read the contract and am under no illusions that academic publishing will make me rich. Second, open access makes it possible for more people to read my work and that could, at least in theory, open more doors for me. The third reason is more philosophical. I have benefited enormously from scholars and organizations that make their work available for free. I am always looking for opportunities to pay that forward by publishing open access work where I can, even if I generally haven’t been successful with my articles. Given this opportunity, I took it.

Very noble of you.

It is also practical. I have reservations about the sustainability of open-access publishing over the long term and it is not going to resolve the issues of a crumbling higher-ed infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, but I’m also intimately familiar with the many difficulties that come with publishing as a contingent faculty member. If making my work open access makes the life of any contingent scholar or graduate student a little easier, then it’ll have been worth it.

When I tentatively raised my concerns about sustainability, my editor told me to have that conversation about my next book. Her answer didn’t really assuage my concerns, but I guess I’ll need to write another book.

So, how’s the next book coming?

Patience. I have a few book projects in mind that I am starting to work on, but each of them is likely multiple years out at this point.

Slacker.

Call it what you will. Book writing takes time under the best circumstances and I am one of many professors who don’t receive research leave. I will likely write more books because I want to write more books—in fact, I already have outlines for three more history books and a novel. But what I write and how quickly will depend enormously on how the other parts of my career develop over the next few years.

I’m excited to be moving on to new work after spending the better part of a decade with this one, I’m also going to enjoy seeing this book out in the world.

#AcWriMo 2022 Recap

Back at the start of November, I set for myself writing targets for #AcWriMo. In the spirit of accountability, this post reviews those targets.

1. Finish and submit my three outstanding short pieces. They just need to be off my plate so that I can focus on something else.

I completed two of the three, but I chose to hold off on sending them off until I have finished the third. I’m optimistic that this can happen by the end of the year.

2. Spend at least one hour each week writing on one of my new academic projects. For this goal I’m going to set an absurd (for me) target of 500 words an hour, for a minimum of 2,000 fresh words on top of whatever else I write this month.

I spent an hour writing on new projects in two of the four weeks. Four would have been better, of course, but these projects are in a state such that any progress is good progress.

3. Write one book review blog post per week.

I published two review posts in November, one on The Final Strife, one on The Medieval Crossbow.

4. Write one other blog post per week. Writing begets writing, as they say.

Aided in no small part by the decision to start publishing a weekly roundup of news and stories that I read in a given week, I achieved this target. I published four posts, a What is Making Me Happy on my new tea infuser, a post about Twitter, and two weekly varia posts.

5. Continue writing in my journal every night. In particular: November has 30 days: write 28 entries.

I wrote 26 entries in 30 days. One of those might have been in a morning, rather than an evening.

6. Write a recap blog post for December 1 that reviews the targets and reflects on my month in writing.

I missed this by a couple of days but met it in spirit.

If you’re a stickler for such things, I successfully completed one of my six writing goals in November. Spiritually, though, this was a wildly successful #AcWriMo. I set my targets with the understanding that this is the busiest time of my year and that good writing habits are the secret to a good writing routine. (The secrets to good writing, on the other hand are a little more arcane and involve reading, attention to the poetry of language, and learning to edit, but you can’t write well until you write.) While I didn’t hit these targets, I made demonstrable progress on every one of them and, in so doing, primed the pump for more writing just as soon as I finish the final grading push of the semester.

#AcWriMo2022

It is November first, which means that it is once against AcWriMo, an academic writing challenge inspired by National Novel Writing Month.

I read through my blog archive in preparation for this post, as I often do when I sit down to write this sort of annual post. After all, I get frustrated with myself when it seems that I am writing the same things over and over. This tag first appeared in 2012, just one year after PhD2Published launched the challenge. I was a second year PhD student at the time, just starting to send ill-fated article manuscripts off for review and preparing for my comprehensive exams with not even the slightest inkling what my dissertation project would end up being.

(How I came to that project is a curious story that points to my atypical journey through graduate school.)

The tag then fell dormant for six years only to begin an annual appearance in 2018, a year and a half after I received my PhD and at a time when I was working on my book proposal. I wrote four posts that year, following a series of prompts created by Margy Thomas of Scholarshape that were designed to inspire metacognitive reflection on the writing process.

2019 saw just one post that was quite gloomy and frustrated because I felt that I was nearing the end of the road in academia. 2020, year one of the pandemic, was more of the same, except now with an attempted return to the goal-setting mandate. I did not hit my goals. By November 2021 I had started my current job and I was starting to acclimate to my schedule and established a single goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise about my writing…that I also did not hit.

So where does that leave me for 2022?

2022 has been a good year for my writing overall, if also more boom-and-bust than is ideal. I started the year with an article that had been rejected a couple of times getting accepted at Classical Quarterly and submitting the final manuscript for my first book at University of Michigan Press. That book has now also gone through copy edits and proof. Between these stages I also turned in five of the eight small pieces that I had outstanding between the pandemic and conditions of my employment, as well as a delivering a conference paper and a book review. The progress has mostly been confined to projects years in the making, though, and I’m having more trouble creating the space for new writing projects.

I have also recently returned to writing in a journal more or less nightly, both as a quiet, cathartic way to wind down before bed and as an extension of my writing discipline. Once upon a time I wrote in that space most days, often as a way of settling my mind before jumping into work on my dissertation. I fell out of that habit in the past few years, but I find that I maintain better equilibrium when I giving myself the space to write in my journal.

The other way that 2022 has been good for my writing is that I started a virtual writing group with Vicky Austen. I have participated in these in the past run by people in the UK, but I’m not in a place right now where I can reasonably wake up at 3am to write, so I suggested that we start one for those of us in this hemisphere. The practice of setting aside two hours twice a week to work in a communal, supportive environment has been enormously helpful as I am trying to re-establish a regular writing habit rather than one that means working feverishly to hit deadlines and then slumps because I’m forced to set aside that work in order to catch up on everything else that I fell behind on because I was writing.

This year I am setting for myself six targets for AcWriMo:

  1. Finish and submit my three outstanding short pieces. They just need to be off my plate so that I can focus on something else.
  2. Spend at least one hour each week writing on one of my new academic projects. For this goal I’m going to set an absurd (for me) target of 500 words an hour, for a minimum of 2,000 fresh words on top of whatever else I write this month.
  3. Write one book review blog post per week. These posts have been a casualty of the general chaos of my life recently, but I want to get back in the habit of writing them for some, if not all, of the books I read. First up is Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow which I promised to review after I won it in his online giveaway.
  4. Write one other blog post per week. Writing begets writing, as they say.
  5. Continue journaling every night. In particular: November has 30 days: write 28 entries.
  6. Write a recap blog post for December 1 that reviews the targets and reflects on my month in writing.

I see two potential complications with this set of targets.

First, one might reasonably ask whether these targets are suitably academic—which one might ask about so much of what I end up doing. The first two goals clearly fit the bill, while the back three are more about using this month to re-establish good writing habits. Basically, when I write more in general I end up writing more on my academic projects.

Second, I am curious whether this is yet another instance of unreachable targets that will be counter-productive when it comes to building the sustainable habits that I claim to want. This is of particular note because four of these five goals are set on top of whatever other writing I do. I guess there is only one way to find out.

Long time, no see: an update in dialogue form

Here’s a conversation with my bolded alter-ego offering a little update because it has been a long few weeks. Enjoy.

Oh, hello. I didn’t see you there.

Where have you been!?

That’s aggressive. Life has been very busy, of late.

Busy? With what?

Let’s see. The start of the fall semester caught me not quite prepared, which has led to a mad scramble just to keep up. I am also preparing a course that I am excited to teach in the spring, but since the syllabus needs to be approved ahead of the start of enrollment that has been one more thing on my plate. Oh, and I’ve been working on my book.

You’re writing a book?

Yes, but you knew that already. It has come up on this blog from time to time.

Look at Mr. Fancy.

Dr. Fancy, actually.

Fine, Doctor Fancy. Is the book done?

On my end, pretty much! I returned the final proofs and index to my production editor at the University of Michigan Press this week.

So when can I buy it?

March 2023, assuming everything goes smoothly from here.

That’s a long time from now.

Not really, if you think about it. I have been working on this project continuously in one form or another for about ten years. I started my dissertation project in 2011, graduated with my degree in 2017, and then started revising the book while patching together work after that. Put another way, this project has been with me through employment at five schools, the election of three US presidents, and one global pandemic. I’m hoping that it comes out before a second pandemic. Besides, it is not unheard of for the queue to be much longer than six months for an article to come out after being accepted.

Another question. This is an academic book, so it probably costs eleven thousand dollars and the soul of my firstborn child.

Hey. That is not only not a question, but it is also only a fair characterization for some presses.

Answer my implied question. How much?

I actually have a very exciting update on that, but I’m going to hold off until closer to publication date, lest you get too excited and rush to the site only to find a dead link.

Tease.

Absolutely. But I assure you that in due time I’ll share all of the details, including the cover design and how and when to get the book.

That sounds like a threat.

Think of it as a promise.

Fine. So what next? Are you finally going to take a break? I hear you’re really bad at that.

Well, there’s still the semester—

[At about this point another round of grading lands on me in a cartoonish explosion of paper]

—and that syllabus, and I’ve fallen away from baking as often as I’d like because there are just too many things going on. I also have several other writing projects that are overdue and I’m toying with submitting an abstract for a conference with a deadline in early October. And then there are the two or three other books for which I am in the early stages of researching. I would also like to get back to writing more frequently in this space.

That’s a lot.

It is, and I need to remember that none of these projects are going to be done overnight. I just need to start with the work that is overdue and chip away at the rest by increments. Frankly, I am looking forward to both. The one because it will relieve another source of stress, the other because it will require some amount of time reading for my various projects without an imminent deadline by which it will have to be done. I haven’t had enough time for that reading recently.

And you’re going to sleep, too, right?

Absolutely. I’ve got that on my to-do list somewhere.

My Writing Dashboard

I have three spreadsheets that I use to track different types of activities throughout the year, with creating the new sheet being part of my ritual for the new year. One tracks the books I read (in addition to tracking the books on Storygraph). One tracks my exercise habits. The third tracks my writing.

These sheets, including the manual upkeep, serve similar purposes. First and foremost, they provide accountability not only to track what I’m doing, but how. For instance, tracking different types of information about what I read has caused me to seek out and read books by a wider variety of authors than I did when I first started tracking this information. Similarly, the exercise data has evolved so that I can see my activities and I am able to hold myself accountable for a daily yoga practice. I also like entering the data manually because it means that I look at the information almost daily, and a few simple formulas can give me a snapshot of how I’m doing.

The system I developed for tracking my writing shows signs of having developed organically.

I started this spreadsheet in October 2017, several months removed from having completed my PhD and wanting something to hold myself accountable as I was starting to revise my dissertation and turn chapters or conference papers into journal articles. The core of my system developed at this point with two sets of columns. The first tracks my daily academic writing, which I defined as time with the academic work open on my computer (or printout), social media closed, and with no other distractions. This is of course not all of that goes into research, but it serves as a rough proxy for time spent in dedicated work.

The section for daily academic writing consisted of four columns, to which I added two columns a few years later. Thus, each row in this section has the date, day of week, the time that I worked, the number of minutes in that period, the project I worked on, and, if relevant, the number of words written. The last two sections also double as places where I can add notes about what I worked on that day (editing, drafted introduction, etc).

From the start I also had a second section that collected the total minutes written on a weekly basis, tracked by date, using the spreadsheet function to collect the sum from the daily section and a simple formula that converts that total into hours written. At the top of this column I keep a running tally of the total hours written and the average length of time I spent writing each week that year.

Writing spreadsheet, weekly section.

Starting in 2018, I added a third section where I track everything I produced in that year, in both the total and on a month-by-month basis. What gets tracked here has evolved over time, but generally includes everything from blog posts to reference letters to job applications to presentations. I don’t count all of these as “academic writing,” but this section serves as a snapshot of what I have done in a given year in terms of my academic and academic-adjacent work. This section thus proves useful for filling out annual reviews, for instance.

Screenshot of the monthly section of my writing dashboard.

I added the fourth and final section of this sheet in 2020. Functionally, this section is a key for the projects that I am working on, listing not only the name of the project, but also an abbreviation that I use in the daily-writing section, a due date, and a color-coding scheme that can tell me at a glance the status of each project. The color-coding is the latest addition to this sheet.

Screenshot of the “projects” section of my writing dashboard

Last week on Twitter I ended up in a conversation about systems of tracking writing and accountability. I offered this system to someone asking how academics track their writing and one of the other participants in the conversation pushed me a little bit about whether this collected data is purely for accountability and, if so, what I’m holding myself accountable for, or whether it also has a diagnostic purpose.

To this point, I have mostly used this system for accountability, but only in the loosest of senses. My projects have largely been in various stages of revision since I started tracking this data, so word-counts are not the best way to assess progress. This is also just fine with me since raw word counts have never much worked with my process. Instead, my primary metric for tracking my writing is the time I spend doing it, and I have aspired to write for about an hour a day in the beliefs that writing a little bit every day will be better in the long run than writing in binges and that writing just a little bit most days will cause me to write for longer than the proscribed time on at least some of them. This aspiration has both been wildly successful and an utter failure. I have not averaged five hours of writing per week since the first three months that I tracked this data, at a time when I was teaching just one course, but most years I manage to average about four hours a week, albeit in more booms and busts than I’d like recently.

I don’t explicitly use this spreadsheet as a diagnostic tool. It serves this function in a passive way, in much the same way that I can get a sense of how my writing is going based on whether or not I am writing in this space. I do make notes to myself in the daily section, particularly when I have hit a wall, and I will do the same with the weekly section for weeks during which I’m sick or, for instance, if I got no writing done because I was in the middle of moving or going to a conference. The sheet for 2020 has a row that reads “NULL SET CRISIS.” In the past I have done somewhat minimal data analysis to see trends in my writing activity, but I didn’t find it that useful so I stopped.

In writing this post it has occurred to me that accountability and diagnostics would probably work better with an adjustment to the weekly section. The update I have in mind is to add two columns, one with a target for that week and the other being the time I spent writing in the week minus that target, thus giving me a snapshot of how I did relative to my expectations. These columns will also let me adjust my goals week-to-week based on what is happening with the rest of my schedule, hopefully making them more achievable (always my downfall in goal-setting) than holding to a single goal for every week.

However, as much as I started keeping this sheet because I wanted accountability and really like tinkering around with data in various aspects of my life, this system has also just served as a nice ritual around writing that reminds me that I have in fact done something even when it feels like that is not the case. I don’t know that I will ever go much beyond what I have now in terms of analysis, but it certainly helps me maintain what I hope is a healthy and productive writing practice.

An impromptu hiatus

Over the last month I have taken an impromptu hiatus from writing in this blog. This is not entirely unprecedented—earlier this year I went nearly three weeks between posts, in 2020 I went almost a month, and in 2019 there was an entire calendar month in which I did not post—but certainly it is an outlier. For context, I have averaged roughly six posts of roughly seven hundred words each month since 2012.

My writing in the first half of the year continued in the trajectory I had been on for the last years, with sometimes fewer total posts but substantially more words in each post.

On the one hand, taking a hiatus isn’t an actual problem. I aim to post at least once a week because I like writing regularly and writing here creates a positive feedback loop for my other writing, but this is also a personal blog. I am neither writing here as part of my scholarly oeuvre nor a columnist with an editorial schedule to meet. There is also a reasonable argument that taking a summer hiatus more often, perhaps with a sprinkling of flower and pet pictures, would be a healthy addition to my routines, given how worn out I felt most of this summer.

On the other hand, this particular hiatus has weighed on me because it was brought on by how I felt about writing overall rather than a byproduct of being particularly busy or a deliberate choice to recharge. In fact, the last post to go up here explored these issues in an attempt to escape this funk. At the same time, I ended up teaching a summer class on short notice, which took up a lot of time and gave me cover to avoid writing.

I wish I could say that I am coming back from this hiatus refreshed and recharged, but the truth is that the looming start of the new semester has allowed me to fall back into old routines like rusted and cobwebbed gears slowly grinding into motion once more. In any case, the machinery creaking back to life should result in somewhat more activity here over the next few months and I expect that just getting back to the regular practice of writing will help me break free from what has been plaguing me over the past two months.

Now, enjoy some flowers.

White wildflowers from our garden.

Production and Consumption

I have a friend from graduate school who lived in terror of one of our professors. I’m only exaggerating a little bit for effect. This professor had a reputation for being particular about grammar and style, and he regularly made graduate students go through each other’s reviews with, as he might say, a fine-tooth red pen. When you didn’t catch enough mistakes in each other’s work, it was an indication that you weren’t reading carefully enough. Sitting through these exercises could be deeply uncomfortable, but the pressure also forced you to become a better writer.

My friend dreaded these sessions, so you can imagine his terror when it came time to submit his thesis. He spent hour after hour combing through his work to root out every grammatical and stylistic misstep he could think of, fretting about what this professor might say. After my friend had passed on the day of his oral defense, that professor came up to him to point out an error on the cover page.

He had misspelled his name.

Not to minimize the stress my friend felt leading up to that moment, typos like these are functionally inconsequential. Even in published work, typographical errors say more about the process of production than they do about the author, and I am generally loathe to bring them up in book reviews unless there are an egregious number or they substantially affect the experience of reading the piece. Obviously, the goal is to have an error-free manuscript, but to typo is to be human.

I also have been thinking about these anxieties again with respect to a writing funk I have been in these past few weeks.

What happened, basically, is that as soon as I returned my copy-edited book manuscript I started to stumble across references to recent scholarship that I ought to have included. These are obviously more serious concerns than typos, but none of these pieces would fundamentally change the argument I make in the book so much as they would have added a bit more nuance to roughly five paragraphs and/or footnotes in a manuscript that eclipsed 100,000 words. And yet, coming across these citations triggered all of my anxieties about where I received my degree and working as an extremely contingent scholar for the last few years. As much as I stand by my work, I have recently been more concerned about how it’ll be received than excited that my first book has a preliminary release date.

(My partner has informed me that I’m not allowed to fret about how the book will be received until after it is released, at which time if the anxiety returns she will direct me to sleep on the porch.)

What I am wrestling with is the difference between consuming things and producing things. Consuming even the densest scholarship is relatively easy, given adequate time and determination. By contrast, producing things is hard. A short article could have taken the author months of reading or excavation, weeks of writing and rewriting, and several rounds of feedback from people at scholars, early readers, and referees. In other words, something that took half an hour to read very likely took the author weeks, and could have literally taken years, for the author to produce. Writing a book, I have found, only magnifies the asymmetry between these two processes.

This is neither a novel observation nor even the first time I have reflected on it. However, the stakes feel higher this time, both because carrying an extended argument across a book-length project requires wrangling many more threads than does making an argument in an article and simply because this is my first book project.

My book will not be perfect. Then again, neither are any of the books I have reviewed, and I have never reviewed a book I truly disliked—while some other books that I think are awful have received broadly positive reviews. All of this is to say that fixating on those handful of pages where I might have done a little more is distracting me from recalling the things that I think I did very well and the places where I think I am making important contributions.

But this anxiety has also had the insidious effect of pulling me away from doing other writing, even in this space. This is a problem because I have a variety of projects I need to finish, but, really, I’d just like to be able to focus on the process again. Perhaps reminding myself of the difference between producing and consuming will do the trick.

Some thoughts on length, or I like big books and short books

I wrote a long dissertation. Too long, really, and certainly longer than most of my committee wanted to read. From cover to cover, 499 pages of shaggy and at times repetitive research, but in a format endorsed by my advisor who was convinced that something short and with a clearer narrative arc (i.e. something more readable) would be received as too insubstantial to be a dissertation.

During my oral defense, which took place on a Monday morning less than 24-hours after I returned from a conference in Canada, I articulated a vision for revising this document into a book. In particular, I wanted to fold almost all of the disparate case studies (19, accounting for about 2/3 of the length) into the core narrative. Some monographs are very well suited to illuminating a topic through narrow investigations on facets of a phenomenon. My case studies, I thought, were uneven and not suited toward offering a broad portrait of a phenomenon because I wasn’t writing about a phenomenon. Instead, I was using a regional study to talk about the relationship between imperial systems in the eastern Aegean, and I thought that these themes were best shown by tracing the evolution over time. The only case studies I wanted to leave would be two synoptic chapters (I was wrong, I only needed one) and three short appendices.

The changes I proposed that Monday morning are almost identical to what I put in my book proposal, in which I explained that I wanted to reduce the word count from a 150,000-word dissertation to a 100,000-word book (inclusive of notes). Prompted by a recent Twitter discourse on book length and the fact that I am in the home stretch of preparing my manuscript for submission, I wanted to take a moment to reflect both on how I did and offer a few thoughts on book length.

As to my own book, I ran over my word count by a little over 10% and watching the word count creep upward as I transform my citations to Chicago style has added a steady drip of anxiety to the process. I am actually close if you exclude the bibliography (some people don’t; my estimated count did), and I was on target before one of the readers for the press—correctly—pointed out that one of the chapters needed to be split into two. Each full chapter is between 9,000 and 11,000 words, so while adding this chapter substantially improved the book, it also accounts for most of the extra length.

The excess length bothered me, a lot.

Books cost money, big books cost more money, and first-time authors are unproven commodities. Book length is, of course, genre and field specific, which makes general truisms hard to come by. Romance novels fall into a rather narrow band between maybe 50,000 and 90,000, while the average fantasy book might be 100,000, but Patrick Rothfuss’ first book, The Name of the Wind, was 250,000 (the sequel was 400,000). I had read online that 100,000 words was already stretching it for a first-time academic non-fiction author, so running over by more than 10% sparked all sorts of thoughts. Would I have to cut an entire chapter? Would I have to spend hours ruthlessly trimming every trace of conversational tone from the manuscript in order to meet the word count?? Who needs a bibliography, anyway???

The solution, of course, was to email my editor, who gave me welcome guidance: send it all and let the readers decide. The readers liked the manuscript as-is…and suggested a few more minor additions.

I have an obvious bias here, but I am pleased with the outcome. The excess may be a little indulgent, but it also means that I don’t have to cut an entire chapter.

The academic discourse I have seen on Twitter—and elsewhere anecdotally—is for shorter books, at least in the non-fiction sphere. I am sympathetic to this movement. To echo what Bill Caraher has said on his blog, there is often something indulgent about long books. I increasingly find myself less attracted to long non-fiction, particularly when there is a biographical subject involved. Frequently, these books are repetitive and exult in the minutiae of a topic at the expense of making an argument. I understand why these are appealing, whether because one wants to live their “dad” life to the fullest with a blow-by-blow account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or because a tabloid-esque tell-all about someone’s life gives glimpses into the workings of power in Johnson’s White House or Horatio Nelson’s scandalous affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton. But that is also a matter of genre. For academic books, by contrast, the argument is the point, so much so that during coursework it is common for graduate students to talk about how to “break” a book and synthesize the scope of the argument without reading more than a few pages (this has never been one of my strengths). In truth, staying current in a field requires reading a lot of books and each person only has so much time. Short, elegant books with a clear argument are a blessing to the reader who may feel that time invested in a 170- or 200-page book is better spent than the time given to a 700-page one.

However, I am actually agnostic on book length.

Big books have their place, usually in the form of a grand synthesis covering a big topic. (Caraher suggests that the length serves to add gravitas.) I don’t often find myself sitting down to read these cover to cover, though my advisor once told me to read Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander with a bottle of wine. More frequently, these are books that I mine for information. I read them in drips and drabs, looking for a specific discussion or for a chapter that I can assign to my students. In the case of Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium, I use it as a textbook that the students read alongside primary sources and other supplementary material. In other words, I like these books as resources.

That said, I am in broad agreement with Caraher on Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It found a lot of their points provocative in terms of how to understand the early history of humanity, but this was not a book written in a way that sections could be easily extracted. The Dawn of Everything grew out of conversations between the two scholars, and it read like that to me. It felt conversational, but with a tendency to wander around drawing broad connections that illuminated whatever theme they wanted to talk about at a given moment. I came away with a lot to think about in terms of how I teach the early history of humanity and some things to follow up on, but I also suspect I should revisit at least some of the chapters in advance of teaching my world history survey again and the book’s indulgent length does not fill me with a whole lot of desire to do so.

What I look for is for the length of a book to fit its topic. Problems arise in long books because the extra space is as likely to cause bloat as it is to actually be necessary, which, in turn, diminishes how useful I find those books. My book is not nearly as The Dawn of Everything and the scholars who reviewed it for the press thought that the length was appropriate to the topic. I just hope that the general audience agrees when it finally comes out.

Publishing While Contingent

Earlier this month at the annual SCS meeting I attended a roundtable on the future of academic publishing. The conversation ranged widely, from the relative lack of opportunities to receive comments on written work before it is published to discipline-specific series adjusting to meet interdisciplinary work to the need both to teach reviewers how to give useful reviews and teach young academics how to receive feedback productively.

I found the discussion stimulating. But I also kept coming back to what I thought was an elephant in the room.

The panelists had brought contingent faculty up in passing, talking about the systems for compensating the unpaid labor of reviewing that goes into academic publishing. Most journals simply don’t have the money to pay reviewers and one of the challenges facing the field at the moment is the diminishing pool of people who can provide feedback. The panelists were (rightly) wary of exploiting junior colleagues with limited resources by asking them to commit large amounts of time for which they cannot be paid. I appreciated this sentiment, but I was also thinking about how simply excluding this potential pool of reviewers also creates a two-tiered system that requires more and more out of a smaller and smaller set of people while leaving other people outside of potential opportunities that could be found by this sort of networking.

Now, reviewing is not a silver bullet. To this point in my career, I have had one opportunity to review a manuscript (I was paid a small sum to review a book manuscript for a book being rereleased and is due out this summer) and it did not magically open any doors for me. Rather, in this context, reviewing seemed to me to be a microcosm of a larger issue where if people in editorial positions (here I was particularly thinking of scholars who edit journals) routinely don’t incorporate people in contingent positions into these processes and networks of academic publishing even out of reasonable concerns over unpaid labor, will this in time lead to a comparable shrinkage of people who are offered opportunities to participate in edited volumes, curated collections, and the like?

I don’t have an answer. Asking for labor from people who receive no tangible benefit for doing it isn’t the answer, but neither is simply cutting them out of the process.

In truth, very few scholars intend to stay contingent. There are scholars who publish brilliant work while working outside of academia and there are those in secure positions. Being between those two poles is a temporary limbo with few of the opportunities of either—except that the current state of higher education has turned it into the new normal, and you can’t publish your way out of that. To my mind, this makes it even more imperative to at least invite contingent faculty members into these systems of academic publishing. Many might decline the invitation, but choosing not even to extend it simply reifies the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Part of the solution, I think, has to be advocating for improved working conditions for all faculty. Not only would this add to the pool of people who would be able to contribute to these forms of academic labor, but it could also help open space for different types of academic writing since there is some truth to the idea that contingency offers a perverse freedom to one’s writing since you are not judged on the same standards and schedules as tenure-line faculty.

(I have maundered a bit on this topic in the past, most notably when considering what I would write if I stopped pursuing academic employment.)

I have been thinking about this panel again recently while working on the preface for my first book. A preface is supposed to tell the story of the book and offer some reflection on those people and institutions who helped you create the finished product. I have always had a strange affection for prefaces and usually at least skim them because this is where the formal academic tone drops and the person comes through, at least to an extent. I had fun with the acknowledgements and bio for my dissertation, mostly because nobody told me that I couldn’t, but I am finding this part of the book harder to write.

Many first books follow a common template in their acknowledgements:

This is a revised version of my dissertation. Revisions began at X post-doctoral fellowship [or visiting assistant professorship] and completed with the generous support of Y current, full time job that awarded me a research leave and paid for travel, etc, etc.

Not all of these steps are equal, of course. Most post-doctoral positions offer more support than most VAPs, but it is easy to thank either of them when they were a stepping-stone to a tenure-line position.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues at my current job, but an unvarnished recounting of the conditions that birthed this book would be quite a bit different. Revisions started during two years of a half-time position (no benefits) that provided a standard amount of research funding for the department that was enough to go to a conference each year, but too little for a major research trip and with too little pay to do much more than survive. Plenty of time to write and access to a library, but not much else. They continued during a year of cobbling together employment from different sources, teaching five or six courses at a time (no benefits, no research funds, little time to write). Then during the pandemic, which left me temporarily unemployed, followed by a semester where I taught five classes (four entirely new preps) at three institutions and another semester of four classes at two institutions (no research funds, limited library access, benefits from my partner’s job).

I also found a lot of this employment isolating in the sense that I was often teaching far outside my field and without colleagues in any meaningful sense. The internet helps bridge some of the geographic distance, of course, but it cannot replace physical contact, particularly when you are starting from the outside. Of course, I am hardly the first person to face this challenge. In the preface to his Conquest and Empire (1988), the historian Brian Bosworth wrote:

My obligations are few and many…I have been forced to work in geographical isolation, and my physical contacts with other scholars have been confined to brief periods of leave. That means that my writing is perhaps more personally oriented than it might have been, and I cannot make acknowledgements of direct assistance.

He then goes on to name a series of eminent historians who influenced his thinking and thanks his institution for their support.

I don’t want to put any of my past employers on blast. I took the one course from a local community college, for instance, because I thought that it might help land a full-time job teaching at a community college down the line, not because I expected that it would help me finish my book. At the same time, it has not been an easy road to get to this place. I did it because I wanted to write this book and I am proud of the work I have done, but I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t have been easier with more time and resources.

I am finding this a difficult thing to balance. I have people I want and need to thank, but I also don’t want to white-wash the experience of writing this book with some trite pablum about my tenuous academic employment. A discussion like this might lack for social grace, but at least it would be honest.

Writing Wrap 2021

Every year around this time I kick off a year-end series that starts with a wrap-up of everything that I published that year and sundry project updates. I never really know what to call this post, though, since I am not nearly prolific enough to focus just on publications that came out that year, as I have in past years (2020; 2018).

Once again this year I published very little, but I did take major steps toward a few different pieces:

  1. The manuscript for my first book, Accustomed to Obedience?: Classical Ionia and the Aegean World, 480–294 BCE, received positive feedback from reviewers at University of Michigan Press. I am now working to deliver the revised manuscript early next year. Gulp.
  2. I had an article on Ephesus in the fourth century BCE accepted for publication in Classical Quarterly, pending revisions that I submitted last week.
  3. A chapter I wrote for an edited collection on Athenian orators and the historical memory about the conquest of Samos in 366 BCE passed peer review and the volume The Orators and their Treatment of the Recent Past is moving toward publication with De Gruyter.

I like reviewing books, so I am disappointed that I did not do any this year—the few books I inquired about were already claimed—but I did publish or have a hand in publishing a few other things.

  1. Back in February, I published a piece in The Conversation on assessing and mitigating risk through the lens of ancient Greece. The thrust is that while the Greeks put great stock in divination, prophecy, and making appropriate sacrifices to the gods, none of those ritual actions should let people off the hook for taking adequate precaution. Rather, after taking both types of precaution you just have to accept that risk still exists.
  2. I also interviewed two people, Aven McMaster and Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon, for the Contingent Faculty series of blog posts on the SCS blog. Aven, in particular, highlighted how precarious a career in higher education can be, and I believe that the working conditions for contingent faculty are essential if fields like ancient history and classics are going to continue to exist except as elite antiquarian exercises. I was interviewed for the series in 2020 and wanted to carry the spirit of having difficult conversations forward into these posts. Both interviewees (as well as the two interviewed by my colleagues) spoke candidly about the myriad of challenges facing contingent faculty, and I am really proud of the work that we did to bring these conversations public this year.

Most of my academic work went toward my teaching this year, but I presented two papers at academic conferences. The first applied of post-colonial theory and specifically Third Space Theory to community identity in and around Ionia; the second offered a new interpretation of the so-called proskynesis affair during the reign of Alexander the Great, looking a synthesis between two recent approaches. I don’t have imminent publication plans for either, mostly because there are other things I need to finish first, but hope to come back to one or both next year.

Other projects are moving forward more slowly, but I hope to have big updates next year.

I have a complete list of my publications, with links to everything available online, here. If you are interested in reading any of my work and do not have access to it, contact me for a pdf or off-print.