Roundtable on How NOT To Write Your Second Book: Tamara Thornton on Choosing New Topics

We are pleased to have yet another excellent contribution to our “How NOT To Write Your Second Book” Roundtable. Tamara Plakins Thornton is professor of history at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and the author of Cultivating Gentlemen: The Meaning of Country Life among the Boston Elite, 1785-1860 (1989), Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (1996), and Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life (2016).

And Now for Something Completely Different

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Remember this old chestnut? “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” It applies to historians too, and you’ll probably find out which one you are when you turn to your second book project. Building on your first book, making a new contribution to that historiographical conversation? Hedgehog. Or are you drawn to a topic pretty much unrelated to your earlier work? Fox. Make no mistake. Neither is smarter, more original or creative, or produces more important scholarship. But their experiences do differ. Let me share a fox’s perspective on the risks and rewards to your scholarship, intellectual development, and professional standing if you follow your nose into brand-new territory.

First the downsides. Above all, you are constantly having to master new fields, historiographically, bibliographically, and substantively. You need to find out what debates animate the current scholarly dialogues, which are the key works in these fields, and what sorts of primary sources historians in these sub-disciplines use. Even before you take on those tasks, you will probably first need to acquire some very basic knowledge. Your slate may start off as blank as blank can be. You know how to fill it up—scholarly “companion” essays can get you started, colleagues can offer guidance, and remember, you didn’t go to graduate school for nothing—but it does take time. Full disclosure, you will always feel some level of insecurity. You will never feel truly well-read or deeply informed. You will worry that in your ignorance, you may be making rookie mistakes or overlooking something obvious but critical. And guess what? You may be doing just that. Cringe. Gulp. Inhale deeply, because I am not yet done with downsides.

You are always bringing your work to new audiences—journal readers, conference attendees, those who might be interested in your future book—who are unfamiliar with your older work and maybe not so interested in it anyway. Meanwhile, you may disappear from the view of your first audiences. That reality means that it is difficult to build a professional reputation over time as an authority in a field, to make the short-list of historians associated with a particular area of research. It also presents the scholarly challenge of presenting to and writing for people who do not share your intellectual frame of reference. And it can translate into some petty but nonetheless unpleasant challenges to your professional ego. If you give a paper at a conference well outside your old bailiwick, you may feel like a wallflower (Dinner? “Room service, please.”) and a colleague’s glance at your nametag will probably not elicit a flash of recognition, let alone a warm appreciation of your first book.

But, oh, the upsides. Above all, you are constantly having to master new fields, historiographically, bibliographically, and substantively. (No, the copy editor has not missed something.) You get to learn something new all the time! What fun! You feel engaged, stimulated, even powerful, as you sense your knowledge broadening and understanding deepening, and as you make new connections to what you knew before. These intellectual pleasures can feel downright self-indulgent, but in fact, those fresh perspectives pay off in your scholarship. They may allow you to see something new or to recast its significance by placing it in an unfamiliar frame of reference. They may be precisely what makes your second book good.

Continual reinvention also pays off in teaching. Students appreciate when you are open to their questions, no matter how far-flung. It’s gratifying to them and to you when you bring genuine interest in and constructive insights into research projects well outside your expertise. And you feel up to teaching all sorts of topics and all sorts of courses, at least undergraduate ones, confident you can learn more if need be, perhaps even looking forward to the intellectual growth that comes with pedagogical breadth.

And your standing in the profession? You may still get a bit lost in the shuffle you have created, but I would argue that pursuing a fox’s strategy is your best shot at earning the respect of your colleagues—provided you are a fox. If you’re a hedgehog, of course, proceed accordingly. I don’t think we have much choice. One or the other is our temperament, our drive, and therefore our strength. In the end, we do our best work when we recognize who we are. And our best work is precisely what gives us the most pleasure and meaning, undergirds our reputations as historians, and best honors the pursuit of scholarship and the lives of those we study.

One comment on “Roundtable on How NOT To Write Your Second Book: Tamara Thornton on Choosing New Topics

  1. […] Plakins Thornton is eloquent on the rewards and drawbacks of being a fox, of treating the second book as a significant departure from the first.  My aim here is to offer […]

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