Roundtable on How NOT To Write Your Second Book: Catherine Kelly on Framing Your Project

This is the final installment of the How NOT TO Write Your Second Book roundtable. Catherine E. Kelly is a Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the Journal of the Early Republic. Her books include In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century (Cornell UP) and Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (UPenn Press).

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Let me begin with a cautionary tale:

I had just returned to the University of Oklahoma after an extended research trip for the project that would eventually become my second book, Republic of Taste.  I was a very recent hire; I’d only been on campus for a semester before leaving to spend six months back east, including a four-month fellowship at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.  My Chair invited me to his office to tell him how the trip had gone and what I had to show for it.

I told him the truth. My time at Winterthur was mind-blowing; life changing. I spent hours every day looking, staring at images and artifacts, trying to imagine the original settings and owners.  I looked long and hard. I looked until my eyes ached. I looked, and I stared, and I studied, and then I looked some more, the better to develop what art historian Michael Baxendall called a “period eye.”  Just as I was launching into an impassioned discussion of what it meant to look at quillwork, to really look at quillwork, I glanced up at my new Chair.  His expression had just shifted from bewilderment to dismay.  What kind of nut had they just hired?  “Buyer’s Remorse” was tattooed across his forehead.

What went wrong?  After all, I had been honest, which is never a bad policy. And there was nothing inappropriate in what I had been doing on leave; in fact, it was essential to the book’s research.  The problem was that I hadn’t framed my work in ways that made it legible to my Chair, nor had I framed it in ways that he could then use in subsequent conversations with Deans, Provosts, and other administrators.

In retrospect, I realized that this awkward conversation formed part of a larger pattern. Although I have made plenty of bad decisions over the years (a partial list would include my starter marriage, that time I tried to use TurboTax, and the Ziggy Stardust haircut I rocked in 8th grade), almost none of them were connected to my professional life.  In fact, I can’t think of a major professional decision I regret. Still, it took me a long time to learn how to frame my good but perhaps unconventional choices in language that best served my interests.

Tamara 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 those of us who count ourselves among the foxes a handful of concrete strategies for mitigating the drawbacks that invariably accompany our decisions:

  • Manage the discomfort that comes with leaving familiar literatures, questions, periods, and methodologies behind. Mastering a new field to write a second book is exciting. But the quick shift from expert to novice can also be nerve-wracking. When you get rattled, and you will, think strategically about which colleagues you share this discomfort with and how you share it. The folks I confided in were not necessarily my closest friends or colleagues. They weren’t the ones I invited over for impromptu Instead, I chose them because I trusted their discretion and candor as much as I valued their particular abilities to help me identify a path forward.
  • Work with the newness of the new work. Regardless of how new your second book feels, it makes sense to think about how it connects to your first.  Take pains to help gatekeepers of all stripes (promotion committees, fellowship committees, hiring committees, administrators, and colleagues) understand how your second book simultaneously builds on and departs from your first book.  Tying the second book to the first amounts to more than having your cake and eating it, too. It amplifies the resonance of the first book (never a bad thing) and deflects concerns that you’re taking on something you are unprepared to tackle.
  • Build a narrative out of your choices. We historians trade in narrative and yet it is striking how rarely we apply these skills to ourselves, to our careers.  Develop a rationale for shifting gears and then articulate how this move enhances your work as a scholar, a teacher, a community member, a citizen.  Communicate to your colleagues that you have carefully weighed the costs and benefits of your choices, including extra time to promotion, as part of a long-term career strategy.  And let me be clear: I never had anything like a “strategy.” I still don’t. But I would have been far better off in the years I spent writing Republic of Taste and editing Common-place had I thought to frame my decisions as though I did.
  • Tie your newly fashioned narrative to the stated goals and strengths of your department, program, college, or university. Make the case that advancing your work also advances specific institutional goals.
  • Set benchmarks to demonstrate your growing breadth and expertise to your colleagues, especially the ones who are tasked with evaluating you. Don’t just read the journals that publish in your new subfield; write book reviews for them.  As you build new intellectual networks, seek out opportunities for collaboration.  Begin attending and presenting at new conferences and invite the folks you meet there to join your panel at SHEAR or OI. For one thing, this is fun. For another, you’ll learn a lot. But more than that: These benchmarks demonstrate to gatekeepers at your institution and beyond that you are extending your profile’s reach.  Your professional stature is improving even if your book is “still in progress.” And if the gatekeepers at your institution can’t grasp this by reading your c.v. or your annual evaluation form, find a way to communicate your progress in terms they understand.  I have used, variously, the readership and ranking of a journal; the fancy, named chairs of panel collaborators; the Ed Board of a book series; the number or variety of disciplines represented within a conference or edited volume; the words “keynote,” “invited,” and “solicited”; and the number of people in the audience.

Foxes of the profession take note: Even as you pursue you work with passion and let it bring you unexpected pleasure and even joy, heed the profile that you display among your peers. Regardless of whether that profile ever impinges upon or enhances the work proper, it can do a lot to ease your path through the profession. Performance art has its place in history departments.

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