Why I’m Glad I Worked on an Edited Collection

When I was a graduate student, I wrote a master’s on cannibalism during the Starving Time of 1609-10, which became my first article. That article resulted in an invitation to edit a collection on cannibalism, which I agreed to do during a time when most early career academics were being advised to prioritize books and articles over work in edited collections (and often to avoid them entirely).

My perspective today is that I’m extremely thankful to have edited this collection, but that in the field of early American history (and I know this assessment varies from subfield to subfield), articles and monographs still seem to do better work than the edited collection in building a junior scholar’s portfolio. The other caveat I’d add is that editors need to approach their collections strategically. From the perspective of an early career academic in the UK, that strategy meant tying the collection to an attempt to win funding, using the edited collection as a way to bridge my first and second book projects, and making sure the work helped me get to know scholars whose work I respected and wanted to learn more about. Here’s how I tried to do that.

Funding was important for me because, as I’ve written about before, there are immigration restrictions in place in the UK that limit my ability to go after big funding grants for travel during the first five to six years that I’m here. I needed a way to bring scholars to me, and to build the funding section of my CV without those big fellowships. Luckily the British funding system is good about offering small conference and networking grants, and I won one from the Wellcome Trust to host a conference about cannibalism. It helped that I had a book contract for the volume, and could discuss it in my funding application. It also helped that I had a clear position about the field: I thought it was still (despite a wave of postcolonial scholarship) too caught up in debates over whether or not cannibalism occurred, and wanted to move beyond them. I think a conference is a good first step for an edited volume because it encourages participants to write a draft of their essays earlier than they otherwise would, and it gives you as the editor a sense of whether their contribution will fit with your vision for the collection.

Once I had the conference, I moved forward with bringing the collection together. I waited a few weeks to gather my thoughts, and then emailed the presenters whose work I thought was ready enough to be published, and whose work would fit with other contributors. I also reached out to a few additional authors who had been unable to attend the conference. After talking to mentors in the UK, who knew more about the Research Excellent Framework than I did, I also planned to write a chapter in the volume, instead of just the introduction and the conclusion. It’s easier to “count” an edited volume as part of your REF contribution this way. I also used the chapter as a way to write through some of the ideas that had emerged from the first book about hunger as I began thinking about a second book about oceans, rivers, and coasts. From there, I started to lie—just a little bit—to my contributors about deadlines and word count limits.

My deadline to the press was in December, but I told contributors that first drafts were due in January and final drafts in June of that year. I tried to time peoples’ first draft submissions for a point in the semester when I could read them and provide feedback within a month. This meant that everyone had to draft a fuller version of their conference paper a year before submission, that I would have time to read and provide feedback about initial revisions, and that I could be generous with extensions and more relaxed about straggling submissions. Although six months of wiggle room seemed like a lot of time, I was glad that I had it. As I’d anticipated, one or two people had to drop out. I prepared for this problem by lowballing everyone on word count in the first draft. Once people bowed out, I gave everyone a few hundred extra words, and then gave many extra words to the authors who seemed would make best use of them. Being the Word Count Fairy was pretty fun!

I think the other piece of advice I would offer about edited volumes is that communication matters, for the contributors as well as the editor. I honestly don’t think it’s a problem if chapter contributors need more time to write—especially if the editor has built in extra time into her reading and editing schedule—but I vastly prefer that contributors communicate about what they need from their editor rather than go radio silent.

I also think it’s the editor’s job to communicate regularly. I tried to send reminder emails a month before drafts were due, to let everyone know when the volume went out for review, and to let people know when to expect author contract emails from the press. My UK authors wanted to know that the volume would be REFable, so whether it would be peer reviewed and if it would be published by 2020. After first drafts, I tried to be really clear about what changes I thought an author needed to make, and I did the same after we received our reviewers’ reports. Once our volume was copyedited, I had to negotiate on behalf of a few authors who agreed with some but not all of our excellent copyeditor’s changes. I’m still learning about marketing’s role in university press publishing, but for this volume, I learned a bit about cover choices. Our volume’s title is taken from Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s 1787 narrative, in which he worried that slave traders meant to cannibalize him on his journey to the African coast and across the Atlantic Ocean.[1] Given the extent to which colonizers accused Africans and Native Americans of cannibalism, it was important to me to have a cover that flipped this trope to show a colonizer engaged in activities that appeared cannibalistic.

Bringing together an edited volume was a lot of work, but I’m happy with the time I spent on it because it allowed me to get to know the work of people whose scholarship I admired and interdisciplinary academics with whom I was unfamiliar. It helped me do some important thinking about my second monograph, and it taught me a bit about deadlines, working with academics, and the world of university press publishing. I won’t rush into another similar project immediately, but I don’t think the value of such endeavors should be discounted.

[1] Ottobah Cugoano, “Narrative of the Enslavement of Ottabah Cugoano, a Native of Africa; Published by Himself in the Year 1787,” in The Negro’s Memorial; or, Abolitionist’s Catechism; by an Abolitionist, edited by Thomas Fisher (London: Hatchard and Co., 1825), 122, Documenting the American South, accessed April 7, 2016.


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