Interview with Michael McGandy

Michael McGandy is Senior Editor and Editorial Director of the Three Hills imprint at Cornell University Press. He tweets as @michaelmcgandy.

JUNTO: Can you outline the review and production schedule for a first book?

Michael McGandy: If I am talking to a scholar who has just wrapped up his or her dissertation and is prepared to move on to developing the book, I state as a reliable truism that the bound book is four years off. And that presumes all goes well and smoothly! The work of revising the dissertation to make it into a book manuscript is indeterminate and the further work that will need to be done in response to reader reports and then the acquiring editor’s direction is also indeterminate. Those are, as I tend to say, the x-factors. What is pretty well fixed is that external review, in-house processing through Editorial and Faculty Boards, and contracting requires four months. What is also fixed is that producing the book and getting it out into the world on its publication date (the date when it goes live for sale, which is typically four weeks after the bound book is in the warehouse) is 11 months. So, even before a person considers the time needed for new research, revising existing chapters, and adding new material, 15 months are tied up with process. (Now “tied up” is an unkind phrase for key elements of making a book both excellent and saleable! But I know that that is how people scheduling out their early professional calendars tend to think.) When one considers that fact and then all the work that needs to go into developing a manuscript—even as one pays the bills and occasionally takes a break to have some non-scholarly fun—four years go very quickly and often turn out to be barely enough time.

Reflecting on that and taking the opportunity to editorialize, I do think that the well-reviewed first book as the non-negotiable standard for professional success in a tenure-track framework (on the standard six-year schedule) needs to be rethought. Four to six years do fly by, especially when we consider all the other important and engrossing things that usually come with these first years after the PhD (first jobs, new homes in new places, family, etc.). I am not going to name names or institutions, but in this context I think of the positive examples of some recent authors of mine who were tenured without first books and who were given the extra time to work on their book projects. Their research and writing were augmented because the tenure pressure was off and the projects were transformed (for the better) because the authors had six or seven years to make the book excellent. On the whole, I do not think that the schedule for tenure matches very well with the time needed for great scholarship. Filling out the CV sometimes becomes the driving concern and to the detriment of the work itself. Continue reading

Q&A with Sari Altschuler, Author of The Medical Imagination

Sari Altschuler is an assistant professor of English, associate director of the Humanities Center, and founding director of the minor in Health, Humanities, and Society at Northeastern University. Her book The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States was recently published with the University of Pennsylvania Press (2018), and her work has appeared in leading literary journals, including American LiteratureAmerican Literary History, and PMLA, as well as the Journal of the Early Republic and the medical journal the Lancet. She serves on the advisory board of American Quarterly and the editorial board of Early American Literature and recently coedited a special of Early American Literature (2017) on early American disability studies with Cristobal Silva.

JUNTO: As you know, The Junto is always interested in the experiences of junior scholars who have turned their dissertations into first books. How did your project and theorization of imaginative experimentation change over time?

SARI ALTSCHULER: Great question! This book is very different from my dissertation—but I had to write the dissertation in order to even begin to understand what was going on. The dissertation was about the collaborations of specific doctors and writers in Philadelphia. It was, in some ways, a very narrow and defined topic, which was good for a dissertation. But, when I started to think about what The Medical Imagination might be as a book, I wanted to do something more ambitious. In the dissertation I figured out that these doctors and writers were working together—in conversation—but for the book I wanted to understand the broader intellectual practice in which they were engaging. That’s how imaginative experimentation came to be at the center of the project. It’s an idea I only really began to think about as I finished the dissertation. Continue reading

Guest Post: Elizabeth Seton and Me: Or, How I Almost Wrote a Book about a Saint Without Mentioning God

Today’s guest post is authored by Catherine O’Donnell. Her book, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint was published this month by Cornell University Press. She is also the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic (UNC Press, 2008) and is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

When I arrived at the archive in Emmitsburg, Maryland, my heart sank. My subject was Elizabeth Seton, woman of the early American republic and saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and the archives to which I’d traveled are held on the grounds of her shrine. In order to be at the archives first thing Monday, I’d arrived on a Sunday and decided to see what was happening nearby. The building adjacent to the archives is a minor basilica, so what was happening was Mass. When a guide asked whether I’d visited the Altar of Relics, I winced. I felt oddly guilty about bring my historian’s purposes and questions into this reverent world. I also knew that biographers pride themselves on not writing hagiographies, and that many academic historians pride themselves on not being biographers at all. I felt I was blaspheming both a faith and a profession. Continue reading

How not to write your first book

I read our roundtable on second book projects while filing away information for the future. As I made those mental files, I also found myself making a list of some of the more mechanical issues I encountered while turning my dissertation into my first book. That book isn’t done—it’s back in the press’s and readers’ hands for the moment, so I’m sure I might have some additional ideas down the line—but today I’d like to offer a preliminary list of stuff I wish I’d known. I also hope that other Juntoists will chime in with their experiences; several of us have published books now, or will very shortly do so. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the dissertation-to-book process, but I think of some of the things I’ve written before as general advice for scholars in different fields. Today I wanted to offer some more general advice, and to also delineate some thoughts that are pretty specific to historians. Continue reading

Seeking Sabbatical Advice

editsIt’s a fun time for me to be a Juntoist. I joined the blog while I was ABD, on the brink of defending my dissertation. I had thoughts about research and writing, many untested theories about teaching, and opinions about where historians needed to eat when visiting archives in different cities. This was a blog for junior early Americanists, and I didn’t think too much about how the blog would grow and evolve over the next several (!) years. Definitions of junior scholars (“early career researchers” here in the United Kingdom) vary across the UK. The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s definition is someone within eight years of the PhD or within six years of their first academic appointment. Within my faculty, ECRs include “level 4” staff within four years of being hired or recently hired. Thus when I passed my probation, was promoted to level 5, and became a permanent member of staff, I became a non-ECR by my faculty’s definition but still eligible to apply for AHRC ECR funding and funding from other schemes.[1] All this is a long way of saying that I’m a Not So Early Early Career Researcher™ about to embark on her first sabbatical, and would like your advice about how to approach this period of leave. Continue reading

The Book as a 400 Individual Medley

poolWhen I swam in college, I had a teammate named Liz, who probably swam every event in the meet lineup at least once during the three years I swam with her. This versatility is unusual in a swimmer; we tend to be specialists who have one to three events we hone over the course of four years. But Liz’s ability to take on different events, distances, and strokes made her a perfect (or unfortunate, depending on how you see it) candidate for the ironman of all swim events: the 400 yard individual medley. Shorter than the mile by far, but just as grueling because of its demand that swimmers be proficient in all four of the strokes, this race was one I never had to swim. I was a middling backstroker, and my coaches used to make me swim breaststroke when they wanted a laugh. I was a butterflyer, an occasional middle-distance freestyler, and a relay sprinter—but I knew the theory of the 400 IM. You had to pace yourself on the ‘fly, especially if you weren’t great at it, work the underwater kick off the walls on the backstroke, keep the breaststroke long and strong, and get the hell off the wall and head for home with everything you had left in your lungs for the freestyle.

Remember, way back when, when I said I’d check in to talk about the book-writing process? Those of our readers who’ve written a book or two probably thought that promise was hilariously ambitious, and I’m inclined to agree. Continue reading

The Wandering Essay: A Lesson Plan for Teaching Writing

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Image by Zazzle.com

Before I even started teaching I knew that one of the most difficult parts of the job would be teaching writing. It’s not that I consider myself a great writer; I know I’m prone to tangents, and I’ve never met a dash, comma, or semi-colon I didn’t want to use. It’s just that I find writing pretty intuitive. For informal pieces like this one, I tend to write the way that I talk, and for more structured academic writing my first drafts are pretty crappy—but they get written and then ironed out in my editing process. The takeaway here is that I’ve had to think hard about how to teach writing because the process of writing isn’t really one that I had to articulate before I had students. Knowing that many of you are almost ready to collect first essay assignments, I thought I’d talk a bit today about how we teach writing to students. My Wandering Essay lesson plan is one of the meanest, most productive approaches I’ve used because it makes clear the fact that writing is a process. Here’s how you do it: Continue reading

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