From the President

The Next Big Thing: Supporting the Second Book

Kenneth Pomeranz, September 2013

In my May column, I described the very circuitous route from my intended second book to the completely different one that I actually wrote and argued that unfinished projects could have many benefits. But unfinished projects—even if, like mine, at least yield some articles—rarely get anyone promoted. So this month's column takes up a practical topic suggested but not addressed in the May column: are there ways to make things easier for people who have trouble finishing a second book?

Given my own story, I'm particularly interested in cases where family responsibilities make it hard to get enough time at archives—something that I suspect has become more common since so many more academics are now part of two-career couples than used to be the case, more academics are women (who still bear more than half of care responsibilities in most families), and the average age at first tenure-track appointment has climbed slowly but steadily over the last 20 years. But the problems can take other forms as well, and we know they are common. On average, historians now at full professor took longer to get from associate to full than from assistant to associate, and some never advance at all.

From some perspectives, this might seem to be an oddly narrow approach to the problem of slow promotion. One could ask why we should weight research so heavily in the first place, rather than giving more equal weight to the various ways that people can contribute to their institutions? Some places do put greater weight on teaching than research, and perhaps more should do so; certainly teaching should count for more than most people think it currently does at research universities. But for current purposes, what matters is that most of the more desirable tenure-granting institutions (including good baccalaureate colleges) do insist on a vigorous, ongoing research program for promotion. (For data on how tenured historians at various kinds of institutions perceive what their institution values, see Robert B. Townsend, "What Makes a Successful Academic Career in History?" Perspectives on History, December 2012.) And it does no historian any good—as a teacher or otherwise—to feel stalled as a researcher, whether or not their other efforts get recognized.

For my current purposes, it is also beside the point whether departments should require a second book as the preferred mark of research productivity. Flexibility on this point makes sense to me: Paula Findlen makes an excellent case for such flexibility in this same issue of Perspectives and many departments (we lack good data on exactly how many) have put these ideas into practice. However, a great many departments still expect a second book, and recently tenured faculty must operate by their department's rules.

Moreover, even if we imagine more departments moving away from insisting on a second book per se, they are likely to want to see a second scholarly "project" of comparable importance to the first one. Such projects might take various forms, but given the importance of carefully described context and extended narration in historical thinking, a relatively large project with demonstrable internal unity will often be the best way for people to prove continued scholarly growth after their first book. (When I consider the books by historians that have influenced me most, there are very few that would have worked just as well as six articles. And I can think of even fewer cases—though there are some—where a single person has produced six unrelated articles with the impact of one of those books.) So the requirement of a completed project that is as challenging as a second book is likely to remain at many places, whether or not the objects that meet it continue to be sets of bound pages.

How, then, might we help more people meet that requirement amidst the many other demands they confront at mid-career?

We might begin by offering people more help in formulating second topics. The gap between first projects, where our choice of topics is (or at least can be) carefully overseen, and second topics, where most of us are on our own (and may not feel that our own senior colleagues are the best people to consult), is worth more systematic attention from the profession. Some colleagues regularly help out younger people at other institutions, but the process of matching such pairs is pretty haphazard, and the work involved generally unrecognized. Perhaps it is time to think of a more systematic way to match talented mentors with those who would benefit from talking to them. (Institutionalizing this might also help the mentors get the credit they deserve.) Some of this might be done thorough electronic networks, but "tips for developing a second book project" also seems like a logical topic for an annual meeting session or two (though it appears that there has been no such session in at least the last 20 years).

At least some mentoring is highly individualized and necessarily private, but there are also further public conversations we need to have about what kinds of second project topics people should be thinking about. (Here, again, I am bracketing huge issues about the forms of future publication, since they are not specific to any particular career stage.)

I am, for instance, far from the only person for whom some form of "world history"—which is more willing than most historical fields to take nonarchival scholarship seriously—proved a godsend when real-life responsibilities made archives less accessible. Other historians, across subfields and geographic scales, would similarly benefit from doing less monographic books. For many people, it will be both more exciting and more compatible with other constraints in life to imagine second projects that are more interpretive and/or synthetic, and perhaps aimed at different audiences: students, general readers, colleagues in other parts of the discipline, and so on.

I certainly don't want to encourage people to think that they're done with archival work once they produce one archive-intensive book, or to suggest that writing a different kind of big second project is necessarily any easier that producing another monograph. Departments will surely differ on these issues; what matters most is that recently tenured scholars should be able to know, without having to raise the question themselves or guess based on very old precedents, which kinds of work their particular department will accept for promotion. (My guess is that there are a fair number of people who shy away from the second project they'd really like to do because they are afraid it isn't what's expected, and that open discussion would result in some of them being pleasantly surprised.)

At some point, the discussion also needs to come back to graduate training. Most programs train students to write one kind of book—an archive-intensive monograph drawn from a dissertation on a topic often chosen in close consultation with an advisor. We do expose them to other kinds of works, but most often, I think, in ways that lead back to monographic questions: Did this synthetic work distort the lessons of more specialized works in the process of generalizing about them? What does it suggest about where monographic research should go next? This is, of course, essential, and the back and forth between more particular and broader claims is central to our discipline: but if we train students almost exclusively for the role of expert in and producer of the "particular" side of that relationship, both they and the field may suffer for it later.

If, on the other hand, we give students more opportunities to think about what goes into producing other kinds of historical writing—whether through class assignments or optional extra-curricular workshops—we might do more to help prepare them for a research career, rather than just the research that gets them their first job. (A broader agenda along these lines might also expose students to some of the work involved in editing documents, writing short historical pieces for more general audiences, and so on, but at least for now, that would not help them with promotion.)

Encouraging students to acquire skills beyond those needed for their current project—whether in languages, data management, or whatever—would lower barriers to future research productivity, and benefit those students (a significant percentage, even in elite graduate programs) who wind up filling roles other than professor. And, as I've said in previous columns, encouraging students to read and especially talk outside their fields can do a lot to help us train scholars better able to leverage their knowledge into varied kinds of projects and publications—as well as helping them get a job in the first place. Familiarity with many different kinds of work, what departments expect, and who can be consulted will help our early-career colleagues more quickly find ways into new and important topics and around whatever post-tenure roadblocks they encounter.

—Kenneth Pomeranz is president of the AHA.