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Publications and the Historian

Dr. Jodi Burkett, Op-Ed Columnist

January 2012

What does it mean to be a professional historian? It is both a lot more and a lot less than I had imagined as a student. I came to history quite late. It wasn’t until my third year of undergraduate study, when I was on exchange from Toronto to Glasgow, that history started to make sense to me. At Glasgow I was taught by Simon Ball who quoted me L.P. Hartley’s famous phrase ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. For the past ten years I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this foreign country and about the craft of history. But it was only recently that I have truly begun to think of myself as a professional historian. I am one of the lucky PhD students who, upon the completion of my thesis in 2009, found a permanent and full-time job in academia. By definition this makes me a professional historian. However, this definition is rather simplistic. In fact, what it means to be a professional historian – the advantages and responsibilities it entails – continue to preoccupy me and are the driving force for my op-ed contributions. I will be writing about the concerns of working in the higher education sector in Britain at a time when, without much fuss, the public university system is being replaced by a private, fees-based system in which the pressure of teaching, research and administration are seemingly in competition and each inexorably increasing.

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Last week I submitted the draft manuscript of my first book to my publisher. According to the Royal Historical Society the publication of a book is the standard marker of a professional historian eligible for fellowship. This is certainly an important professional milestone, but it is much more than that. The basis of this book was my PhD research. I have, therefore, been living with it for the past seven years at least. It has matured with me, becoming (hopefully) more sophisticated as I have learned more and taken myself, and my research, more seriously. Many of my colleagues and friends have helped along the way both giving and asking for advice about the process of turning the thesis into the book. Reflecting on the process has highlighted two points which I hope may help, or at least entertain, some others.

The first thing that I learned is that this is a long process. Seriously, very long. I had some strange idea the day after my defence (viva) that the project was somehow ‘complete’. My examiners had suggested that the chapters were ‘a bit long’ and should be further divided up for the ease of readers, but I was under the mistaken impression that it would be quick to simply re-arrange a few chapters and, voila, book! This was definitely not the case. Instead I set about entirely re-writing the material for the book. In the end I’m glad that I did this as the ‘tone’ did need to shift, but it certainly lengthened the process. The year after I submitted my thesis I was teaching at four institutions as an Associate Lecturer (teaching assistant in North American terminology) to make ends meet. This included lecture writing and seminar leading on topics ranging from the independence of Peru (seriously!) to Thatcher and virtually everything in between. Somehow in between all of these things I got a book proposal together within about six months. And then I waited. And waited. Eventually I emailed the editor and asked if there had been any progress. At this point he asked if I had any sample chapters. I should have used my growing knowledge of British indirectness to realise that this was his attempt to ask for sample chapters, but frankly the answer at the time was ‘no’ I did not have any sample chapters and it was left like that for a further year. Finally I heard through the grapevine that this editor had left and got in touch with his replacement who asked clearly and directly for three sample chapters (because it was based on a thesis, which, apparently, makes it rather dubious). Thankfully during that year I had continued to work on it and was able to get the new editor three chapters. Then I waited. Another six months passed before I heard anything definite. And now that the manuscript has been submitted it will still be more than a year before I see the book. The moral here is clear – be prepared to wait. But equally, if I hadn’t pestered at certain points I would probably still be waiting. It is a fine balance between being patient and pushy with editors and publishers.

My second major realisation was that writing doesn’t get easier. Somehow I had also been under the delusion that having written my thesis the hard work was over. Unfortunately it was just beginning. The tone and parameters of my thesis were relatively easy to identify – I sent material to my supervisor and he told me what needed changing and how it should be pitched. Writing the book I was largely on my own. I did have two colleagues who read parts, but in the main the writing of the book took place on my own with occasional outbursts on Facebook about how difficult writing was. Thankfully I have a number of friends and colleagues also working on books/articles/etc. who commiserated and lent support. This ‘virtual’ support was crucial, particularly for those days when doing the dishes, laundry or simply staring out the window seems infinitely more important and interesting than whatever was on the computer screen. Writing is hard work – and half the work is the ongoing battle with the demons of procrastination. Having a job as well as trying to write (even though my university gave me research leave so I was not, in fact, teaching for the semester) makes procrastination worse as it is infinitely easier to find things that ‘simply must be done’. Never has responding to ridiculous student emails seemed so important. I guess what I learned was that procrastination was not linked to being a student (as I had hoped), but was tied to the craft of writing. It is something that I will always have to deal with. It is best to expect and plan for it.

About two hours after I sent off the draft manuscript a colleague of mine asked about my new project. I think that was the moment when what it meant to be a professional historian sunk in – as a PhD student the completion and submission of my work was marked by celebration and praise, as a professional historian the same activity was marked by the question ‘what are you doing next?’ And just like that the pressure to publish or perish is reinforced.

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One Comment

  1. Sue Bruley
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jodi,

    Nice to read your thoughts. You do yourself down. I don’t know about procrastination – your output has been amazing. But, yes, as a prof historian you soon get the feeling that you are only as good as your last publication. The pressure to publish is relentless. At the same time, we spend a great deal of our time not writing and researching due to our very heavy teaching and admin roles. As a result excellent historians like Dominic Sandbrook and David Kynaston refuse to take up academic positions which is a real pity I think. On the other hand we are continually grounded and stimulated by close contact with our colleagues who are very supportive and interaction with students.
    I could go on, but need to wind up as other things call, but we could mull over this further some time with a cup of tea …meanwhile thank you for the lovely banana cake and enjoy the eggs!

    Sue