February 10, 2004

Unfinished Business

This morning I received an email from "another one on the margins," who asked whether I'd be willing to post the following:

I'm a member of the part-time contingent group and in a transition stage right now. To complete that transition, I feel like I owe it to myself to finish this final project: my manuscript. Landing a book contract should have been one of the happier moments and it was for five minutes. However, since getting it I've become increasingly disinterested in the topic and in completing the book. I wrestled with it as a dissertation, an article, a book proposal and now a book. Now I don't know. I am just wondering if anyone else struggles with maintaining his or her scholarship with no university affiliation, no funding and in the midst of concerns about finding a job (whether it is in academe or not) and trying not to let that interfere with scholarship. There used to be a time when research made me happy even in the uncertain job market. Now it seems like a burden. It's no longer 'fun' and I'm afraid to tell the publisher that I can't finish because I really do want to complete it.

I suspect there are readers out there who find themselves in similar situations.

Two brief points:

First, I want to take the opportunity to congratulate "another one" on the book contract.

Second, here's my quick take on the question:

It seems to me that "another one" needs to first figure out whether it is possible (given lack of money and other support) to finish the project within a reasonable time frame. I also think she should give herself permission to not finish the book if it's something she just doesn't want to do. If she let go of the sense of obligation to finish, and then found that finishing was both a realistic and a desirable option, I think she would then need to start thinking of the project as some sort of beginning, and not merely as an ending. Since "another one" is leaving academe, this would require detaching the book project from its association with academic job market/academic job prospects. To put it another way, I think she would have to arrive at an understanding of the project not as a burden carried over from a previous period in her life, but as a new thing (admittedly difficult if the book emerges from a dissertation) or at least as a thing in itself. Not easy to do, but not impossible either.

That's all rather vague, and I fear not very useful. But perhaps others can offer something more concrete.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 10, 2004 09:01 PM

You're definitely right. If she stops feeling obligated to do it it'll give her a chance to find out what she really wants.

Posted by: Duckling at February 11, 2004 05:22 AM

That sense of obligation is awful. It has killed a number of projects for me. If it's drying up your soul, drop it.

Posted by: chujoe at February 11, 2004 08:20 AM

If one is on the tenure-track, the economic "reward" from writing a book comes in the form of tenure. If one is off the tenure track, but desires inclusion, then the econmic reward for writing the book is that it may _potentially_ be the ticket into the club. (emphasis on "potential" as there are a lot of pit falls here) And if one is off the tenure track, and also out of the academic game/business/profession (call it what you will) altogether, then no benefit will come from writing the book other than personal satisfaction. And this is what "another one" is struggling with. Indeed, what happens to us when the projects that once drove us drive us no longer?

Phrased differently, IA's response seems to me to be suggesting that "another one," and many of us as well, needs to re-approach the project not as an academic undertaking, but rather as a kind of artisitic or creative one, akin, say, to an artist or musician who has a "day job" but paints/sculpts/composes/plays on their off time. Is this enough? Who knows?

Posted by: Chris at February 11, 2004 08:55 AM

I'm going to suggest that s/he go ahead and do it. A close friend is staying home raising his son, while his wife brings home the income, in part because he couldn't find a teaching job. He landed a book contract--not with a big-name academic publisher, but a contract nonetheless--and he slogged through it, and the resulting book now sits on my shelf as well as his, and I was thrilled beyond belief to get it from him. Will it get him a job? Probably not. Will it help him get a non-academic job? It might serve as proof of the ability to finish something, which is no small thing, but probably not. but does he have an actual book in his hands? Yup. (And I confess that I wish i did, too, even though I'm not in academe and would not have been even if I'd had a contract. Instead, my dissertation molders in the library, unread.) And I think he surprised himself with how happy HE was to see it, too. Go ahead and do it.

Posted by: carla at February 11, 2004 10:02 AM

I'm in almost exactly the same situation. I didn't go the grad school route at all, for a large number of reasons including family, money, difficulty in working within heierarchies, but I've continued my studies with some success publishing in refereed journals. Now I do have a book contract, and I'm suffering froma killer writer's block. I just extended my deadline six month and am having trouble staying on track for that.

All my blogging and commenting is procrastination activity. If I could write as much on my book as I do on the net, I'd be far ahead of schedule.

If someone's got a solution, send it by. I've tried both drinking and quitting drinking, getting up early and stayin up late.

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 11, 2004 12:55 PM

One truth we shouldn't dance around is that many scholarly books published these days simply go unread. For every academic-press book that changes its field, or at least makes the author's peers sit up and think about the subject in a new way, there are ten volumes of impenetrable nonsense that even the author's family and closest friends will never, ever read.

If there are good professional or financial reasons for completing the book, or if working on the book is a genuinely joyous and fulfilling experience, then "another one" should go for it. Otherwise, she'd be wise to keep in mind that there's no glory inherent in merely publishing the thing.

What it comes down to for me is this: I'm not sure she'll really be "leaving academia" if she continues to work on the book. After all, a large part of actually turning one's back on the field is ceasing to think in terms of the competitiveness and need to impress one's peers that characterize much of the academic rat-race. It would be very unproductive, even depressing, to leave academia physically but remain there psychologically.

Posted by: J.V.C. at February 11, 2004 01:26 PM

"Another one"'s situation sounds familiar! I currently have a manuscript under review, and do intend to see it through to publication, but it is more for the satisfaction of seeing the final book than anything else. (Well, maybe a hope that it will be hailed as the most brilliant thing in its field and search committees the nation over will pull their hair in frustration that they had not hired me. ;) )

What is trickier is negotiating the _new_ projects that have popped up recently. One person has approached me about a paper that would build on previous research, and another is interested in co-authoring a book. Both projects would require substantial work on my part, and I am having trouble re-capturing my "for the good of humanity" rationale to justify it. Instead I've swung to the other side of the pendulum to "will it make money?"

There's got to be a middle ground!

Posted by: Rana at February 11, 2004 04:39 PM

How much money (ballpark estimate) does writing an academic book net the author and does the university get a cut from it?

Posted by: Passing_through at February 11, 2004 05:57 PM

Unless you're Homi Bhabha academic books (humanities) don't make any money at all. Text books, and/or edited collections geared for freshman comp -- ususally titled "Readings for Writers" or "Finding the Writer's Voice" or some variation -- can indeed make money.

Posted by: Chris at February 11, 2004 06:34 PM

I am not sure if I can add anything that has not already been posted here. At best, I will break even once my book is published, and that will require calling in quite a few favors, along with a little blackmail. Nonetheless, I see my own project as something still joyful, and one I want to finish. If this project has indeed become a burden, I would certainly understand and support her decision to not finish. Maybe dropping it now/finishing it now is not the only option. Tomorrow is always another day. Would it be possible to put this project on hold and return to it, if and when she regains the passion?

Posted by: DM at February 11, 2004 06:45 PM

I'm sure a big percentage of tenure track and tenured faculty have the same problems with finishing things. For example, I hate going back and revising papers I when I get the referee reports back from a journal. And proof reading - just horrible! May be more of a personality thing than anything. I'm a Myers-Briggs ENTP, so I just hate that sort of stuff!

Posted by: moom at February 11, 2004 10:42 PM

My book would earn me some money. It has to be for a general audience. It's definitely a different way of writing -- I can't spend three pages on one nit-picky question, but I don't have to.

Writing for a general audience is something I'd encourage. Not for dumb people, just for smart people who didn't specialize in your field but are interested in it.

I understand that academic writing tends to be burdensome and, as some one above said, not meant to be actually read by anyone, but I've acquired a writer's block for other reasons.

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 12, 2004 01:41 AM

Landing a book contract should have been one of the happier moments and it was for five minutes. However, since getting it I've become increasingly disinterested in the topic and in completing the book.

Not being in an academic discipline where books are common (a colleague is working on a textbook, but research is published in journals, not books), I have no personal experience of this.

However, I'm not sure I'd attribute this problem to academia in any form. This sounds an awful lot like things I've heard from friends who write fiction-- that by the time they get a book into the publishing process, they think it's simply the worst thing ever written, and never want to even hear the project mentioned again, let alone write more about it.

For that matter, it sounds a good bit like the thesis-writing process (wonderfully encapsulated in this piece from ESPN, of all places (scroll down to the third part)).

I don't have any particular advice to offer, other than the generic "stick with it-- it'll get better," but I'm not sure this particular problem really owes anything to the iniquities of the academic labor market at present.

Posted by: Chad Orzel at February 12, 2004 07:28 AM

Possibly it does, though. I remember when I tried to write academically I always had to think about whichever paradigms were obligatory and which taboo in the field in question. I have two favorite books (both PhD thesis writeups)which include very tedious introductory methodological chapter which I haven't read. For another example, when I write about the Mongols I now and then explain how this or that Mongol practice was functional within their way of life. I always have to tiptoe around so someone doesn't explain to me that functionalism was refuted in 1955 or so by Levi-Strauss or somebody, and the "cultural-ecology" version was refuted in 1980 by so-and-so. Though of course, with evolutionary biology, functionalism is back with a vengeance. But probably not in the form I use.

If the theoretical paradigms I'm talking about had been as powerful and authoritative as they'd claimed, of course, the taboos would have been justified. But they weren't.

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 12, 2004 12:03 PM

I dunno if this will make your reader feel better about the book contract now, but a dose of reality often does a body good. Ready? OK, here goes:

Hardly anyone reads academic books. Even other academics don't bother unless the books are somehow related to their interests. Academic books therefore exist primarily to further academic careers. They are a waste of time otherwise. That is to say, if you don't have an academic career anymore, there's little point in putting out Yet Another Academic Book.

On the other hand, if it'll make you feel better to put it out (and I suppose it would look good on a resume, too), maybe you should go ahead with it.

Posted by: che at February 12, 2004 05:37 PM


have you tried writing at cafes, library and the like? you could do it with pen and paper to avoid the immediate temptation of blogging and commenting.

Posted by: che at February 12, 2004 05:40 PM

One point that nobody brought up: Did you get any monetary advance out of it? If so, then you have an obligation to either write the damned book or give the money back.

Posted by: Claire at February 16, 2004 05:18 PM

One point that nobody brought up: Did you get any monetary advance out of it? If so, then you have an obligation to either write the damned book or give the money back.

My limited understanding of the academic publishing world is that some academic presses do not offer advances. This individal did not receive a monetary advance.

Posted by: Anna at February 16, 2004 10:32 PM