Friday, March 30, 2018

Real Talk: Challenges and Benefits of Writing a Book as a Postdoc

In my past couple of posts, I’ve written about figuring out the structure of a book and sculpting lively prose, but I’m often asked a more basic question: how did I finish Enlisting Faith? Part of the answer is that two consecutive 2-year postdocs made it possible. Postdocs are becoming more common for historians, and they can be beneficial and challenging to the dissertation-to-book process.

A caveat: postdocs vary tremendously, so some of the benefits and challenges vary as well. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from hearing about the experiences of colleagues, and I offer my reflections in that spirit.

One of the biggest benefits of a postdoc is time. Here, I’m referring to a postdoc that is actually a postdoc, with ample time for research and light teaching responsibilities (rather than a visiting lecturer position in disguise). When I defended my dissertation in May 2014, one of my committee members made me promise to take a real vacation (which I did) and others instructed me to set aside the dissertation for months before tackling it (which I also did). 
After arriving in St. Louis to start my first postdoc, I spent much of the fall catching up on secondary literature, letting my mind wander, talking to new colleagues, and thinking about book structure. I did very little actual writing in this period, which was necessary to return to my manuscript with fresh eyes. I then spent most of 2015 fully focused on revising, which is what propelled me most quickly toward a full manuscript ready to send out to readers (in December 2015). Likewise, after receiving reader reports (April 2016), I was able to spend most of the spring/summer/fall (minus moving to Philadelphia for my second postdoc, more on that below) revising and submitted the manuscript for copy-editing in December 2016.
Publishing books can come with financial costs. Some of the things that an author may pay for include images, research assistance, manuscript workshops, editing, indexing, and book promotion. Depending on the nature of the postdoc, there may be some research or subvention funds that can help with these costs, but not always. I've had decent research/conference funds in both postdocs, but not enough to cover all the book costs in addition to conference travel. Neither of my postdoc institutions had subvention funds available for postdocs and my work didn't fit the few competitive subvention fund opportunities I found, so I self-funded a few things.

Enlisting Faith has a 25-image photo essay, which was possible in part because almost all the images I used were taken by Signal Corps, Farm Security Administration, or other government photographers, which means they are in the public domain and free to reproduce. It does not mean that high-resolution versions are easily available, however. I was very lucky that the Naval History and Heritage Command posted a treasure trove of images online, including high-resolution versions, in the spring of 2016, which greatly enabled easy access to high-quality images. I paid for the Library of Congress to re-scan a couple images at high resolution, and contacted a number of museums and other repositories for others. (Pro-tip: if no one responds to an email, pick up the phone.) In the end, I only paid a couple hundred dollars total for images, but costs can run much higher, so it's worth thinking about this upfront.
I recall reading Karen Tani's really helpful post on her book manuscript workshop and brainstorming how to approximate it. I didn't have access to funds to bring people in to read my manuscript, so I got creative. After I received reader reports from the press and began revising, I gathered a handful of colleagues and friends to read my manuscript and discuss it after a conference we were all attending. I provided lunch and they provided excellent feedback. It wasn't the same as hosting senior scholars and editors, but it enabled me to get comments at a crucial juncture. If you're not in a position to host a formal manuscript workshop, an existing conference and willing colleagues can be an effective alternative.
There's only so much one can reasonably ask of generous colleagues, however, so there comes a time when you may want or need to pay someone to help with other publishing-related tasks, such as reviewing a copy-edited manuscript or indexing. There are dueling schools of thought about the value of doing an index yourself or outsourcing it, but it often comes down to a time/money decision: do you have the time to do it or the money to pay someone to do it? The only right answer is whichever one works for you, but again, it can be helpful to anticipate this scenario and plan accordingly, either by bracketing time or setting aside money.

The uncertainty of the postdoc years also presents challenges and opportunities. Because a postdoc is, by definition, term-limited, part of the time will be devoted to figuring out what comes next, and how the book may (or may not) play into that future. This process takes away from research and writing time and can be emotionally draining, so it's important to calibrate expectations. Even in the best-case scenario of a multi-year postdoc, a good chunk of time will not be available for the book. Similarly, the actual process of moving (preparing to move, securing housing, packing/moving, and settling into a new place) is time-intensive. It's perhaps an obvious point, but I always underestimate how physically and emotionally taxing it is to move and how much time is lost in that period, best intentions notwithstanding.

Because postdocs often mean moving, they also mean you may be writing without the benefit of a robust community of support. Each of my postdocs has been in wonderful departments filled with great colleagues, but that's not the same as having longstanding friends around to pitch in with life and give you breaks when the push to finish takes over. (That said, there were extraordinary people, like Sally Gordon, who invited me over for meals as I approached the finish line of the initial full manuscript and the final manuscript. I'll do my best to pay this back in the future!)
These are the downsides of writing during temporary, uncertain periods. But there is also a big upside: freedom. I wrote the book I wanted to write. I responded to reader reports and my editor, of course, but I was writing to achieve my intellectual and narrative goals rather than trying to satisfy a department or tenure committee. For me, it was liberating to envision a book on my terms and pursue that vision. I had something to say about the relationship between religion and the state in modern America--it's vigorous, dynamic, and powerful, albeit sometimes in unusual places and in unexpected ways--and I wrote Enlisting Faith to demonstrate it.