Your Dissertation is not Your First Book

Recently a friend wrote to tell me that my earlier two posts about the process of getting your dissertation published as a book really didn’t help answer the most critical question: how do you decide what to keep from the dissertation in the book? I’m chagrined at the oversight. The answer is a difficult one–so bear with my personal narration.

I think I turned in a perfectly serviceable dissertation. It was missing a couple of chapters, but due to the time constraints I was under I wasn’t going to be able to write them. There were some decidedly unserviceable sentences–and whole paragraphs–in what I turned in, but my committee was generous with their support and looked past those syntactic failures. All told, it felt like a dissertation: I tried out some ideas, got a lot on paper, and attempted to weave it all together.

At the time, I really tried to imagine writing my dissertation as a book. This was in part because of my admiration for one of my committee members, Jean Langford, whose first book, Fluent Bodies, is a lightly revised version of her dissertation. Jean had had a professional career before returning to do a dissertation, so she had a wealth of writing experience to rely upon. I had written a couple of clunky MA theses and started on a couple article manuscripts. Thinking my dissertation could be quickly revised into a book manuscript was pure, graduate student hubris.

Meanwhile, down the hall from Jean’s office, David Valentine, was insisting to me that no two words in his dissertation and first book, Imagining Transgender, were the same. In retrospect, David’s experience was more like mine than Jean’s was.

I always advise people to not immediately try and turn their dissertation into a book–teach some classes and work through the literature in your field. Write some article manuscripts and get some peer reviews from total strangers. The experience of dissertation writing is–by necessity–an experience of narrowing one’s attention. Dissertations are written to meet institutional expectations, as meted out by one’s dissertation committee. They’re written for a very small audience, who, very likely, is onboard with the project and has been for quite some time. They–hopefully–want to see you succeed and move on. Writing a book is about capturing a broader audience and speaking to more general concerns in the literature.

It took me a couple years of teaching to understand what my book should be. In that time, I taught several medical anthropology courses–both introduction classes to the subfield and upper division theory classes. I distinctly remember in a lecture on medicalization that I realized what the book was about and things snapped into place. I imagine the rest of the lecture was basically an out of body experience as I worked through the book in my head.

In many respects, the content of the dissertation and my first book, The Slumbering Masses, is roughly the same. I did, much like David Valentine suggested, rewrite every word though. The big changes were how the project was pitched (its “intervention”) and the tone of the language.

Dissertations are anxious documents. Having read several of them as a committee member now, they’re often kind of claustrophobic and caught up in demonstrating one’s expertise. I found that whenever I tried to copy and paste text from my dissertation, tonally it was very different than anything I was writing after defending my dissertation–and my writing has continued to get looser and more precise over time.

Here’s the cover of The Slumbering Masses for old time’s sake. It depicts the title of the book screen-printed on a pillowcase. The pillow that the pillowcase is on is scrunched up and arranged vertically.

So, here’s the recommendations: Seriously, send out some article manuscripts based on the dissertation. Get a sense of what other people see in your work. Teach some courses if you can. If you can’t, write up some mock syllabuses for courses you would teach based on your dissertation’s topical and theoretical areas. Work through what other people in your field are interested in and what you can add to the conversation. Also: remember what you disagree with in other people’s approaches.

Then, excise all of the empirical content from your dissertation. Put it into piles (virtual or material). See what other kinds of stories it can tell. Consider what kind of stories it can tell put together.

Often, dissertations are organized around a key idea or topic in each chapter. That can make a successful dissertation, but it often translates into a book that isn’t well integrated. What works about making an argument about an idea in a chapter results in a book that lacks a heart. The best books are those that have an idea that flows throughout the whole text, motivating the reader’s attention and also pulling together all of the little arguments and insights. The constraints of writing a dissertation often make it hard to see the possible sweep of the dissertation’s empirical content.

In the conversion process between the dissertation and the book, I dropped a lot of the ethnographic work that focused on everyday life in the clinic that I conducted the bulk of my research in. By the time I was reworking the book, some early articles had been accepted for publication, and that relieved the need to include that material in the book. I was also a little haunted by a comment by one of my committee members who told me that “no one needs to read another laboratory ethnography,” which I agreed with–yet, a lot of my material was precisely that kind of stuff. It’s worth thinking through what the “laboratory ethnography” in your field is–what have people read too much of?

Addressing that question in your writing is mostly rhetorical. Where in the dissertation something might lead a chapter, in the book it appears later in the same chapter. Even though the empirical content is the same, by placing it later in the chapter it has a different rhetorical effect–it feels less like a laboratory ethnography and more like something else (I’m not sure what, exactly). It’s worth working through what content you should lead with–what will be the most compelling to a wide readership?–and what might be better supporting content. Karen Ho once told me to start writing based on the stories I kept thinking about from my research, and it’s solid advice: what sticks with you is the stuff to lead with. The other stuff, while important, might be best tucked away as supporting content.

My dissertation was really organized around sleep and its interactions with everyday institutions in the US–family life, workplaces, school, law, etc.–but the book takes the same stuff and reorganizes it into smaller chapters. Instead of a few very long chapters, The Slumbering Masses is several much shorter chapters that are thematically organized. The 20,000 word (or more) chapter that your dissertation committee waded through is probably not the same thing you want to unleash on the world. Even if it’s relatively unchanged, breaking long chapters into two or more chapters will make them easier for your audience to read. This might also lead to excising content that can go live in an article manuscript instead of the book.

The rule I heard from several editors is that no more than two-fifths of your book should appear in print elsewhere. If you send modified versions of a couple dissertation chapters out as article manuscripts and then rework the content of the dissertation into a new format, this shouldn’t pose a problem–likely there will be little or no duplication (which is also good for things like tenure and promotion!). If you can’t or don’t want to rework everything, it’s worth keeping this two-fifths rule in mind though. It may mean writing new, additional chapters or holding back on publishing some material as articles.

All that said, the key to the transition into a book manuscript is moving away from the “fill a gap” mentality that shapes a lot of dissertation writing. Filling a gap in the scholarship is important, but it’s rarely enough to appeal to a wide swath of readers and book acquisitions editors. Instead, they want a bigger story that addresses concerns in your discipline. Teaching classes and sending stuff out for peer review is one way to identify these concerns, especially their most contemporary iterations by being in dialogue with students and other scholars.

Giving that lecture on medicalization–which I had probably given three or four times at that point–made me realize that as much as the linkage I made between American traditions of capitalism, work, school, family life, and sleep made sense in my dissertation, it didn’t quite rise to the level that something outside of a small group of people would be interested in. Even though I don’t agree that medicalization has all the answers, it provided a hook into the material I had that was legible to a broad audience and made sense of the empirical content I could rally behind my argument.

Which isn’t to say that the whole book has to be about that idea, but finding ways to address ideas of general concern–and particularly ideas that make sense to people–is an immediate way to appeal to people who aren’t as well versed in your materials as you are, or as your dissertation committee was. So having a sense of what these big ideas are and how you can arrange your materials to speak to them–while doing the other work that needs to be done–is a way into reconceptualizing how the dissertation can become a book.

The other very palpable memory I have about the process of turning my dissertation into a book is sitting in an apartment in St. Paul while on a return trip to Minnesota. I didn’t have a desk, so worked at an old dining room table with an uncomfortable chair. Next to the dining room table, somewhat incongruously, was a day bed. My dog, Turtle, would lay on the bed staring at me between naps as I rewrote The Slumbering Masses. To my left was a printed out version of the manuscript, before me was my laptop. I would read a sentence in the manuscript and then type a new version of it. I tried, wherever I could, to make things easier to read, less anxious, and clearer in their intent. I had three months to do it, and it was grueling. It was, ultimately, a total reworking of the manuscript. Luckily Turtle was there to get me away from the screen for daily dog walks–and there were friends to visit and other things to do–because the process was no fun. The Slumbering Masses is better for being reworked. Although I can’t really read it, I’m told it’s pretty easy (and sometimes fun) to read.

Soon, I’ll write about the process of writing a second book, which is a whole different ball of wax…

If you’ve converted your dissertation into a book–or if you haven’t–what was the process like? Post sharable stories in the comments if you like.

How I Revise Articles for Resubmission

A fan of printed out pages that include peer reviews for a recent article. It includes marginalia and highlighting from me. The pages are upside down, just to make reading them a little more difficult.

This fall, I had a piece come out in Feminist Anthropology. “Recomposing Kinship” is my attempt to get anthropologists (and others) to take technology more seriously as a social actor–or at least as something more than an object of fetishism. It’s something like my 20th article, and over the last 15 years of publishing, I’ve found that how I approach revisions on articles has developed into a system. This article, by way of example, first received a revise & resubmit, and then was accepted for publication after a second set of reviews were returned based on the revision. Parts of it had be presented at conferences or in workshops, but it had never all been put together before, so sending it out for peer review was a bit of a fishing attempt–I was really curious to see how people responded to an argument that put together Facilitated Communication, sleep apnea, genetic testing, and fecal microbial transplants.

I’ll chalk the speed with which I was able to turn things around and address reviewers’ concerns to 15 years of academic publishing–and that the piece grew out of a couple of projects that have had pretty long gestation periods. It was also really helpful that the reviewers were on board with the conceptual project (even if they didn’t necessarily agree) and that the editors were supportive of a revision. Since the process of revision has become largely the same for me, it seemed like a good opportunity to write about the process in case it helps other people approach their own revisions.

Whenever I get emails from editors about articles under review, I really try not to open the email immediately. I find that whatever the email’s contents, it’s likely to derail me for the rest of the day, usually due to a desire to get back to work on the article. I try, whenever I can, to save it until the end of the work day. That way, after I read it, I can mull over the contents while I cook dinner, take care of the kids, feed the dog, chat with my partner, etc. This helps to stop me from wanting to address the editorial and peer review comments right away and lets them simmer as I do some ambient processing. Generally, other work gets in the way of immediately getting back to the manuscript and so I try and take a week off of working on it.

When I get back to working on revisions, I start by rereading the cover letter from the editor and reading through the peer reviews. I read them in their entirety and then read them again. On the second pass, I try and come up with a list of the necessary and optional revisions. A lot of peer review is relatively phatic language which can sometimes distract from what the peer reviewers are actually asking for; I tend to underline the relevant parts of the peer reviews and make marginalia to help me extract the incisive parts of the peer reviews. I then write them up and group them–if reviewers are asking for the same kind of thing (or contradictory things) this helps me develop a sense of what kinds of overlaps there are in the reviews. (You can see examples of my underlining and marginalia above.)

With that list of optional and necessary revisions developed, I set about grouping them. The first pass at grouping puts similar kinds of suggestions together, and the second grouping pass orders the suggestions in terms of where they should appear in the body of the revised manuscript. This usually involves sorting suggestions into multiple parts of the introduction (opening, literature review, map of the article, thesis & argumentation), each of the substantive sections, the conclusion, and citations and endnotes. I find that the heaviest lift is the suggestions for the introduction, followed by the conclusion, and then the substantive sections of the paper, which usually most need clarifying and alignment with the article’s aims once I’m able to clearly state them and articulate their relationship to the evidence at hand.

I then try to address the suggestions in order of difficulty. Overlooked citations come first, with minor syntactic tweaks following, and then it’s on to the big issues.

I’ve found that one of the recurrent experiences I have is overlong introductions. I try and make them short and to the point, but after addressing reviewer suggestions, I find that introductions balloon to be 7-8 pages long, when they should be 4-5 pages. If I can, I move parts of the introduction into the endnotes–especially theoretical positioning that only certain readers care about–but I’ve increasingly begun to break introductions into two parts. The first of these parts is the usual, empirically-driven hook that readers tend to appreciate which helps to set the stakes of the piece. It’s followed by the thesis and a layout of the article’s structure. But then I have a second helping of introduction, which is usually the literature review and theoretical work. If possible, I break these sections apart with headings to make sure that they are clearly flagged for reviewers and readers. I wish I could do this in the initial writing of an article manuscript, but I’ve come to find that it’s really only through revision that I’m able to see where these breakdowns should be–usually as a direct response to peer reviewer suggestions.

Often, working through the revisions means substantially rewriting the conclusion. Conclusions are always hard for me to write, often because, generically, they waffle between recapitulations of what was just written and soaring calls for reimagining disciplines, theoretical frameworks and categories, humanity, and existence. I try and do a little of both in an initial manuscript draft and then rework the conclusion based on reviews.

When I resubmit a revised article, I always make sure to include a very detailed cover letter to guide the editor and peer reviewers through the revisions. It’s usually pretty easy to adapt the list of suggestions for revision into a cover letter. Where possible, I make sure to flag where a suggestion came from–i.e. which peer reviewer or the editor–and detail how it is addressed in the revised manuscript. I also try and include a page number and paragraph to make sure that it’s very obvious. One of the challenges I’ve faced as a reviewer over the years is having the original version of an article in mind as I review a revised manuscript. I imagine other readers have similar issues, and it’s particularly helpful to dispel specific concerns by addressing them in the cover letter in addition to the manuscript.

I recognize that this is all pretty dispassionate in its approach. And it’s true: I’m pretty dispassionate in my writing. Most of what I enjoy about writing is solving puzzles, particularly how to put certain kinds of evidence and argumentation together. Addressing peer reviews is a lot like solving a puzzle to me. Given all of the pieces that reviewers have provided me with, how can I fit them together into a coherent picture that abides by the aims of the original version of the manuscript (or “picture” in this metaphor)? Sometimes it’s harder than other times, and it requires some finesse in smooshing pieces together. Other times it’s really clarifying, and I find these to be the best rewriting opportunities.

How do you rewrite based on peer reviews? Other suggestions for techniques? Tell me about them in the comments.

Diversifying the Network

In one of the first meetings I had with my dissertation adviser, Karen-Sue Taussig, she recommended that I read Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” and “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Sociocultural Anthropology.” (If you haven’t read them, go read them right now.) Lutz makes two interrelated points: despite the number of women working in sociocultural anthropology, they tend to get cited less frequently than men, and when they are cited, they’re cited as providing empirical evidence that supports an argument rather than theory that can be tested or employed. (And if you think that was a problem of the 1980s and 1990s, you can read the follow-up, “The Problem of Gender and Citations Re-raised in New Research Study” [although the link doesn’t seem to be working…] and then mull over what’s really going on in pieces like this.) At the age of 25, and a few years into my graduate studies, I might have been in just the right frame of mind for such an intervention. It resulted, immediately, in a hyperawareness of my citational practices — and shaped the kinds of questions and projects I wanted to pursue.

One of those projects has been steadily diversifying the network, both personally and professionally. In 2017, I was asked to comment on an early version of Nick Kawa, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty’s “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities,” and reading its final version was a stark reminder of just how much work is to be done. If you ever wanted evidence of that, here’s Kawa et al.’s data rendered in one handy image:

kawa social network us anthro.png
A network analysis of Ph.D. placements of tenure-track faculty based on where their degree originates and where they were hired. See more here.

Here are some practices to consider if you want to disrupt the reproductive tendencies of the discipline at every level. My guiding principle is that power is meant to be subverted, and whatever meagre institutional and reputational power I have should be used to make more inclusive social and institutional networks.

Every year when I’m pulled back to the American Anthropological Association meetings, I make sure that I participate in two panels. One has to include a majority of people who I’ve never been on a panel with before; and one has to include at least 50% recent Ph.D.s (or in-progress ones) and contingent faculty or “independent scholars.” Sometimes both of the panels meet both of the criteria. I’m not sure that I have much draw on my own, but whatever draw I have should be shared with less secure or established scholars than myself. Beyond that, I want to be exposed to ideas and research that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I can read my friends’ work any time, but curating a panel with strangers on a topic of my choice lets me engage with new content and publicizes it for others. It also means that my network grows in these AAA-related spurts, and I’ve watched my network permanently diversify over the years through this practice.

If you keep having the same conversation with the same people, something is wrong. Even if those people are diverse, if the network stabilizes, it’s not being as inclusive as it could be. It can be hard to exclude old friends from conferences, workshops, special issues of journals, whatever, but if the collective project is to diversify the network, they should be doing the same thing to you. And this leaves you open to be included in other people’s efforts. Stale networks are pretty obvious, both from the inside and the outside. My guiding rules are a place to start to disrupt reproductive tendencies, and I’m sure that employing them will help refine a system that works for other people.

If someone asks me to do something and I can’t, I suggest a junior scholar or someone at a non-elite institution (or both). If I can’t do something — a talk, peer review, a conference panel, whatever — I always try and make sure that I provide at least three names of people who might fit the role. My preference is always for younger people than me, although I’m very sensitive to my ability to say “no” and the obligations younger scholars fell toward saying “yes.” That said, I will commit to doing something even as over-commitment if I know that the next person to be asked is someone who isn’t as diversity-focused as I am. Better a white person with an eye towards diversification than one who isn’t diversity focused (or at least that’s how I console myself).

I don’t just count citations; I also consider how a citation is being used. This is true for syllabuses and publications. I tend to start syllabuses by piling up books and articles that I’m sure I want to include in a class, and at that point make sure that the foundation of the class is diverse (i.e. at least 50% books by women, with attention to minority status ensuring that 50% of the books are also from authors from underrepresented backgrounds). After I put the rest of the syllabus together, I go through it and make sure that it’s diverse throughout. In cases where I have to include a dead, white, male writer, I make sure that the texts around that person are by other kinds of writers. I tend to make sure that 60% of a syllabus is comprised of non-white male contributors. I also try and make sure that theory and evidence are supplied equally by all of the contributors to the syllabus. (If you think that teaching the canon means only teaching dead white guys [or living ones], just remember that it’s not in the canon if it hasn’t reached the point that non-white, non-male scholars are discussing it!)

In terms of publications, I tend to make a first pass through the manuscript citing as few people as I possibly can. Part of that is pragmatic — I don’t want to get hung up on inserting citations, and if there’s a lot of new stuff I’m planning to cite, I prefer to do all of the data entry and management during the revision process. But the other part is that I learned in the past that I over-cite. I would tend to cite too many things and then have to remove them to reach the word limit I was shooting for. I found that having to remove citations was harder than having to put them in afterwards, and that working this way helped to see who I really needed to cite. Moreover, it meant that when I was inserting citations, I could be more deliberative about who I was citing for what. Like with my syllabuses, when I do have to cite a dead white guy, I try to ensure that the citations around him are more diverse. And when I have to engage with a lot of white guys, it’s usually because I’m doing some critique…

All of these citational practices are aspirational, and I’m sure that not all of my publications meet the criteria I’ve set for myself over the years. That might be hypocrisy, but it’s also due to requests from peer reviewers and editors to cite certain work and the stark reality that working in some corners of academia means there are limited sets of scholars to engage with. The solution to the latter is to develop frames for one’s work that are capacious and bring in perspectives from feminism, critical race studies, disability studies, class-focused research (not just Marxism), and postcolonial studies. The solution for the former — sometimes — is to just not cite those people, despite requests (which gets easier to do with seniority).

When serving on hiring committees, one of the implications of Kawa et al.’s research is the need to make sure that the committee is institutionally diverse. One sure way to at least contest the dominance of particular departments in the placement of Ph.D. holders into tenure track jobs is to have people who aren’t from those institutions serving on hiring committees. If your department lacks people that fit this criteria, have a faculty member from another department serve in a non-voting, consultative role. I served on a committee like this years ago, and it was helpful because the person from outside of Anthropology couldn’t have cared less about the institutions that people were coming from since his discipline had different elite institutions; he helped to focus other committee members’ attention beyond institutional backgrounds. If that sounds uncomfortable, you could have someone go through all of the applications and redact institutions, people’s names, and acknowledgement sections. (If there isn’t an Adobe macro for this, there should be…)

I’m convinced that underlying a lot of the resistance to change in the academy is a fear of being displaced in the present and the future, especially in the context of fears about the end of the tenure system and job scarcity. Wholesale displacement is unlikely, but some marginalization is inevitable. But that’s in relation to a century and a half of dominance in the university by white, male voices, so it’s relative to total dominance. Incrementalism can get a bad rap, but when the allies in power are faced with their own potential obsolescence, a gradual approach can make important headway while ensuring that the threats to individuals are mitigated. Changing institutions is a long game, and keeping the end point in mind while addressing the concerns of the present is one way to ensure that change will come, however gradual it might be.

These practices are a start towards diversification. If you have other suggestions, post them in the comments or provide links.