Publishing Without Perishing

I’ve been trying to ramp up my networking recently, as more and better networking was one of my goals for this year. I’ve been finding people to network with both personally and professionally with through friends, LinkedIn (meh), and people working at organizations I like. This week, I spoke to a person in charge of an anthropology department. The conversation turned to my research and what I was doing with it.

“Have you published your dissertation research?” he asked.
“Well…no. I don’t have an academic job. I can’t decide how I feel about my research or my writing.” I felt that familiar shame of having to explain that I hadn’t gotten a fancy tenure track job despite the realities of the anemic history job market.
“Doesn’t matter,” he told me firmly. “Publish anyways.”

We talked a little bit more about my dissertation. He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. When we hung up, I felt more excited about my research and writing than I had in the previous two years. It’s not often these days that I actually get to talk with anyone, let alone a fellow scholar with similar interests in history of archaeology, about my research. I don’t have conversations every day with people who encourage me to publish my work despite having left academia. I felt a little spark inside that I hadn’t felt for a long time.

Since finishing the PhD in early 2015, I’ve had mixed feelings about publishing my research. If you’re on the academic job market, publishing the dissertation is a crucial step towards First Monograph and Respectable Academic Employability. Right now, publishing my research has few benefits, as I’m not on the academic job market anymore. Publishing my dissertation as a monograph isn’t going to improve my CV or make me more competitive for postdocs, as I don’t have a CV anymore and I’m not applying for academic positions. I’m not going to get a promotion at my current job because I’ve published a book. The non-academic world in general doesn’t care if I publish a book of my original research. I don’t include my publications on my resume. Revising the entire dissertation and shepherding it towards publication seems like a huge pile of work for little professional benefit.


Talking about my research with someone who thought it mattered set a small fire under me. Part of what had made deciding not to pursue academia so painful was the feeling that I’d have to give up on a lot of things I’d really cared about. Before this week, I’d forgotten how much I’d loved my research. I’d forgotten that I had personally created some new knowledge about the world that hadn’t existed before. I’d forgotten that my research had something important to say. I looked at the long list of values that I’d written last week. “I don’t give up or give in,” I’d written. And then this thought struck me: if following my personal intellectual passions isn’t part of my current professional life, then I’m going to have to make it happen in my personal life.

Against all common sense and reason, I opened up my dissertation file and started reading. I hadn’t looked at it for two years. When I’d written it, I thought I’d written it in accessible language. I’d wanted non-academics to be able to read and understand my work, so I’d spent countless hours revising. That, of course, was before I’d been writing a (mostly) weekly blog about writing for a couple of years, read some actual academic style guides, and edited many pages of other people’s academic writing. Re-reading my writing was a cringe-worthy experience. I peppered my work with nominalizations, like writing ‘conceptualize’ when I meant ‘ideas.’(May Helen Sword forgive me.) I used the word ‘numerous’ when I meant ‘many.’ (May William Zinsser forgive me.) I used semicolons to string together independent clauses instead of writing with shorter sentences. (May Verlyn Klinkenborg forgive me.) I had failed to omit needless words. (May Strunk and White forgive me.) Mostly, I found myself trying a little bit too hard to convince the reader that I had something interesting to say. I tried reallyreallyreally hard to sound smart, mostly because I wanted my dissertation committee to think I was smart and I wanted to graduate.

So I made a revision task list. The lit review was out, as was the heavy duty theory section where I had written ‘epistemology’ as many times as possible. The historical context part was going to have to be the prologue. One chapter needed some rethinking and a near complete rewrite. The typos were legion.

Revising my dissertation and publishing it (on either academic or popular press) fits with the higher level goal I identified last week: helping other people understand the world better. Even if I don’t have an academic job, having the book manuscript (sounds so much fancier than dissertation) published supports my high-level life goal. Now, in addition to a revision task list (which is hideously long), I have some new mid-range and low-level goals to achieve on my way to fulfilling my bigger purpose. They look kind of like this:
Daily writing practice towards revision task list—>each chapter rewritten (AND THOROUGHLY PROOFREAD FER THE LOVE OF GOD)—>submit for peer review—>wait for response—>(possibly have to find another press)—>way more revision—>eventual publication (I may be missing some steps and inevitable pitfalls but that’s okay)—> all in the service of the high level goal: HELPING PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE WORLD BETTER.

And that seems totally worth doing.

Pursuing my intellectual passions on my own time isn’t easy. Serious barriers exist to publishing an academic work as a non-academic person. The lack of funding tops the list. I probably won’t add the fifth chapter that I’d always envisioned adding (formation of the Guatemalan zoo), as I don’t have research funding. I don’t have institutional access to a research library anymore. (HI INSTITUTIONAL FRIENDS!) I don’t know when I’m going to be able to return to Guatemala (pleasepleasepleaseletitbesoon). I feel like I’m too busy to write. I often come home from my job tired and cranky; all I want to do is curl up on the couch and binge watch This Is Us.

But really, these are all excuses for inaction. I reject my former belief that leaving academia means that I have to give up on things I care about in the world. I’m not giving up and I’m not giving in.