Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Difficulty Maintaining Scholarship After Leaving Academia

Summer is here, and that's not always a good thing for me, since it can give me too much time alone with my thoughts.  The birth of my twin girls has been a distraction, but in the last week or so I've had some nagging episodes of self-doubt related to my scholarship.  In case you don't know, a year ago I left an assistant professorship in history in Texas for teaching at a private high school in Manhattan.  My wife and I had been separated by 1500 miles, and I was living and working in a place that I could not bear to endure any longer.  (Here are the details, if you're interested.)  When I left academia I knew I was making the right decision, but I also knew that I wanted to continue being a historian.  The director of my school (now sadly departed for a job on the West coast) had an academic background herself, and she talked of me becoming a "teacher-scholar."  That's what I came into my current position aspiring to be.

However, two things kept me from pursuing my scholarship that deeply during the last academic year.  On the negative side, last August I received a message from my publisher, with whom I had signed an advance book contract a year and a half earlier, that they were dropping me.  One of the outside reviewers of my manuscript was particularly scathing, to the point where I felt like the victim of an intellectual mugging.  That embarrassing setback killed my confidence as a scholar, since it felt like the biggest thing I had produced was now worthless.  On the positive side, once I started at my new job in September, I really threw myself into it.  This was easy, since I get to work in a uniquely wonderful environment with the kind of dedicated, creative students teachers dream of having.  At my current job, I feel like my work is being rewarded and appreciated in ways I haven't felt in years.  In many respects, the last year has felt like awakening from a long and horrible nightmare.

In the academic world, I had felt mostly rejection.  It took three years on the job market for me to get my tenure track job, and it took three more years of rejection after trying to move to a different university before I switched gears and looked for a different career.  My last year on the market I had piles of great teaching evaluations, three articles published in top journals and a book contract, and I got zero AHA interviews.  It feels good to be working in an environment where I don't feel like my best is never good enough.  That's certainly how academia felt to me.

I intended to get a lot of scholarly work done this summer, and I guess I've done a decent amount. That said, there are times when I feel a paralyzing sense of self-doubt.  For example I finished an article manuscript last summer, and sent it to a journal way out of my league that rejected it.  This article is on a topic different from my dissertation project, but related to my speciality in nineteenth-century German history.  I had thought about making it a book-length project, but since I am no longer at a university, the time and money I would need to complete it -especially to travel to Europe for archival research- are out of reach.  I need to submit the article somewhere, but I am having a hard time facing up to the prospect of yet another damning rejection.  I am also very self-conscious about the fact that since I am no longer a professor, I am wearing the infamous scarlet "I" as an independent scholar.  I often wonder if my lack of a university affiliation means that my work just won't be taken seriously.  Just the thought of it makes me not want to submit anything, since I can't bear the thought of being judged in such a fashion.

I also haven't touched my book manuscript based on my dissertation project, which I have pretty much given up for dead.  I got a couple of highly placed articles out of it, so I guess it served its purpose.  However, just thinking about it makes my chest tight with anxiety and regret.  I cannot escape a voice in the back of my head that is telling me that if I do not ever manage to publish a book, I will be an embarrassing failure.  After all, a lot of my friends in the academic world have done so, and any historian worth her/his salt has at least one book of their own.  Even worse, more and more I think deep down that I deserved the smack down I got from my publisher.  The manuscript was rushed, since I was pushing hard to get a book contract to make myself more attractive on the job market, and in a perfect world would it have had two more years to gestate and be more fully formed.  Even if it had, I had chosen a topic that I found to be particularly interesting and rich, but one that no one else has really written about, meaning that I wasted my time pouring my blood, sweat, and tears into something that hardly anybody, even in the narrow confines of Germanists who study the nineteenth century, cares about.  I am beginning to think that my specialization was a huge mistake to begin with, since I find myself much more passionate about other areas of study.  At the worst moments, I wonder whether I am like a perennial minor-league baseball player, making myself crazy by trying to be something I am just plain not good enough at to be.

Instead of trying to revive the corpse of my first project, I have been throwing myself into a different book project, one related to recent American history and which has nothing to do with nineteenth century Germany.  It has similar thematic elements as my dissertation project, but I feel much more connected to it.  Equally important, unlike my old project, it has the kind of broad popular appeal that might get me a contract amidst the publishing industry's current contractions.  I spent a lot of last summer and my breaks during the school year researching it, which has allowed me to start writing bits and pieces of what I hope will be a cohesive whole.  So far I've got about 55 pages, with thirty in a chapter I hope to be done with before the school year starts.  Yet every time I sit down to write, I get that same tightness in my chest.  I fear that I may be repeating myself by spending years of my life creating something that no one will want.  Since I do not have bona fides as an Americanist, I wonder whether anyone would even have a reason to take me seriously.  For that reason I hope to get it published by a popular, rather than academic press, but in the current economic climate that's quite a long shot.

What I increasingly tell myself is that this project allows me to continue to do the work of a historian, which I really take great pleasure from.  Even if I write a book that goes nowhere, I can at least enjoy the process of putting it together and the knowledge I will gain along the way.  But let's not kid ourselves, that's pretty thin spiritual gruel.  Sometimes I wish I could turn off the part of me that wants to be a scholar, since I could be perfectly happy in my teaching career without the added aggro.  Faced with the choice of giving up or going for broke, I've chosen the latter for the time being.  I'm not sure I'll feel the same way in a couple of years.


Matt J. said...

I'm not sure the tightness in the chest ever goes away (at least mine shows no signs of it). So I've convinced myself that I'm so terrified and anxious because I still care and want to be the best scholar I can be, given all the various constraints. As far as practical advice, I wonder if you might send feelers out to a couple of agents. People with fewer academic accomplishments and credentials have put out sharp stuff for a broad audience.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence. I managed to write yesterday without anxiety, so hopefully this is a passing thing.

I might contact agents once I've written a little more. That process scares me because it opens up more opportunities for rejection, and I saw my sister in law go through it recently. Then again, she managed to get her young adult novel published, so there's hope.

Hillary said...

It's truly tough to write without support. Consider joining a writer's group, whether in person or on the internet, to help yourself realize you are so not alone in this anxiety. And at the risk of sounding like I am advertising, consider hiring a writing coach to work with you one on one. Good luck!

Hillary said...

I was asked to pass along this Twitter address to you:
@BleedingChrome for Kathryn because she would like to connect with you about this post.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@Hillary: Thanks for the contact. Oddly enough, I just saw this comment after an intense research session, so I guess I've got some of my spirit back. I do miss the opportunities for intellectual feedback I used to have.

Darcy said...

I was directed to this blog by a post on Versatile Ph.D. My sympathies--the life of an independent scholar is tough. There are more and more independent scholars every year, though, and I think the prejudice against independent scholars will moderate in time.

Two groups that might interest you: NYC Versatile Ph.D. (search on Meetup; usually meets the last Sunday of the month) and the Columbia University Faculty House Seminars ( Both have been good networking groups for me.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@Darcy: thanks for the help.

Amod Lele said...

Thank you. I came here through VPhD as well.

Serious question: Are you sure you need to keep working with traditional publishers, whether scholarly or popular? If you publish your work on the web, in whatever format, it will be *more* widely available than work through a traditional publisher, because anyone and everyone can read it for free. Tenure committees are not impressed by it, but we independent scholars don't have to care about that anymore. You could bypass rejection entirely and connect with your audience directly.

Brian I said...

Matt J. is right. The anxiety never quite goes away. Realize that once your book comes out and you see it sitting prettily there on the coffee table or the shelf, you will still have nagging self doubts. After all, you're the one who spent years researching and writing the thing so you know the imperfections better than anyone else. So you fear that someday someone will pounce on them--or find other imperfections that you didn't even know were there.

Nevertheless, it's still a great feeling to create something that changes the way people look at things, and there will be more people who appreciate what you have done than who deprecate it. For me, a rewarding moment recently was when an undergraduate at a college in Indiana emailed me to say that he had read my book and it helped him formulate questions for his upcoming senior thesis. The book may not be perfect, but it has value, and that is what is important.

And you don't have anything to worry about as a scholar. Your own knowledge of modern history and your teaching experience in American history make you incredibly qualified to write the book you are working on. In my opinion, the best historical research results from the most thorough questions, research, and analysis, not the most thorough amount of prior knowledge about a particular subject. You will develop that knowledge as you do your research. I am confident that your book will be good.

Regarding publishers, consider these two things: First, your book will be WAY better than much of the stuff put out by trade presses, much of which is written by people with less impressive credentials than you have. Second, academic presses have peer review to make sure that the work is up to snuff. Your prior experience with peer review was an unfortunate one, but one that has happened to most of us at one time or another (I speak from experience). But if it is a well-researched and well-written project on a subject that has popular appeal--which your new project does--someone will publish it.

In short, keep writing, and good luck!

Polina said...


I appreciate this blog post and sympathize with the difficulties of producing academic scholarship outside (or on the margins) of academe.

I'm wondering if you might consider contributing a short essay to my cluster at #Alt-Academy:

It is an attempt to use alternative means of publication to foster a community of alt-ac and independent scholars.

If you're interested, please send me a note to visible.margin[at]

(I wanted to send this as a private message, but could not find any contact information available, so you don't have to publish it on the blog. I'm not sure if it's appropriate in the comments section)

All best,

moi said...

I made the same leap for personal reasons - assistant professor in geographically isolated place to high school teacher in nice town at good school. I published a book before I made the transition but it didn't make a difference. I MISS RESEARCH AND SCHOLARSHIP!! Doing research on pedagogy is kind of dull and I just don't have an outlet for my research interests. And I do miss the paid trips to Europe. Do you think teacher-scholars are a real thing that can exist in the US at the high school level?