The Dissertation as a Book

Much ado over the American History Association’s proposed embargo of dissertations being made available. A lot of of interesting conversations [covered here](, which, perhaps, brushes up against the topic of the nature of the scholarly book. The central question: who are books for? Fellow scholars? Wider audience?

I like Henry Glassie’s stance on this, as he once noted in conversation as I struggled to think the topic for myself early in the process of researching and writing _The Makers of Things_: “Books are for people, articles are for scholars.” You don’t have to agree with him, but you can still admire the precision of his thinking and the realization that there are two audiences. He followed the distinction with the observation that he had never achieved recognition from within the field until he had achieved it outside the field, and so his “breakthrough” books were those that had “broken through” elsewhere, and that *that* was what his (our) colleagues recognized.

This dynamic is more generally true than most of us care to admit. Here at my university, as probably occurs other places as well (but I cannot speak to them), significant raises are only possible through two routes:

1. *sycophancy*, which is the most common one locally, and
2. *portability*, e.g., getting a job offer from elsewhere.

In Glassie’s distinction and in the second route what we see is that internal audiences don’t themselves feel comfortable judging the merit of their own but require an external audience for validation. On the one hand, this is not a bad thing, since third parties might just offer the objectivity we seek, but it is stymying to those who seek a middle way of improving from within according to an external sense of quality. (Confessional aside here: I tried this middle way, and it doesn’t work. At least not in my local environment. Perhaps others have had better luck elsewhere. I get the sense, for example, that a colleague of mine at Indiana University has been very successful in this regard, though he has shown uncommon persistence in pursuing such a path.)

Locally, I encourage my dissertators to write as much as they can as if they were writing a book to be published into the trade nonfiction marketplace. This works in their favor, I think, in two ways: first, it encourages them to think about what it means to write a book and moves them closer to having a manuscript of that nature, and, second, it encourages them to think of the dissertation as a vehicle for communication and not simply display of scholarly mastery. This is important since many, if not all, of my students are working at the margins of traditional literary scholarship, and they need to think about how they are going to position themselves in the marketplace. Sitedness is very important in such a rhetorical moment, and young scholars especially need to be aware of their audience’s expectations, biases, and blindnesses.

2 thoughts on “The Dissertation as a Book

  1. Margarita … if you want to write a dissertation, you’ll need to find a Ph.D. program that’s interesting to you. A dissertation is, usually, a requirement for attaining a Ph.D. So your faculty will work with you to prepare you for that work. If, however, you simply want to write a well-sourced book, we need more of those. You just need to set yourself the task and maybe find a publisher interested in your topic. (You can test the waters for your ideas either through a blog, like this one, or through

Leave a Reply