In this blog two historians reflect on their decisions to devote more than a decade to their respective books. They alert their colleagues to the risks and rewards of staying with a project for so long.
Slow and Curious
University of Delaware
In the spring of 2000, I decided to write a history of shortcuts in American education. In December, 2017, my book, Fast and Curious, was in print. What took me so long?
I defined my topic very broadly. Shortcuts included how people learned as well as what they learned. I studied legitimate and also bogus shortcuts. I looked at elementary, secondary, higher, and adult education. I read widely and then added case studies based on archival sources, which required extensive travel.
“Write something that won’t sink from sight,” a friend advised me. He said that professors of education often churn out dozens of decent articles and books rather than polish a few gems. The pressure to publish compels everyone to get into print quickly, and the result is an avalanche of research that disappears within a few years. So I wanted to write a book that might endure, and I knew that would take a long time.
In addition to the scope of the topic and the depth of my ambition, I could not resist various temptations to stray. I told myself that each distraction was short and worthwhile: five page essays for Education Week, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Teachers College Record; a few handbook chapters; several letters to the editor; and a special issue of History of Education Quarterly. But I also spent two years in administration and devoted many hours to HES as Secretary/Treasurer for nine years. Some of us are unable to focus on one and only one project.
Now that I’ve finished, what would I do differently if I could turn back the clock? For years I kept a file folder labeled Big Picture. In it I put my thoughts on the major themes in what I was reading. But I rarely forced myself to outline the entire book. The overarching structure would eventually emerge, I felt, if I accumulated enough good vignettes and fresh primary sources. Wrong!I should have written a 15 page outline early on. Otherwise I ran the risk of becoming “a glutton for data,” as Ulrich Phillips called Frederick Jackson Turner, who on his death left 34 file drawers of notes for an unfinished magnum opus.
And there’s the risk of falling in love with your topic. I defined myself as the person who studied shortcuts. Who would I be when the project ended? That’s my challenge now.
Ohio State University
Ella Flagg Young haunted my research. Chicago’s superintendent from 1909-1915 graced the cover of my history of women superintendents and reappeared in my history of sexuality and gender in school work. With those projects complete in 2004, I decided to write her biography. Already I had squirreled away notes about her while working in archives and libraries for the previous projects.
I had marveled at Young’s extraordinary life, but the more I learned about her, the more she eluded me. She left no archives and asked her close friends to keep her secrets safe. Some earlier accounts even suggested she gave everything to her work, leaving no time for a personal life. I dreamed of rendering a fuller portrait, but the prospect of recovering necessary details grew daunting. Somehow, for reasons beyond my understanding, I could not pull away from the challenge. A more reasonable person would have moved on. Then I spent several glorious months in Chicago and other Illinois cities scouring every source I could find: cemetery records, probate documents, newspaper microfilms, correspondence, meeting minutes, reports…a hefty haul.
Then I became a full time Associate Dean, thinking I could manage some writing on the side. That didn’t work. Then I took a similar position at Ohio State. When slivers of time for writing materialized, administrative deadlines shredded what remained of my attention. However, as complicated college and university dynamics played out at close view, I realized that my own life helped me understand Young’s challenges. That was slim comfort for making no progress on the biography.
I returned to the faculty several years ago and have been working hard on Young’s story since. I’m almost finished with the second draft, but have a few more to go. Sometimes I am torn between wanting to get the book out and taking the time to do it right. I’m striving for the latter. Several parts of Young’s story are just larger than I imagined—and I need time to think them through. I’m glad that promotion and tenure are behind me and I have the option to take this time. Beyond the usual difficulties of writing, I have enjoyed this project far more than any other—and though I want to see it published, I will also miss it.