Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fresh Start

I am now well past the half-way point of my sabbatical. I put the finishing touches on an article for Feminist Studies, I wrote a teaching essay, I'm almost finished turning a conference paper into an article (Girl Watching), the research for the anti-porn district piece is almost finished, and I made substantial progress on conceptualizing my approach to the advice literature for women in public space. I still have to write my presentation for the upcoming Berks conference and get ready for the research I'll be doing on that trip to Minneapolis. All in all, that is not a bad record, but what happened to the book I am supposed to be writing?

Well... it is going slowly. I can't believe how much harder this book is to conceptualize than my first one. Or maybe I am just not remembering how hard the first one was. Maybe it is like childbirth and the body has some sort of natural amnesia response that allows you to forget the trauma enough that you might actually consider producing another offspring/book.

At times, I have nearly convinced myself to not write the book and instead just publish articles. Articles in History are fairly meaty, satisfying entities. There is a lot one can do with thirty or so manuscript pages, but they are not sooooooo long that you have to juggle all at once 20 different genres of historiography and four file drawers full of culled primary sources like one does with a book. There are many directions you can go with an article, and each of them represents some major decision making, but nothing on the order of what is necessary for a book.

I expressed these thoughts to a dear, lovely, amazing, historian friend and this was her response:

I also fully understand the temptation of doing articles and not a book, but I really really want you to do the book. If you end up writing a series of essays tied together with a strong
introduction then that's fine, but a book will make more of a contribution. Plus I want to assign it, make all my grad. students read it, have it reviewed for my journal etc.

Friends are grand, aren't they? Sometimes (often when I am in the shower, on the bike, or falling asleep at night) I can see the book -- the scope of it, the shape of its chapters, the tone.... but then when I look directly at it, sit in front of a blank computer screen and try to record what I saw in those odd moments, it vanishes. Oh sure, I have pieces that fit together and are figured out, but the whole, big picture is not there. Yet. It will come. Or at least I believe it can come... the topic is good, the connections are real, and I am further along than I was six months ago. I just have to keep plodding along.

To that effect, I think the time has come to jettison the old project description that has its roots in 2004 (yikes!) and start over. I will start drafting a new narrative (you know, for grants, book contracts and such) and resist the urge to peek at the old one (because it is just too hard not to fall back on existing language).

What has spurred me to this decision this morning is the feedback I got from the NEH. I got rejection #2 from them last week and the responses from the anonymous reviewers arrived, at my request, in my e-mail box this morning.

One was excellent:
Panelist 1. This project when completed promises to be a very important contribution to the humanities. A project that examines conflicts and demands on behalf of women for accessibility to public urban space, it takes an entirely original approach to the issue of gender segregation, building on recent historical interest in urban geography and the politics of public space. It addresses multiple literatures - urban geography, women's history, politics, civil rights, and early and late 20th century history to name just a few--and will likely be read by a very broad population of scholars and readers with interest in women's history. I was also very impressed by the conceptual link that Hickey so persuasively makes between early-twentieth century reformers and mid- to late-twentieth century feminists. In effect, she proposes to reconceptualize this history in terms of continuities, where previously, these stories have been told in terms of discontinuities.

2. The applicant has a well-established record of publication in the humanities and comes highly recommended. The proposal, which is creative, methodologically and theoretically sophisticated, and persuasively written, also attests to the quality of this applicant as an interpreter of the humanities.

3. The proposal presents a novel issue that is complex and sophisticated and yet the proposal is also exceptionally clear and cogent in execution. It clearly defines the historical problem, the methodology for seeking answers, places the work in the context of other scholarship, defines the work thus far completed, and outlines the nature of the chapters to be written during the stipend period.

4. The applicant proposes to complete drafts of two chapters for which the research will be complete. This seems entirely feasible given the state of the work presented here. I am confident that the applicant will complete the project.

Rating: E[xcellent]

And the others? Well, I got two panelists who thought the project too large in scope and want me to make it more specific and concrete. That is code for 'you can't write a book about the whole twentieth century and include evidence from many cities'. The last panelist went in the opposite direction and argued that the scope was too narrow: "This project does indeed sound like... a "footnote" in the history of the modern women's rights movement." Well, the book isn't really about the modern women's rights movement, per se. Yes they're in there, but they aren't the book.

Don't worry, I'm not getting a complex or anything. This always happens. Precisely what will be most loved by some, is exactly what is most hated by others. On my last NEH application (for the big year-long fellowship) I had one panelist declare me unfundable because s/he went and looked up my article in Radical History Review on teaching social change and objected to the basic idea of activist teaching. Funny because it was this same article that received the highest praise by a scholar evaluating my co-author for promotion to full professor!

While I am disappointed not to get the $6000 from this fellowship (882 applicants for 62 awards), I can probably use these evaluations as I draft the new narrative. In particular, I obviously need to show how the time period is manageable and make a case for looking for patterns across cities. I am less certain how to deal with someone who sees the work as too narrow, but I'll do my best.

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