Stalling at the associate professor stage is a widely recognized problem in higher education, as mid-career faculty contend with ever-growing demands for service and mentoring while managing a range of caretaking obligations. Many additional scholars find themselves struggling to produce second books while they seek stable employment at a university. These obstacles to career advancement and personal fulfillment in achieving one’s scholarly goals are especially steep for fields in which books constitute the primary measure of accomplishment and stand as the main requirement for professorial promotion.
Through its Henneke Center for Academic Fulfillment, The University of Tulsa has launched a direct response to these challenges: the Second Book Institute (SBI). Conceived by Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens and co-led with Associate Professor of Anthropology Danielle Macdonald, who is also the Henneke Center’s director, the SBI is designed to help mid-career academics in need of time, structured writing strategies and a network of mutual support to complete their second book. Funding for the initiative comes from the TU Office of the President.
“I don’t know of any mid-career academic whose writing aims aren’t challenged by the busyness of academic and personal commitments,” remarked Macdonald. “The goal of the SBI is to help Fellows achieve their individual writing goals while building a community of writers and scholars at similar career stages.”
The SBI is designed for scholars who have published a first scholarly monograph and begun writing the first draft of a second scholarly monograph. SBI Fellows should not have this book already under contract or review with a press, but they should have at least two chapters drafted.
Models and inspiration
Stevens’ main model for designing the SBI was the First Book Institute that Sean Goudie and Priscilla Wald have co-directed for many years at Penn State University’s Center for American Literary Studies, as well as the Scholars’ Workshop that Martha Howard and Cathy Kelly run at William and Mary’s Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture. “The SBI has already benefited a great deal from advice I received from conversations with all these colleagues,” noted Stevens.
While those were influential models, inspiration for the SBI came from Stevens’ own struggles to complete her second book, Friday’s Tribe: Eighteenth-Century English Missionary Fantasies (forthcoming: U of Pennsylvania Press). A scholar’s first book is usually the revision of a dissertation, written under the direction of a committee and within the structure of graduate school. “Writing the second book is inherently a more lonely, harried and fragmented process,” Stevens remarked. “A lot of scholars also find themselves working on the second book while their responsibilities in other areas multiply and intensify. Children arrive and need care; other family members age, get sick and also need care. Students and junior colleagues need mentoring, and the demands of service to department and university are exponentially greater.”
Stevens was able to complete her second book by belonging to networks of colleagues dealing with the same struggles. In this regard, she credits the influence of a Facebook writing group that a friend and colleague, Tita Chico at the University of Maryland, set up, as well as several friends at TU and at other universities. “I found that the writing itself is an individual task, but getting to the writing, staying with the writing, seeing oneself as worth time focused on writing, was a community effort,” she commented.
Drawing on that personal experience, Stevens decided to develop a means to offer support to fellow scholars who are also struggling to move forward with their books. A second motivation was to advance a larger conversation in higher education about how scholars can and should be supported in their ongoing writing. “I was so thrilled and grateful when Danielle expressed support for the idea, and then when our new president and provost endorsed the project we proposed,” Stevens said.
A week of fellowship and focus
The inaugural SBI retreat will take place at TU. It will begin with a welcome dinner for the eight Fellows on Sunday, June 25, and conclude with a farewell dinner on Friday, June 30. Each weekday, the Fellows – one from TU and seven from other academic institutions – will spend the mornings in silent, solitary thinking and writing. During the afternoons, writing coach Joy A.J. Howard will offer structured events aimed at helping participants develop holistic research and writing habits.
When Stevens first conceived of the SBI, she sought to “give back to academics who give amply of their time and energy to their institutions, families and communities.” Animated by that quest, the SBI promises to be a rare opportunity for busy scholars to recharge, refocus on their scholarly work and, perhaps most importantly, join a mutually supportive community of peers.