The Second Book Workshop at the Society for Civil War Historians

Greg Downs, Lesley J. Gordon, and Diane Miller Sommerville

Members of the Society for Civil War Historians face many of the same challenges that other midcareer scholars experience in writing their second book.  Those who have tenure now juggle more service obligations and often greater personal demands than they did converting their dissertation to a book.  Scholars working beyond the academy often lack the institutional support to conduct their research and complete their writing. The pandemic has brought new and unique challenges to the process, complicating childcare, closing archives, and cancelling conferences.  Writing the second book often leaves scholars without the “built-in” support group they found in graduate school, and thus they need to look elsewhere.

One of our facilitators, Greg Downs, knew and admired people who had participated in the Second Book Writers’ Workshop hosted by the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, and when he saw their announcement for a new round it reminded him of his own struggles to work on a second book while in a job. It also reminded him that historical associations thrive when they provide opportunities for members that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and when they meet needs that exist but aren’t easily met elsewhere. He suggested the idea to the SCWH president, Nina Silber, and she took it to program chair Amy Murrell Taylor, who ran with it.

The workshop was originally scheduled for the SCWH’s bi-annual meeting but, due to the pandemic, it was moved to separate Zoom sessions with a final meeting of all the participants and mentors in late June. While the virtual structure of our workshop was dictated by unusual conditions, we all agreed it afforded us opportunities that a traditional face-to-face meeting at a conference would not, namely, the flexibility to schedule sessions around participants’ demands and obligations (rather than require attendance at a conference on a particular day), and the ability to devote more time to each participant’s project. All facilitators opted to hold weekly sessions of at least an hour devoted to one participant’s proposal. The limited focus and expanded time for discussion allowed other participants, as well as the facilitator, to carefully read, critique, and share feedback in a fulsome way not dictated by a time-limited slot at a conference. In fact, it could be argued that virtual workshops that aim to support tenured scholars working on second books are actually preferable to in-person events and thus invites professional organizations to offer ongoing and regular support to mid-career scholars outside of annual or semi-annual conferences.

Feedback on the workshop was uniformly positive. Participants appreciated the sense of community in discussing the unique challenges and different pressures that writing the second book often pose. Paul Quigley stated that he valued the opportunity to “not only get robust feedback on a chapter but also to spend some time discussing second-book issues.”  He noted that “It was less an ‘airing of grievances’ and more a sharing of strategies.”  The social connection was important to the participants, too, with April Holm describing the workshop as “very invigorating in the context of the pandemic, when I am feeling a bit alienated from my scholarly community.”  In sum, this workshop, which we hope will be the first of future ones, was a great success and we recommend other organizations consider it for their own mid-career scholars.

13 August 2020

About the Authors

Greg Downs is professor of history at the University of California, Davis.

Lesley J. Gordon is professor Charles G. Summersell Chair of Southern History at the University of Alabama.

Diane Miller Sommerville is professor of history at Binghamton University of the State University of New York.

Share this Post