A mitzvah: pass it on!

I had a phone call the other day from a historian I’ve never met who had assigned my book to a graduate seminar this quarter and who wanted to tell me how much he and his students liked my book.  (This was in a seminar in which they apparently scorched nearly every other book–unfairly, of course, but he passed this along to me because their appreciation for my book was so striking by comparison.*)  In the course of conveying these extravagant compliments, he said something very thoughtful and very wise:

It’s been a bad past few years here [at my university].  Since we’re not going to get recognition or support from our institutions for our work, I’ve decided to e-mail or call everyone whose book my students and I really like to thank them and let them know.

Isn’t that a great idea?  Let’s all do this!  I think the historian above is exactly right:  we need to share the love and support each other.  He said that he’s had some surprising reactions–overwhelmingly positive, of course, but he’s even had a fulsome and grateful response from someone who’s not a historian but rather is a pretty famous non-fiction writer, someone from whom he never expected a reply.

So, think:  did you read an especially interesting, well-researched, well-written, or otherwise thought-provoking book in the past year?  Let the author know, and be sure to let them know what your students’ reactions were to the book if you assigned it in a class.  (I always enjoy hearing what students liked or disliked about my book–sometimes they pick up on things that my peers don’t see.)

Earlier in my career, I made a lot of new friends by complimenting them on their books, but I’ve fallen off the wagon lately.   In part, this is because my field is so small that I *already know* pretty much everyone whose books I assign.  (Also, I’ve been called on pretty frequently in the past few years as a manuscript reader for presses and journals, so although I always sign my reviews, my relationship to those authors is different.)  Maybe this is a sign that I need to read a little more broadly. . . or that I just need to be more generous with the love.

So tell me about the book you liked and the author you’re going to write to in the comments below.

*They appreciated the fact that I read and used more than just English-language sources, and thought that “this woman is doing something new!”  I couldn’t be happier to hear that my book survived the graduate seminar shred-O-matic!

22 thoughts on “A mitzvah: pass it on!

  1. It has been my experience that the vast majority of scholars based in North America or Europe refuse to even acknowledge any inquiries I send by e-mail. I do not want to even imagine the type of rude response a telephone call from me might elicit. Your scheme only works for people already in the privileged world.


  2. I’ve had an e-mail sent out to compliment a book go unacknowledged too, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pass on compliments. I don’t think of compliments as an expression of “privilege.”


  3. I had the great fortune to have not one, but three reviewers contact me after reviewing my first book. That was in 2009/2010. Ever since, I’ve reviewed 10 books for various journals (because I do nothing else with my time…) and at every turn, I’ve contacted the author to thank hir for writing the book and for the opportunity to review the work. Beyond that, I also live by the very important rule that you review the book that is written, NOT the book you wanted to read.


  4. This may be a minor contribution to receivers of emails. My students are free to send emails to researchers that deal with problems they encounter. They very often do. Through the years, we have observed a responsive community that frequently goes out of the way to share artifacts, experience and immediate plans.

    Hopefully, receivers of email from any interested party that reads this blog will realize how important it is to respond and do it with an open mind. As She said: it’s a mitzvah.


  5. I think one reason why sometimes emails go unacknowledged is that many of the email systems used in North American universities have their spam filters set very high–I’ve encountered profs who don’t seem to be able to receive email unless it comes from a .edu address, for example. This seems to happen whether through their own fault or someone else’s–and it’s usually someone else’s, as half the time the profs in question aren’t tech-savvy enough to know what a spam filter is. So that could be part of the problem, especially depending on the generation of professor you’re trying to contact…and many of those same professors also either no longer have phones in their offices or no longer use them; I’ve started to think that snail mail might still have its uses!


  6. My university e-mail has an edu, but it also has a gh (Ghana domain) and a lot of places put all of Ghana and Nigeria on their spam lists. But, I think the real problem is just rudeness. Nobody in North American or European academia responds to me because I am a nobody in Africa. This is true, but not a reason not to answer my e-mails.


  7. My grad. students liked your book too, Historiann, when I used it a few years ago. The only ‘plaint they could think to make was that it could have been shorter, to which you memorably responded when I passed this news along (something like): “Hah! If they think *my* book is long, they don’t have any idea of what they’re going to run into next week when you use ______ ______’s book.” And how true that was!


  8. Srsly, Notorious? *Most* of them are dead? (Does your subfield have a high mortality rate perhaps?) I wonder if it’s also a function of the titles available to you in paper. Even people in *my* obscure field have an easier time of getting their books into paper than people in your field, IIRC.

    Maybe I have a fetish for the new, but there’s only one book that’s been on my syllabus that’s even 10 years old, and that’s because it does so much in <200 pages. (Kirsten Fischer's Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina, 2002). It’s also in paper, which is a huge consideration for me.

    There are some more recent titles that I might want to try out in its stead, but they’re not out in paper. (I wonder if this is the new reality of academic publishing?)


  9. For what it’s worth, in regard to responding to email, I know that, particularly during the academic year, I prioritize, in order not to spend my whole life responding to email as opposed to doing other things that need doing. Which means that I give myself one hour per day for email (reading and responding), which means that emails that don’t require an immediate response do sometimes fall through the cracks – or I respond to them months after they were sent. I used to have a hard time with this because it IS rude, and I hate that. But on the other hand, it’s not personal: it’s not something based on some perceived hierarchy, or on a prejudice against the people to whom I don’t respond. (More often than not it’s FRIENDS who get this email treatment from me.)

    And so when other academics don’t respond to emails that I send, I don’t take it as meaning anything other than that they are trying, as I am trying, to limit certain kinds of screen time. Whatever the case, I think that an email telling somebody that you assigned their book and how your students responded, whether or not the author writes back, is just *nice*.

    In my undergrad courses, I don’t tend to assign much critical stuff beyond articles, and in my grad courses I tend to teach theory so most of the theorists are dead (or UBER famous). That said, I *DO* tell people when my students cite their work in papers, which happens more and more frequently the longer I’m in this biz, that my students are citing people I know, or at least who run in my general circles. And I know that when I tell people that they’ve been cited by my students, they always are interested to talk about how their work was used, whether or why the student found it helpful for fleshing out their ideas, etc. And I know that I feel that when I hear from others about how students respond to my scholarship.


  10. Two responses to this: First, I try to make it a practice to give particularly noteworthy feedback from grad students to my colleagues — I tend to do it more to people I know, I admit. And my sense is that it is always really appreciated. Then a few weeks ago, someone I’d never met stopped me at a conference and said: your work makes a difference to my students. It was one of the loveliest compliments I’d ever received, and totally made my day/week/month. So love your idea!

    Coincidentally: in a recent PhD exam, a student named Kirsten Fischer’s book as his favorite/most influential book on colonial America. So definitely worth keeping it on the reading list! (I’m sure Historiann was 2nd on the list, of course!)


  11. Whether it is conscious or not I am pretty sure that my very low rate e-mail response is due to an elitist dismissal of myself and my institution as unimportant. Honestly, how many of you would answer an unsolicited e-mail from a person with an obviously obruni name at an African university who was not a specialist on Africa, but rather did Soviet history? I am guessing none.


  12. This is a wonderful idea, H’ann. Being academic can be so demoralizing for many of us – low pay, long hours, crappy job market, constant stream of rejections – it’s important to reach out to each other, especially to younger scholars. I was just reading an article by a recent PhD that I really liked, and thought, I should email hir to say how much I liked this article.


  13. A few years ago, I was teaching our undergraduate historiography class, and I used a very recent article – so new that I received the journal while I was working on the syllabus. After the students had written papers about the way the argument was built, we had a phone conversation with the author. Simpler than a visit, but the students really liked it, and I think my colleague did too. It would have been even better if we could have skyped, but she didn’t have a webcam.


  14. I hope this doesn’t represent the short way out, but does it count if I thank two regular commentators of this blog for the books they wrote that taught well in my classes? I used Indyanna’s most recent monograph for one of my upper division lecture courses recently–you’re welcome for the royalties, btw!–and it taught very well. It was a kind of detailed social history that not as many authors do anymore, and the students loved it. So, thank you!

    And Susan: I used your most recent monograph in a graduate course I taught last spring. The students there were more critical–as grad students are wont to be–but found a great deal to chew on. In the end—again, after the requisite time trying to tear the book apart–the grad students pronounced it one of their favorite books of the term. Some of that may have been stemmed from length; at 320 pages it came in at less than half the length of D.A. Brading’s 780 page _First America_, which they also read. But they mostly praised the clear prose and the sharp argument.

    So public congratulations to you both!


  15. I’ve used email and Twitter to let other historians know that I’m using their books in my fall seminar. The books so excited me that I wanted to let them know and one’s responded, which is cool. I’ll make a note to do a follow-up after the students have used the books (which I know they’ll enjoy and learn a great deal from).


  16. H’ann, when I wrote that, I was thinking of my graduate colloquium, which I’ve structured as a sort of historiographic “grand tour,” meaning that very few of the books are recent. And in my undergraduate classes, I rarely assign monographs.

    I did, however, tell Judith Bennett how much my students liked her book. And I, personally, have chased down an author at a conference like a groupie, just to tell him that his book had completely transformed how I was thinking about my own monograph. It was completely admirable how he managed to keep the fear out of his eyes.


  17. John S.: thanks very much–echoing Shaz, it makes my day/week/month/summer at least to hear that, in this particular forum not least and especially from you. As to royalties, they’ve been decidedly minimal but holding steady for a few years, so it must be getting a little use. But I recently got a letter from the publisher asking me to sign an irrevocable waiver on *any* royalties for an electronic edition, citing the various “risks” (great word for JPMorgan-Chase week) involved, and saying it would never see the light of electrons without this waiver. It set forth various arguments about why the waiver would make sense, but none that could quite penetrate my old paradigm skull. I assume an e-dition would kill off even the paperback. Should I reply offering to waive royalties until initial e-costs are recovered, and then back to share alike?


  18. Indyanna: my press tried something somewhat–but not entirely–similar. They moved many of their publications to the expanded Project Muse, which now includes articles as well as books. They asked me to authorize electronic publication of my book with the provision that I would get royalties on all individual electronic copies of my book sold electronically–but no cut of any proceeds if my book were sold as part of a larger package to libraries through Muse. Since most people would probably read my book electronically through Muse, it would effectively cut out any royalties there.

    Moreover, I am surprised to read that they sent you this…considering that your book has been for sale for a little while as an ebook. (I can tell you where I found it for sell–it’s a major retailer–if you email me privately.) You might want to have a chat with someone at your press.


  19. I tell academics that I meet at conferences when I’ve found their books useful/important/mind-blowing/inspiring. I’ve been doing this for a while now for the reasons you mention – we work in an area where the nature of the game is to constantly critique each other’s work (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), so we rarely say ‘good job’ to each other and we should. People should know that their work makes a difference.


  20. I had a colleague tell me at a conference once that his students had liked my book, and particularly appreciated the way I used an unexpected chronology. I wasn’t sure what he was referring to at first, as the book is chronological – but later realized that I didn’t break the chapters at such obvious points as the year of independence for the country I was writing about. It was great to hear that people appreciated that aspect of my book, which for some reason I hadn’t realized was so notable.


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