The Way of Improvement Leads Home is NOT a revised version of my doctoral dissertation. Philip Vickers Fithian did appear in my dissertation on Protestantism in the early New Jersey countryside, but his story only made up part of one chapter. Since most historians’s first book is based roughly on their dissertation, how, you may wonder, did I end up writing a biography of Fithian?
Some of my friends and colleagues have been very successful at getting a press to publish their dissertation. I even know of people who pulled off the cover page of their dissertation, tweaked their prose here or there to make it sound less “dissertationy,” shipped the beast off to a unversity press, and three months later landed a book contract. I tried this, and did get a few bites, but none of the presses I wanted to publish with were interested in a dissertation on early South Jersey. So I went back to the drawing board.
Some of my best stuff in the dissertation was on Fithian, so I thought I would go ahead and expand it into what soon became a full-length biography of the man. This, of course, took some time. I finished the dissertation in 1999, but the book did not appear until this year.
If I was teaching at a university that required a monograph for tenure, I would not have produced the same book. I would have probably gone with the first press to take the South Jersey dissertation project so that I could land tenure.
But I chose to take a job at Messiah College, a place where we do a lot of teaching. Messiah strongly supports faculty scholarship (one of the reasons I chose to come here), but does not require faculty to publish a book in order to receive tenure. As a result, I was under no pressure to rush my dissertation into print. I could take my time, go down a few rabbit trails, and eventually end up producing a book that I feel good about. I could nurture my book project along, even if it took me nine years to finally get it into published shape.
I am not sure if there is a lesson here or not. Many dissertations translate easily into a book. Others do not. I am actually glad I had the time to write the book I wanted to write rather than produce a specialized monograph that would have been of interest to only a handful of people, namely three other scholars, some South Jersey antiquarians, and my parents.