When I was in graduate school, I dreamed of turning my dissertation into a book. I suppose that all graduate students have such a dream, since the central message of advanced training in English is "publish, publish, publish to prove your worth as a human being."
Today I'm actually staring at a book on the topic of my dissertation. The volume is a sturdy hardcover, a book in the ancient sense, not just a paperback. It even has a dust jacket that I admire. But I have a problem with this volume: Someone else's name appears on the title page.
Where did this book that I didn't write about my topic come from?
I stumbled upon the title while searching for something else, but I don't recall ever seeing a review of it or a copy at a publisher's display or in an advertisement. Checking it over now, I see that the book came from a legitimate academic publishing house, not one at the very top, but certainly not a vanity press. This book is no fraud.
I open the book and read the acknowledgments. The author, "Dr. Published," thanks others who've done work in this area, and lists their names and publications, including books, articles, and even dissertations. I can't find my name in his acknowledgments, even though I wrote my dissertation on the same topic, and published several articles on it.
I turn to the end of the book and scan the list of works cited. No "Henry Adams" there. Not even a hint that such a person ever did work in the field.
Perhaps the omission is an oversight? Dr. Published lists works that appeared at the time of my own. I must be included somewhere in the book. I check again, but discover no trace of my work.
I feel a rather infantile sense of being cheated. How could he leave me out? My work on the topic has been cited by other scholars—well, actually only one—but that must count for something.
The green-eyed monster whispers in my ear, "Perhaps you didn't get cited because the author plagiarized your writing." Plagiarized! What a wickedly flattering idea! Could someone have thought my words worthy of theft, like diamonds in a Cartier display case?
I plunge into the first chapter, searching for the gleam of my stolen words. The first page appears innocent. So does the second. Where are my gems? Alas, by the time I've gotten to page 5 or 6, I realize I might as well stop looking. In his opening pages, Dr. Published promises to make a sophisticated analysis of the material. He didn't poach my words because he didn't need them. The author of the book I'm holding didn't consider my contributions worthy of inclusion or mention in his magnum opus.
OK, so the book isn't stolen intellectual property. But of course, I did write a dissertation and try to convert it into that coveted badge of academic worth: a scholarly book. I drew up a proposal demonstrating the profession's need for such a book, and I sent it and a sample chapter to a number of publishers. The first publisher I heard from sent back a polite reply suggesting that my project seemed more suitable for a series of articles, not a book. A second publisher stated much the same thing. The rest rejected the proposal outright. My dissertation became published articles.
I settle down and read the book I wanted to write. Wow. This guy is astute. Dr. Published thought of arguments and insights that I never did. When he gets to problems over which I struggled and speculated, he covers them with solid arguments and support from obscure sources I never unearthed in my own field trips to research libraries. I have to admire his work. Dr. Published wrote a scholarly treatise, whereas I rushed to get a dissertation completed to get myself on the job market and avoid going into debt.
How ought a professional respond to such a discovery?
A person could panic. In fact, a person ought to panic in the shame culture that makes up the American professoriate. A book is everything. Everything. The training, the job market, and the culture all assume that for the career of the English professor, it's the book or nothing. A person who sees that someone else has published a book that he or she hoped to publish should feel crushed by thoughts of tenure denial, job loss, failure, worthlessness, slipping out of the elite ranks of the research university, and falling into the abyss of a teaching college with a load of more than two classes a semester. The horror. The horror.
Perhaps I ought to feel that, but I don't. I already work at a teaching college, already have four preps in the fall and a different three or four in the spring. By starting out with a tenure-track position at a teaching college, I bypassed the publish-to-prove-yourself-worthy stage altogether. What's more, my publications, or lack of them, won't affect my career. My employer, Locally Known College, would rather have me take on a fifth course each semester than publish a book or even another article.
If panicking isn't the right response to someone else's publishing the book I wanted to, I could raise a fuss. One of the chapters is pretty clearly just an attempt to bridge two parts of the thesis. It's a challenge that I couldn't resolve in my dissertation, but I must say that his solution reads more like an article than a chapter in a unified study. For that matter, several details in his presentation don't seem quite accurate. I could seize upon those details and create an article that declares "Dr. Published misses the vital importance of inconsequential details, and thus his book deserves to be tossed in the dumpster." Doing that would certainly prove exhilarating, and would be an example of professorial behavior that I label IBYG, which stands for I'm Brilliant, You're Garbage.
When I use the acronym IBYG, I refer to those grandiose pronouncements that promote the speaker and define the person addressed as part of an inferior species. Between scholars, IBYG behavior appears most frequently during the Q&A sessions at conferences. When a commenter in the audience disagrees with a presenter, the commenter doesn't say, "Although you are quite learned, I believe perhaps you are mistaken on this one small matter." The IBYG questioner announces, "I can't believe anyone could so thoroughly misunderstand the seminal work of Edward Casaubon." In the graduate-school environment, professors belittle their students with comments such as "You don't belong in graduate school if you haven't already read The Key to All Mythologies."
Yes, I could pull an IBYG on Dr. Published, but I'm not brilliant, and he's certainly not garbage. What purpose would such an article serve?
I could take the Criminal Minds approach and profile Dr. Published. The dust jacket informs me that he did his doctoral work at a university much higher on the food chain than the one where I earned my Ph.D. The dust jacket also reveals that he's currently employed at a highly respected research institution. In fact, his employer turned me down when I applied there for graduate studies years ago. This indicates that he's more intelligent and scholarly than I am, but I already knew that by reading the book.
I've never met the person I'm profiling or even encountered anything else he's written, so I assume he's not an attention seeker. But what is he like? I suppose I could pore over the programs of conferences, find one at which he's presenting a paper, attend, and introduce myself. The idea intrigues me, but what would I say to him?
"Congratulations on writing the book I couldn't get published."
I'd sound like a stalker.
"I admire your book, and I envy you the dust jacket."
I'd sound like a bitter stalker.
"I'm the nobody whose work you chose to ignore while writing your book."
I'd sound like someone should do a Criminal Minds profile on me.
I decide I have no reason to meet Dr. Published. He teaches only two courses a semester, and he creates new knowledge by publishing books. I have four course preps each semester, and I create new knowledge in the classroom, especially in the lively give-and-take of upper-division discussions. Dr. Published and I might as well be in different professions.