Giving Thanks: An Essay On Acknowledgments

November 22, 2006, 5:52 pm

I have been thinking a lot about acknowledgements lately because I am finishing the final draft of my second book, and it feels very different from finishing my first book in several ways. One is my gratitude to others is taking a more restrained form: I was not well supported by one and all in writing this book, and yet it was written, more or less successfully. So the obvious reason to think about acknowledgements is that soon I must compose some, figure out who to thank, who to ostentatiously *leave out, * and so on, using a less inclusive model than I did the first time.

But there is another reason I am pondering this as a professional issue that needs to be re-thought for the benefit of others: acknowledgements have metastasized in the past few years. I noticed this because my new book relies for some of its evidence on published work in the early years of the “professional era” of historical writing, books mostly published before 1930. I have been checking my quotes, and as I have done so, I have noticed a striking lack of thanks to others in these books — striking because nowadays there is often a whole separate chapter for thanking large numbers of miscellaneous people. And I am very up to date on this because part of the reason I haven’t finished my book earlier is that around this time last year I was reading for a Big History Prize, which meant I had roughly 400 books in my field published in 2005 that were sitting around my study: I had to sift through them in some systematic way, which meant reading their introductions first, introductions which often ended in, or were followed by, endless lists of acknowledgements.

In summary, I have noted three characteristics in the history of acknowledgements over the last century that I am taking into account as I contemplate writing them again. The first several generations of professional scholars never thanked anybody personally for helping them, even though they had lots of friends — even wives! — who read their work and critiqued it. A book might have a dedication, but that was it, and it was usually to a mentor, a parent or a spouse. Historians, at least, seemed to consider acts of friendship or colleagueship to be mostly private business. After 1945, this changed: a historian might make an acknowledgement to a reader or two, perhaps a colleague or a dissertation director and to sources of funding for research and sabbatical. But the most personal acknowledgement was either “to my wife” or “to Mrs. Harriet Bazooka, our departmental secretary” who “typed the manuscript.” After the 1960′s, however, acknowledgements became more elaborate but were still prim: sources of funding, colleagues, typists, research assistants — and then by the 1980′s, the acknowledgements section increasingly became a telephone book of family members, one’s graduate student cohort, members of an undergraduate seminar taught in the spring of 2000 who wrote helpful bibliographical essays or who just talked a lot, every person who laid eyes on any piece of the manuscript, ever, from proposal stage to indexing, and everyone who cooked or cleaned for the author.

I am quite sure there is something more at work here than meets the eye. One theme of the academic blogosphere is how many conferences and presentations young scholars must attend or do at this point to be considered favorably for tenure. I’m sure this has something to do with what I am suggesting is an overwhelming recounting of attentions bestowed that is in inverse proportion to how much any reading audience cares about these favors. In that sense, acknowledgements are merely evidence of the state of The Profession: there are simply many more people who have contact with a piece of scholarship, who offer critique, and so on, because young scholars are expected to be out and about constantly. And those young scholars are, in turn, trying to give credit where credit is due. Fair enough. But this doesn’t explain why people of my vintage are doing it too.

I wonder if there is a kind of reality TV thing going on — that there is no realm of relationship that we automatically feel comfortable keeping private any more. I wonder whether anyone ever looks back on those endless, sometimes gushy, acknowledgements and says, “You know, I went too far.” Aren’t some people embarrassed from some of the declarations of love made so thoughtlessly at a time when the relief at being finished with the book was so overwhelming everyone and everything seemed dear to them? I think publishers are — have you noticed that acknowledgements are now often found at the end of the book, as if the editor is hoping readers will miss them entirely? And I wonder what was going through the editor’s mind when s/he signed off on the acknowledgements published by a famous cultural studies wallah some years back, where he listed the people who had *hindered* the completion of the book?

So here are a few categories I think should be easy to either eliminate or trim. I leave it up to you to guess which ones I actually included in the acknowledgements section of my first book.

1. Pets. Don’t thank your dog, no matter how much you love her and how many times you wept into her fur. Many of us have wonderful, wonderful dogs and cats, ferrets and what have you, but you know – they just do pet things, important pet things, cute or soulful pet things, but not people things. Like read. And if this doesn’t discourage you, when I was a grad student there was a rumor that a young historian, who had named her dog Gertrude Himmelfarb, was actually sued by Herself because of an acknowledgement “to my dachshund, Gertrude Himmelfarb.” Herself and her attorneys allegedly made the publisher withdraw the first printing and retract the offending page. (Note that I am not printing this as fact, Dr. H.)

2. Manicurists, personal trainers, the rowing club, your yoga instructor, your shrink, your neighbors, the food co-op. Yes, these people probably kept you from having a breakdown, but you don’t need to tell everyone about it. And these are ordinary human relationships, not contributions to scholarly thought.

3. Any of your in-laws or family members for doing what family is supposed to do under ordinary circumstances to show that they love and value you. Did they offer to take care of your children? Great. But news flash — that’s what grandparents are supposed to want to do, and they wouldn’t have offered if they didn’t, because they don’t have to. Think how hard they pushed you to have the kids in the first place while “we can still enjoy them.” Inscribe a personal copy of your book to them instead. And that goes for your partner too — when two people have children, two people should care for them, sometimes in a temporarily (if you are lucky) unbalanced way. It’s Not a Big Deal — and if it is, not only does the public not need to know, but you might want to consider couples counseling because an acknowledgement in your book ain’t gonna do it.

4. All of your friends, and everyone you were in graduate school with, and everyone who was untenured while you were and threw great dinner parties and provided sustaining fellowship. It is true, common oppression is an important bond, but personal bonds are not always meant to be shared. I sometimes think I am reading these endless lists because a) no one can afford to give everyone a book; and b) we are all afraid to leave someone out and hurt their feelings. So leave everyone out except the people who really read your work, and don’t worry about it. Indicate that there were “too many to mention.” Then have a party, invite them all and make a pretty speech.

5. All the most important senior scholars in your field who you ever spoke to or were on a panel with or… get where I am going with this. It’s called Name Dropping. No, no, no. My least favorite are the lists of people who you have never even met, and who have never read your work, but whose *work* was incredib
ly important to *you. * It is utterly shameless to list these people.

6. OK, so it takes a village — but do you have to list the same people numerous times in different categories of acknowledgements? That there are so many categories of aid rendered in modern acknowledgements is absurd — people who read my work, people who cooked me dinner, people who hiked the Appalachian Trail with me, people who critiqued chapter 3. Eliminate the non-essential categories. On the other hand, make sure, if you are going to thank people promiscuously, that they are in the right categories. I have rarely been so miffed as I was when I received an offprint of an article I had given several critical readings to, to find that I was listed in the acknowledgements in between someone whose contribution was to give birth to the author and the boyfriend, who hadn’t even done that.

7. Eliminate any references to a dinner club or jogging group that you all came up with a cute name for. No one else will know what you are talking about and it’s pretentious to create an in-group in your own book. It’s a little like being an undergrad at a certain Ivy League University and waiting for someone to say “Bones” and then walking out in a huff as if you were really going to spend the weekend with W on a Canadian island talking about your career in the CIA and subsequent role in world domination.

8. Your children. You love them, but they did not help you, and the things they said when they were mad at you for writing your book instead of going to Disneyland are not cute, they are hostile, and should be forgotten, not memorialized. Also other people have printed them all before. Many times. Yuck.

So on this fabulous note, Happy Thanksgiving — safe home, and don’t bother to take your grading with you. There are too many fabulous football games to be watched and hors d’oevres to be eaten to even think about grading.

Happy holidays, y’all.

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