As a graduate student or a young scholar without a first book , you are unbranded. Your first project — and the dissertation that usually turns into it — will likely determine your reputation for a few years. And, more importantly, that first book will determine what I call your academic moniker.
Publish on the filth that coats the alleys in Dickens novels? You’re the garbage person. Publish on an author no one has heard of? You’re the whoever-that-guy-was person, a mouthful that is, ultimately, not very memorable. Publish on masturbation? The nicknames are numerous and unfortunate.*
Choosing that first topic, then, is essential. There was a moment when I could have been the infanticide person. At the end of my senior year at American, I spent a few weeks getting twitchy and nervous in the History of Medicine library at the National Institute of Health, researching Victorian poetry and motherhood for my senior capstone. There was no way to keep infanticide out of it, turns out. While the work is interesting, the moniker is unsavory and off-putting.
No one wants to share half of their conference box-lunch chicken salad sandwich with the infanticide person.
So it turns out I’m doing Victorian children’s literature and collaboration, which people either find engaging and interesting (I like those people) or sweet and nonthreatening (jerkfaces). I’ve tried to insist on being the toy press person,** but I think it has only caught on with my dear friend Sophie, who is still holding out for the day when I will build her a Victorian toy press of her very own.
These days, as I write my new job letters — the Job Letter of a Person with an Earned PhD, rather than the Job Letter of a Self-Conscious ABD Grad Student — I’m considering my next moniker. My first manuscript is still in revisions, but I’m full of second-project ideas, and it’s important to consider what reputation their respective subject matters may earn me in academic circles. For example, I’m considering writing on coloring books, which certainly doesn’t help with the whole sweet-and-nonthreatening problem. But! Consider all of the interesting titles I could work with:
- Shrimply Fun: The Shrimp Fishery in the Gulf of Mexico Activity and Coloring Book by Jo A. Williams. Did you notice the crustacean wordplay?
- Sea Turtle Activity and Coloring Book, by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, which unfortunately is about sea turtles and not for sea turtles.
- Minerals and You Coloring Book. I am trembling with excitement. And, my favorite…
- A Scary Thing Happened, FEMA’s failed attempt to deal with childhood trauma through clumsy line drawings.
While thinking through my coloring book project with my friend Bee, I mentioned A Scary Thing Happened, and the following chat ensued:
me: I think I want to write an article about FEMA’s coloring book called A Scary Thing Happened. In my spare time.
Bee: Does that seriously exist?!?
me: It does! FEMA had it posted online, but parents complained so they took it down.
Bee: That is hilarious.
me: That child has no nose! Perhaps he lost it when a scary thing happened.
Bee: … among other funny things about that page!
me: Wow. FEMA should have hired an editor. And some common sense.
Bee: Vee, you will feel better sometime.
me: Bee, disasters of epic proportions are NOT YOUR FAULT.
Bee: THANK YOU.
me: I know you were blaming yourself for the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Bee: I totally thought I caused Katrina.
Bee: Also, WWI? All me.
me: Well, that’s okay. I’m entirely responsible for Chernobyl.
* I have to take this moment — one of the rare moments I will mention masturbation on this blog — to point out that one of the children in Dickens’s Oliver Twist — Charley Bates — is in fact called Master Bates throughout the entire novel. It makes one pause each time he puts his hands in his pockets. Thank you, Victorian serialization seminar!
** Shameless self-promotion!