The research that resulted in my first book Polygamy, Women, and Higher Education: Life After Mormon Fundamentalism began as my Master’s thesis project in Adult Education. The project was my first experience with research, and I beyond enjoyed the process (thankfully, given that I’d spent my entire life wanting to be a professor without knowing exactly what one did). Data collection for the research that informed the book began in the fall of 2011. My MEd was completed in 2012 with my thesis completed shortly before graduation. This book was published in 2018. Six or so years passed between the completion of the thesis and the publication of the book, and while the slower nature of the publication process was certainly an element in that gap, it was only a minor factor contributing to the delay. The bigger factor was my eventual need to completely reanalyze my entire data set through a new theoretical lens, revisit and learn the higher education literature, and develop a more comprehensive understanding of student development theory. That process began the first semester of my doctoral program and continued throughout my coursework and my first two years as a faculty member. In many ways, the book published in 2018 bears very little resemblance to the thesis I wrote in 2012. That is, without question, a very good thing.
To explain why, I’ll start at the beginning and explain the background of the research and describe the book proposal and publication process. In a subsequent post, I’ll the evolution of the theoretical and conceptual framework, the eventual re-analysis of the data, and the not-recommended way that I met my first book submission deadline. Finally, in a third post, I’ll share how I approach each of the commonly required sections of a book proposal and share my full proposal and reviewer response memo.
The original study explored the life stories of three women who had left Mormon fundamentalist polygamy to understand their readiness for adult education. Using the life story (Stuart, Lido, and Morgan, 2011) method of data collection, framed through feminist theory, three women from two major fundamentalist sects, the FLDS and and UAB, told me their life stories, beginning from their earliest memories to the then present day. As the study was for a degree in Adult Education, I defined readiness according to the contested adult learning “theory” andragogy (Knowles, as defined in Merriam & Caffarella, 1999), although I did not treat it as a learning theory but as a prescriptive list of characteristics of what adult learning settings expected from the ideal adult learner. The five characteristics of the adult learner as defined by andragogy served as a priori codes for data analysis – in my first coding passes through the data, I searched the transcribed life story narratives to identify experiences that might suggest readiness for learning and coded those experiences as one of the five characteristics of an ideal adult learner (yes, this is deeply problematic). Andragogy, aside from being racialized, gendered, and classed, is incomplete-it does not consider the sociocultural context in which adult education takes place in. Because of this, I also coded thematically for what I described as “sociocultural factors,” which included the context of a polygamous life. Analysis followed a grounded theory approach (but, of course, because of the size of the study, the research could not be called a grounded theory study).
In part because of the theoretical and conceptual lens, especially my use of andragogy to create an “ideal” by which I measured the women who participated in this study (the very thing I sought to deconstruct in my future research), my original findings as reported in my thesis reflected a deficiency approach to the women who participated. For example, one participant explained that she was happy as a wife and mother and did not currently have a need for additional education. In my analysis and reporting, I categorized her as “not ready for adult education” because she was lacking one of the characteristics of a successful adult learner as defined by andragogy-an internal need for higher education. Additionally, my approach to the research was prescriptive and restrictive: I approached data collection and analysis assuming that education was a universal good so, therefore, I, in essence, labelled a participant who did not see a need for more education as deficient. I measured participants against an ideal that was biased not just by my own interests and research goals but rooted in a problematic view of what an adult education student should look like. This was intrinsically and deeply flawed.
As I described in the Behind the Scene piece on Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education, an ideal is problematic when it is presented as objective and unbiased when, in reality, it is very biased because the ideal is often only truly achievable by those already in power in society (or, in the case of media portrayals of “successful” women, completely unachievable). This is also true when we think about using the characteristics of andragogy to define someone who is ready for adult education. The expectation that someone will have, say, certain background experiences that contribute to readiness to learn labels some experiences as valuable and others as not valuable simply based on whether they support the pursuit of an education. Further, the education one is being told they should pursue may not be built for them, be useful to them, and/or may even be harmful to them because it causes them to reject their own knowledge(s). This is not to say that the marginalization of women in polygamous societies was an experience that I viewed as positive, but there was knowledge that each women learned that was valid and very valuable to them. Similarly, not having the specific academic or work experiences that might more obviously translate to a specific adult education setting did not signify any sort of deficiency or even a lack of readiness for adult education.
There were other problems with my thesis research too, some as simple as the typos I kept finding in the document after I submitted it, and others that were bigger, like my failure to truly flush out my findings and make meaningful recommendations that were rooted in theory and could lead to actionable change (similarly, I still find editing errors in my dissertation that make me cringe, not just including my conflation of sex and gender). In both cases, neither was ready in the thesis/dissertation form for publication. And since this was was my first research project, it should not have been perfect. I thought, or hoped, that my thesis could be published, so as I started my doctoral program in Higher Education at the University of North Dakota, I started down the publication path. But I quickly learned that a lot of work still needed to be done.
I mentioned in my first Behind the Scenes post that my first publication was not my first article to be submitted for review. That honor belongs to the manuscript I created from my thesis findings. It took over four years for that manuscript to be published. Don’t get discouraged by rejections, but do revisit the data, read reviewer comments, and maybe, if it is data that you really think is interesting, valuable, and a contribution to the field, be willing to start again. That’s what I had to do with this thesis data. Reviewer feedback in a rejection can be cruel and incorrect, but it is more often insightful and contains valuable feedback that can help you move forward to publication in another outlet. Sometimes time and space between feedback readings can help me to identify which feedback is valuable and useful and which I don’t need to use in my revisions.
Path to a Book Contract
In the first course in my doctoral program, I asked my advisor (and, later, dissertation chair), C. Casey Ozaki, if she would work with me toward publishing the results in a journal length article. Reflecting back, I had no idea how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to develop as a writer, but Casey was willing to work with me. For the first year of my program, I worked on revising the thesis into a journal article without revisiting the research and foundation the findings were built on. We revised the manuscript into a journal length article, and I submitted it to one adult education journal. After reviews, it was rejected because, among other comments, it wasn’t a grounded theory research project (it wasn’t) and because the findings viewed participants through a deficiency lens (it did). I revised accordingly, and I submitted to another journal. It was rejected again. And then, after revising again and being rejected again, I put the article and the research aside. At the time, I wondered if it was research that shouldn’t be published and, anyway, I was working as on other projects as a graduate research assistant that were moving toward publication in a meaningful way. At one point, my mentor, Cheryl Hunter, mentioned that this might be research that better belonged in a book, but I didn’t know how to approach the book publication process. I put the research away and, I thought, moved on.
The data and my thesis stayed there, put away, throughout the rest of my PhD and through my first year as a faculty member. Then, in my first year at Auburn, I asked my well-published and accomplished colleague Kamden Strunk to lunch to ask about his publication experience and the process of submitting a research project for review. He generously shared his time and book publication knowledge and then introduced me to his editor at Palgrave MacMillan. He also shared some tips on the content of the book proposal itself and one of his proposals.
Within the hour, I’d emailed his editor (now my editor!) at Palgrave to ask if she thought there might be interest in a book based on my thesis research. She responded positively within a few days and sent Palgrave’s book proposal form for me to complete. The Palgrave form lists all of the information they want in a book proposal. For my first proposal, I completed the Palgrave form (although in subsequent proposals, I have used my own format for a book proposal). While I was prepared to provide an overview of the book, chapter outline, and even a writing sample for the book proposal, I wasn’t prepared to talk about competitive volumes, the market, audience, and the structure of chapters. For that, luckily, I had Kamden’s help. I’ll spend an entire post talking about the proposal, and how I approach each section, but suffice it to say that without Kamden, I would not have known how to approach it.
Before sending the proposal back to Palgrave, I had a few of my colleagues review it and provide feedback. After a few more readings, I sent the proposal back to Palgrave and waited. One thing I like, in general, about the review process is the lack of work required when waiting for a decision. Upon submission, I feel a complete sense of relief that something has been removed from my plate and that it is now out of my hands. And so, while I wanted feedback, I also didn’t want feedback to come too soon. The wait for feedback wasn’t long. In less than three weeks, I heard back from my editor with the reviewer “critique.” The feedback was largely positive, so my editor asked me to write a response memo instead of revising my entire book proposal according to the critique. She gave me around two weeks to respond, and I finished my response memo in a week. Two weeks after that, I was sent the most exciting and simultaneously terrifying email I have ever received: “After discussing your project with our editorial board, I am delighted to offer you a contract to publish the work below in all forms throughout the world subject to our standard form of contract and on the following terms.”
And now I had to write it.
Merriam, S.B. and Cafarella, R. (1999). Learning in Adulthood.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Stuart, M., Lido, C., & Morgan, J. (2011). Personal stories: How students’ social and the cultural life histories interact with the field of higher education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 30(4), 489-508.