Prodding, Proofreading, and Persistence; Or, Tales from an Isis Proofreader

by Ian Hesketh (University of Queensland)

Courtesy of Ian Hesketh

I was recently awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship grant, which provides me with a generous salary along with substantial research funds, to engage in a four-year research project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Queensland. The award also comes with an important clause that was included in the host university’s letter of commitment, namely that the University of Queensland would agree to offer me a continuing position, should the application be successful. So winning the award not only meant four years of well-funded research; it also meant that my twelve-year long search for job security was finally over.

Reflecting on this search—which has taken me and my family across Canada in both directions, and then to a different country entirely—has made me realize even though I worked for several different universities during that period, I did have one constant during that time: the HSS’s quarterly journal, Isis.

Doing a PhD in the early 2000s at York University in Toronto had many benefits, including, of course, getting to learn from and work with Bernie Lightman and many other STS-related faculty members such as Marlene Shore, Joan Steigerwald, Katharine Anderson, Ian Slater, Martin Fichman, and Paul Fayter. It also meant the opportunity to work for Isis, which began its stint at York University in 2003.

One of my first duties as part of the team was to accompany Lightman on a trip to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Isis’ previous home, in order to get a first-hand look at the daily operations. It was a great experience. And while the drive from Toronto to Ithaca and back again was quite long, Lightman and I bonded over a mutual love of Neil Young and other music from the 70s that helped us pass the time.

Once Isis got officially underway at York, most of us graduate assistants worked as Assistant Book Review Editors (or, as I preferred to put it, Assistants to the Book Review Editor), in large part because publishing upwards of one hundred book reviews an issue proves to be quite labor intensive. It was indeed impressive just how many books moved through the office. In the most ideal of situations, the Book Review Editor would examine a given book, come up with a list of possible reviewers, and then give that list to one of the editorial assistants. That assistant would then email the first name on the list, asking if they would consider reviewing the book. After agreeing, the assistant would send them the book and the reviewer would, ideally, send us a review of that book before the three-month deadline. More often the process involved a seemingly endless series of what we called “prods”: emails to authors reminding them about emails they did not respond to, or deadlines that had come and gone, or the books that now needed to be sent back to the journal so that the entire process could begin again. This may seem tedious, but it was a real pleasure corresponding with so many different scholars in the history of science. And it was just plain fascinating to be one of the few people working behind-the-scenes and taking part in the production of a leading journal in the field. Eventually, I was hired to proofread journal issues on a regular basis, largely to seek out errors that had crept in during the typesetting process, correct any remaining stylistic issues, and insert the final authors’ corrections. This work was wonderful, as it meant that I was able to be a part of the Isis team as I continued to work on my PhD, which I defended in June of 2006, while getting to pour over each issue of Isis well in advance of the journal’s many subscribers.

After finishing the PhD, I took a two-year Social Science and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia (UBC). While I assumed this meant my proofreading gig for Isis would come to an end, I was delighted to discover that I could continue proofreading each issue of Isis even though I would now be living in Vancouver. I was still proofreading from print at this point, so this involved a lot of shipping between my place in Vancouver and the home office in Toronto.During this first postdoc at UBC, I published a few articles and I also had my first book in press, which I thought meant that I would be well-positioned to take the next step in my early academic career. But when the postdoc came to an end in the summer of 2008, the stock market had plummeted and the bottom fell out of an already declining job market. I was able to pick up some adjunct teaching at UBC’s new satellite campus in Kelowna, which was formerly Okanagan University College where I completed my Bachelor’s degree eight years before. This was a tough year. My mother was kind enough to let my partner Cleo and I stay in her basement suite. And I continued proofreading for Isis, which was not only a great financial help during a difficult period in that regard, it also helped set me up for my next position.

At some point while I was teaching at UBC-Okanagan, I became aware of a massive project under the direction of Daniel Woolf, Professor of History and Dean of Arts at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, to produce a five-volume, edited collection on the history of historical writing from a global perspective, from the ancient period right up to the present. This would eventually be published as The Oxford History of Historical Writing (2012–2015). I contacted Woolf immediately, in the hopes that I could contribute something on British historical writing in the nineteenth century. But I also mentioned my editorial experiences and suggested that I’d be keen to contribute to the project in whatever way that I could. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Woolf was beginning to think about hiring someone to help coordinate the activities of the over 150 authors and several different editors and, ultimately, shepherd the five volumes through the publishing process. My editorial experience, more so than my research, was key to being considered for what would turn out to be a three-year managing editor position at Queen’s University, Kingston. And as I can attest, the “prodding” skills I honed to perfection in the Isis book review office were indispensible throughout the managing of this project.

I should say that I continued to proofread Isis throughout this three-year editorship. I also managed to find time to continue researching and writing, completing my second book and securing an advanced contract for my third. I also kept applying for tenure-track positions in relevant fields but was unable to make it onto any shortlists for the few positions that were advertised during that period. Towards the end of my time at Queen’s, I began applying for short-term appointments as well, and even began looking more systematically for positions overseas. A three-year position was advertised for a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Queensland to work with Peter Harrison, Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses (now IASH), on another large-scale project, this one dealing with historical and evolutionary modes of explanation. While this position aligned quite closely with my research, my now extensive editorial experiences were seen as a great asset for a position that would also involve organizational and editorial duties.

I’d like to say that it was a difficult decision to move overseas, particularly given that Cleo and I now had a one-year-old daughter to think about, but there were no other options. The position looked like a wonderful opportunity and has indeed worked out for the best. That three-year postdoc eventually led to a senior research fellow position, which set me up to apply for the ARC Future Fellowship and, ultimately, secure a continuing commitment from the University of Queensland. I was also able to keep proofreading Isis, as well, despite moving to Australia, and despite the editorial transition that occurred in 2014 when Isis moved to The Netherlands under the editorship of Floris Cohen. I was more than happy to be kept on as the Isis proofreader, and hope that I can continue on now that we approach another editorial transition.

Reflecting on these last twelve or so years makes me realize just how lucky I was to stay in academia while I continued to pursue an academic career. There were the lengthy periods when it seemed like there wouldn’t be another job on the horizon and many thoughts of pursuing a career outside of academia. But new positions seemed to materialize at just the right moment, and we were always willing and able to move long distances when those opportunities arose, despite the strain those moves inevitably had on family and new and old friendships. It also helped knowing that I could continue working for Isis throughout those transitions, which in part made them possible in the first place.