How does the Faculty Book Manuscript Program help first-time authors?

By Sarah Rogers // September 29, 2021

Every fall and spring semester, the Franklin Humanities Institute issues a call for proposals for Faculty Book Manuscript Workshops. Funded by the Duke University Strategic Plan, “Together Duke,” this program allows regular rank faculty in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences who have recently completed a book-length manuscript to invite two experts in their field, an academic press editor, and a group of local faculty to discuss its strengths and weaknesses in a half-day workshop.

“It feels like a seminar where your work is the assigned topic,” said Sarah Wilbur, Assistant Professor of the Practice in Dance and Director of Graduate Studies of the Master of Fine Arts in Dance Program. “And it’s not just about the work, but about the methodology.”

Wilbur received a workshop in 2019. Her book, “Funding Bodies: Five Decades of Dance Making at the National Endowment for the Arts” (Wesleyan University Press, 2021) examines how NEA funding policies have actively recruited and rewarded different aesthetic and organizational practices in dance from 1965 to 2016.

“Not all universities have this kind of thing,” said Jessica Namakkal, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies. “People don’t get this level of feedback.” 

Namakkal went through the workshop program in 2017. Her book,  “Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India” (Columbia University Press, 2021) argues that colonial projects in India persisted through a period of formal decolonization, through a process she calls “settler utopianism.”

What makes a book manuscript workshop so helpful, especially to junior faculty? We spoke with these two recently published authors to learn more.

1. It gives you a deadline

“I was at a point where I needed the final push to get the manuscript completely done,” said Namakkal. “When you're just so busy with teaching and [other research], it can be hard to dedicate time to putting the finishing touches on it. Especially as a first book author, you really don't know when it's done. So it gave me the first deadline, since my dissertation, to be like ‘Okay, I need this to be in good shape.’”

“Knowing that the accountability structure [of the workshop] is in place is super important,” Wilbur agreed.

2. It helps first-time authors understand the process of publishing an academic book

“There’s an unspoken idea that we've done this before, or that we have instincts about turning a dissertation into a book,” Wilbur said.

Namakkal pointed out that a book manuscript workshop can help a first-time book author to connect with an editor, and to begin to understand how the publishing process works. “If you don't really know how the system works, or you're just trying to figure out what an editor is looking for in a book, or what a book series is, all of the things they don't teach you in graduate school…it’s incredibly useful for that reason.”

3. It helps authors to identify a book’s audience and choose participants accordingly

“You get to choose who’s invited and that’s really important,” said Namakkal. Before her workshop, she was in touch with one of the editors of the book series at Columbia University Press, who teaches at UNC. She invited him to attend the workshop, along with the editor from Columbia University Press. “It was wonderful to have someone I trusted, who was guiding the series, to help me think through [the book].”

Wilbur invited a frequent collaborator with numerous publications on institutional policy and arts labor, and a distinguished professor and leading institutional critic in performance studies who had served on her dissertation committee. For her local invitees, she chose a diverse group of faculty and artists.

“Think of…your dream scenario for the audience for your work,” she said. “I'm a really social person, so the idea of [asking] ‘Who is this in conversation with?’ has helped me, at a point when I had really been looking at a Word document for way too long.”

4. It can help hone a book’s argument

Often participants in a workshop disagree about aspects of the book. “That’s actually super useful, I think, when it comes to standing your ground for what you are doing, and maybe not what someone else wants you to be doing,” said Wilbur. For her, it was a chance to “practice doing what I hope a book should do, which is to incite debate.”

Namakkal chose to retain a section of her book that was disputed during her workshop. The resulting chapter was recently commended in a New York Times book review of a memoir of the “utopian” Auroville in former French India. 

5. It gives authors support during what can be an isolated writing process

“One of the best parts of the workshop was [having] internal support,” said Namakkal. For her, receiving thoughtful and encouraging feedback from other faculty helped build a sense of “not being completely isolated and expected to produce this on your own.”

“After the workshop, I had tons of renewed energy,” Wilbur said.