Monday, April 15, 2019

A Better Book: The First Book Workshop

              Several years ago, LHB’s own Karen Tani and Mitra Sharafi wrote wonderful posts on their first book workshops (Karen’s is here; Mitra’s is here).  For those who missed them, a first book workshop is a manuscript workshop for a first-time author. Such sessios have grown increasingly common in legal history. Participants typically include a mix of home-school colleagues and outside commenters. Mine was incredibly valuable. This post uses that experience to build on Karen’s and Mitra’s insights. (If your experience as an author or participant was similar or to the contrary, please share it in the comments below.)
              An immediate benefit of staging a first book workshop is the deadline. Karen Tani declared it “a source of stress -- but also a source of motivation.” I would write “and” where she wrote “but.” The interim deadline improved my mood, productivity, and work product. It distracted me from the truly looming deadline: closure of my tenure file. I thus traded exhausting long-term stress for more energizing and motivating short-term stress. After all, getting a manuscript done sooner would mean more time to improve it later.
              The structure of the workshop can vary with the author’s goals. Mitra Sharafi described gathering 4-6 readers for an afternoon of conversation about the book. Karen Tani’s workshop had more than a dozen participants who presented on different parts of the book in panels across an entire day.  My workshop split the difference.  I gathered just shy of a dozen people for a single three-hour book conversation in the morning. There were opportunities to follow up and revisit matters during the lunch that followed and the dinner that I had with the out-of-town guests.
              My goal for the workshop was to come away with a plan for pulling the manuscript’s disjointed pieces together. I already had a clear vision of the characters, narrative, and argument of the book. I knew what I wanted to accomplish in each chapter and overall.  Plus, my tenure file would close in a year and a half, so I had to stay firmly in finish-the-book mode. Any deep exploration of new literatures or events would have to wait for follow-on projects. Instead, I hoped that my readers and I would put on the table competing visions for integrating what I already had. To keep the focus on the book as a whole, I decided against asking each reader to take primary responsibility for one or another chapter.
              Inevitably, I received conflicting advice and concerns. Here, it was crucial to have a trusted mentor present who could direct conversation toward achieving consensus on a concrete plan.  Ariela Gross served that role for me, and did a fantastic job.  Had she been unavailable, I’m confident that either of the ASLH series editors involved in the book – Sally Gordon and Reuel Schiller – could have stepped in.
              I would also recommend having someone in the room take notes. If (unlike me) you would listen to a recording later, consider following Karen Tani’s lead and asking participants’ permission to record the session. I also found it helpful to ask those who spoke to send me any notes they had afterward. I worried that asking people to pre-circulate notes as Karen Tani had might stifle free-flowing discussion.
              I aimed to be instrumental and substantive when inviting participants. My primary goal was to choose readers who would provide helpful feedback on the project. But the workshop was also an opportunity to secure buy-in and buzz for the book and to strengthen my relationships with others in the field. My ideal outside reader was someone who would value the project, become an interlocutor, and potentially write a tenure letter. I wanted inside readers to hear from outsiders why the project mattered and to be drawn more into the work. I also hoped that the discussion would cause all the participants to discuss the book with colleagues once the workshop ended.
              For my workshop, I chose equal numbers of external and internal readers.  Bob Gordon and Sophia Lee agreed to fly in for the event, as did Reuel Schiller in his capacity as the editor for the ASLH series that was publishing my book. Clyde Spillenger made the trek from UCLA, and my USC colleague from American Studies and Ethnicity, Nayan Shah, came as well.  At my home institution, the Gould School of Law, I invited senior colleagues in legal history and constitutional law.
All of this cost money. Mitra Sharafi and Karen Tani turned to grants to fund their workshops. I was fortunate to work at a law school willing to foot the bill. (Thanks, Dean!).
               In my case, the workshop was time and money and well spent. I came out of it with better key terms, a clearer sense of argument, and plans for streamlining the prose. I strengthened my relationships with scholars I admire and placed my book project on their radar.  Crucially, I also gained a renewed sense of the potential of the project.
              Though manuscript workshops are beneficial for junior scholars, they are not equally accessible. Certain educational trajectories and institutional homes make it easier to secure funds and participants – if one knows to seek them in the first place. It is that last barrier that made Mitra Sharafi’s post so valuable. It publicized the first book workshop when it was an emerging practice and possibility.

--Sam Erman

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