Sunday, March 29, 2015

First Book Workshops

First Book workshops seem to be a growing trend. In this post, I share some thoughts on the model, which offers real value for legal historians.

In a First Book workshop, a scholar presents the first draft of a book manuscript to a group of 4-6 readers who offer feedback during a half-day workshop. At my home institution of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, our Center for the Humanities awards Mellon-sponsored First Book Workshops for junior faculty members in the humanities who are turning their dissertations into books. When my book manuscript was featured several years ago, two of my readers were external. They flew in for a two-day, one-night trip. The other readers were colleagues at my institution. Our session lasted an afternoon and was audio-taped, so I could listen to the conversations again later. There were also group meals before and after the session. Afterwards, several of my readers gave me line-by-line edited versions of my manuscript, a remarkable investment of time and energy on their part. With such a wealth of comments, I felt rather overwhelmed initially. Hiring a graduate student to consolidate all of the comments on a single electronic document helped me move from a deer-in-the-headlights state to productive revision mode.

I have noticed more and more scholars holding this type of event as they produce their first book, whether through an official program or by their own efforts. It is a great idea to negotiate funding for such an event as part of one’s start-up package when starting a tenure-track job.

One colleague suggests getting written comments from readers before the workshop begins, to help focus discussion.

Another emphasizes that the First Book workshop should be part of a larger, ongoing process of receiving feedback on one’s writing from senior colleagues, particularly pre-tenure. To help get past the immediate post-workshop paralysis,a trusted senior-colleague participant should help the author figure out what feedback to act upon. The problem of contradictory feedback is very real. Equally, acting on every piece of feedback (even when not contradictory) may have the result of diluting the overall flavor of the manuscript, creating a mishmash that placates many but wows few. Ideally, new ideas will occur to the author out of the workshop discussion itself—even when not suggested by readers. And of course, the workshop must come at the right time in the tenure process. Many have to forego a First Book workshop because they are racing against the tenure clock.

My publisher did not attend, but this is also possible. The participation of one’s book series editor (a fellow academic) would be even better, to my mind.

It would be fabulous for the book workshop trend to catch on for subsequent book manuscripts, and not just for one’s first. In the end, a book workshop acts as a one-off writing group—that hallowed institution that many of us had in graduate school, but that is sadly less common among faculty members.

(I thank my UW–Madison colleagues Sara Guyer, James H. Sweet and Pablo F. Gómez for their thoughts on the First Book Workshop format.)