Herring out of Brine 4: The Academic Book Workshop

This month we look a gift horse in the mouth. For several years I’ve been hearing US-based colleagues talk about their book workshops, and now I finally had a chance to participate in one. Usually meant for non-tenured faculty in the humanities and social sciences, these events can take on slightly different formats, but generally involve several scholars converging on one’s home institution to discuss a well-developed book draft and help bang it into final shape. Sometimes the person’s faculty mentor sits in, sometimes a potential publisher is present as well. On the face of it, nothing more than standard academic practice, a kind of public peer-review procedure, with highly competent people involved. But the devil, as usual, is in the details.


The book workshop is designed to foster professional growth, which is laudable. Yet it runs several risks I would like to spotlight and offer—also based on previous participants' insights—some ideas on how to reduce them.


The first risk is at least the semblance of outsourcing quality control away from tenure committees, prematurely and in a rather visible way. Prior to soliciting letters in support of a junior colleague’s tenure request (which often hinge on the reception of his/her first book), the workshop seems to facilitate progress, yet may end up delivering powerful impressions about an incomplete project. To avoid this, I would consider—perhaps paradoxically—conducting book workshops as early as possible on one’s tenure clock, using for instance the dissertation (or a slightly reworked version thereof) as a basis.


A second and related problem, experienced by all non-tenured staff I talked to, is that feedback, however constructive, usually far exceeds a junior colleague’s capacity to respond in a timely manner. Alternatively, a very advanced manuscript may limit the discussion to reiterating its key argument/s, as one informant admitted. Reassuring, but hardly a great use of resources. Making the most of this special opportunity seems once again to require organizing a workshop sooner rather than later: doing so may increase the relevance of feedback and help bring the manuscript to a timely completion.


A third and arguably greater risk, however, is placing an unfair burden on a junior colleague’s shoulders in an already stressful period. Beyond being time-consuming to plan, such workshops have potentially massive ramifications. In accepting their institution’s or a grant giver’s generosity, young academics commit to showcasing their work, usually a first monograph, before not only a learned but also a very influential audience. In a US context, these are the same people likely to write letters in support (or denial) of their tenure and/or promotion request, and who belong to a small group of expert reviewers of the final product. There is much at stake, in other words, about who gets invited (or not) and how clearly their mandate is defined and enforced.


And here is where details begin to matter. A welcome invitation (including the American honorarium, sine qua non) and the social circumstances of a workshop may stifle a critical conversation. Alternatively, it may encourage participants to be overly zealous in their responses, in order to avoid appearing beholden to the inviting institution, department chair, etc. Neither of these was my own experience, but reputations, careers, livelihoods, indeed mental stabilities may lie in the balance in such performances. Someone who is intellectually brilliant but introverted or simply (and very understandably) nervous even before the kindest of panels has much to lose under such circumstances. One way to obviate this is to choose the right format for each case and—equally important—appoint a suitable moderator, one with whom the junior colleague feels truly comfortable. Former workshop participants repeatedly stressed how crucial and helpful it was that conveners established clear expectations from all participants, set the right tone and held a later debriefing.


Last but not least, such workshops’ potential impact on the broader, two-tiered academic community, should be acknowledged. Junior scholars willing to face their own firing squads (encouraged by departments, centers and grant givers) may unwittingly be undermining others. The manuscript workshops I have learned about or took part in were Ferraris. Ivy League and wealthy private universities are in a position to put them together following best practices. But in doing so, they inadvertently set a standard the vast majority of institutions cannot meet, expanding an already huge gap between academic have’s and have not’s. As one workshop participant told me, other than having some of her field’s most eminent scholars at hand, she could also arrange for teaching relief to implement the comments she received. For most scholars, however, years may pass before the latter becomes an option, unless grant givers also pay for time off. And as for the former, perhaps eliminating honoraria is something to consider, since it would for once help level the playing field. Otherwise the book workshop might become yet another ostentatious exercise in branding under a thin veneer of learning.