First book manuscript workshop

Miranda Johnson, 23 March 2013

On March 21, I was the lucky recipient of some wonderful feedback at a first book manuscript workshop that REGS hosted for me here at The University of Sydney. First book workshops are becoming relatively common at universities in the United States and we hope that the idea will take on in the Australian academy too as it is a most valuable experience for junior academics at a critical moment in their careers.

We designed the occasion as an opportunity for invited participants to get together over an afternoon and discuss in a constructive manner how best to improve the book manuscript. The project, a development of my PhD thesis, examines the emergence of a new kind of indigenous rights activism and the changing legal status of indigenous people, in the three Commonwealth settler states of Australia, New Zealand and Canada in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Sally Merry, Professor of Anthropology at New York University, led off the discussion with a careful and considered critique of the manuscript which pointed out some of the unfulfilled promise of the argument as well as helping me to see how I could reframe it. Her approach was a model of constructive criticism. Following Professor Merry’s comments, and a brief response from me, we opened up the floor to more general discussion. Ann Curthoys, ARC Professorial Fellow, Tim Rowse, Professorial Fellow at the University of Western Sydney, Dr Lisa Ford, University of New South Wales, all added to and richly developed the general points raised by Professor Merry. My fellow REGSers, ARC Laureate Fellow Warwick Anderson, Dr Ricardo Roque, and Dr Christine Winter, also made extremely useful observations. We had invited more participants than this but unfortunately some could not make the workshop in the end. However, I think that six participants as well as the author is in fact an ideal number.

There was unanimity amongst the participants about how the manuscript should be reframed. This was encouraging and I think the path I need to take for the revisions is clear. The other very encouraging aspect of the day, and something that the participants themselves commented on, was the rich discussion provoked by the material particularly in the case study chapters in the book. I’m certain that the critique I received at this workshop will improve my manuscript considerably, and I thank all the members of the workshop for their time and effort. Thanks also are due to Dr Rod Taveira who did the behind-the-scenes organizing and ordered some excellent tucker for lunch and dinner!

I highly recommend the process to other departments in universities across Australia as one key to the professional development of early career researchers. While dissertation reports and the manuscript reviews provided by publishers certainly offer critical feedback and advice on revisions, I think there is something qualitatively different about bringing together a group of mid-career and senior scholars to discuss a book project amongst themselves. In this workshop, I think the participants’ ideas were developed and clarified in the process of discussing the critiques and limitations of the manuscript which is not possible when individual scholars write reports without knowing how others are responding to the text. Moreover, the workshop offers the opportunity for giving ad hoc mentoring and practical advice to a junior colleague in a lower stakes context than, say, an oral defense of a dissertation. We would be happy to offer advice on logistics and organization to anyone who wants to host such an event at their institution.