AHP Book Manuscript Development Workshop in Dar es Salaam
By Susana Molins Lliteras
At the beginning of October, I participated in a five-day book manuscript development workshop (MDW) in Dar es Salaam, organised by the African Humanities Programme (AHP) of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). This is just one of the benefits of the AHP programme for which Fellows can apply beyond the fellowship period itself (in my case 2017-18). The AHP programme seeks to reinvigorate the humanities in Africa through fellowship competitions in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. In partnership with their funders, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the AHP offers African scholars an integrated set of opportunities to develop individual capacities and to promote the formation of scholarly networks. The Fellowships stipends allow recipients an academic year free from teaching and other duties for completion of the PhD dissertation, for revising the dissertation for publication, or for the first major research project after the PhD. Fellows are also eligible for additional benefits such as residential stays for writing, manuscript development workshops, and publication support (for more information see https://www.acls.org/programs/ahp/.
The unique format of the MDW made this experience highly productive and worthwhile. The central aim of the MDW retreat is to reinforce the clarity and cogency of each book manuscript's argument and the structure of its presentation; in essence, it is an exercise in collegial editing. Eight fellows are selected for the workshop through the submission of a book title, annotated table of contents, introduction and substantive chapter. This year, participants came from Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa and book manuscripts covered a range of disciplines, including literary studies, archaeology, linguistics and history. The multidisciplinary nature of the workshop reinforced the notion that the monograph should be able to be read, understood and appeal to a wide audience. Before the workshop itself, each participant read the other submissions in full, and answered three questions in writing about them: namely the main argument, the best support for the argument, and the elements which impede its understanding. The collated answers about each manuscript were then sent to the author to assist with planning for revisions.
The workshop itself, held at the beautiful Mediterraneo Hotel, on the Dar es Salaam beachfront, was structured around the "advocate" concept. This format pairs two Fellows with a Mentor (a senior academic with wide publishing experience from a range of disciplines, this year coming from the Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and the US), who then form a "team." The workshop began with a round of group discussions led by advocates, who presented their partner's manuscript in a ten-minute talk, focusing on the argument, its strengths and suggestions for improvement. During the discussion that followed, questions and comments about the manuscript were directed to the advocate; authors were not permitted to speak. This allows the author to get a firm sense of what happens once the book is out of your hands, how it is understood—or misinterpreted—by readers and what is needed for the argument to be communicated more clearly.
After two days of advocate discussions, the authors met with their Mentors individually and in their teams, to plan strategies for revision and to refine their argument in a short abstract format. During the third day, which was session free, the authors worked on a written assignment, consisting of a short abstract which delineates their argument cogently and clearly, as well as proposing strategies of revision for the book manuscript. The workshop concluded with a second round of group sessions, this time chaired by Mentors, where the authors presented their rewritten abstracts and their strategies for revision. I found the exercise extremely illuminating in multiple ways. Having to express a concise book argument to an audience of non-specialists forced me to extract the essence of my argument and to express it in clear terms. Similarly, observing the discussion about my manuscript without intervening made evident the gaps in my introduction and helped me usefully to redesign its structure. Engaging in depth with other vastly different themes and fields—from Petroculture in the Niger Delta, to masculinities in Ghanaian and South African fiction, to the archaeology of Northern Nigeria—stimulated questions, ideas and concepts outside and beyond my comfort zone. Finally, the collegial atmosphere and work experiences shared with other participants during the five days reinforced the importance of sustaining and reinforcing scholarly networks within colleagues across the African continent.