Advancing the Humanities in Africa: Senior and Young Scholars on Publishing
The Manuscript Development Workshops (MDW), which started in 2012, are organized by the African Humanities Program (AHP), coordinated by ACLS, and generously funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The workshops break the mold of the conventional conference where scholars must defend their work and field questions from academics from their disciplines. MDWs create an international environment for intellectual exchange in a safe space where academic humility allows for an interdisciplinary fruitful discussion. The MDW format allows for a thorough interrogation of one’s manuscript by colleagues in various disciplines of the humanities and social sciences with the aim of publication.
In 2016, 23 selected early-career scholars and 12 senior academics in the humanities from sub-Saharan African universities met for three Manuscripts Development Workshops (MDW) in Accra, Dar es Salaam, and Kampala, respectively.
The week-long intensive workshops allowed the teams of AHP Fellows and mentors to present and discuss the fellows’ work in progress. Each author, who had to remain silent throughout the first session, had an advocate who presented the author’s manuscript on his/her behalf. This allowed for fruitful discussion in the room about the themes, research methods, and significance of the work to the specific field and other disciplines, as understood by the readers of the manuscript. The author had the chance to consider the comments on his/her work, submit a two-page proposal for revisions, and present his/her strategy for editing and further research and writing in a final session two days later. Mentors commented in both sessions and offered individual consultations between workshop meetings.
This year AHP brought for the first time the MDW method to the preparation of journal articles for publication. Following the successful format of the workshop, the last two MDWs of 2016 focused on writing and revising articles for publication in journals on the African continent and worldwide.
The MDWs this year brought together scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds. Historians spoke and listened to philosophers, literature scholars engaged with archaeologists, and an interdisciplinary environment was created. Throughout the five to seven days of each of the workshop these interactions raised the participants’ awareness about the need in academia to consider their audience more closely. Many voiced the realization that their research could reach more readers and benefit more disciplines if an effort for a more accessible writing was made.
Writing was a central topic of the workshops. Writing can be a lonely process, but editing and revising does not have to be. Participants recognized the need to have a mentor read your work, but at the same time they emphasized the importance of having colleagues also read and comment on your work. The workshop experience prompted them to appreciate the value of colleagues outside one’s discipline or topic offering their comments and understanding of the argument. The question of how we write led inevitably to another question, for whom do we write, as academics?
The language scholars write in dictates the audience who will read the book or article. Fellows and mentors, conscious of this issue, explored the role of jargon as an indicator of expertise and further, they interrogated the purpose of scholarship. Language, and the choice of writing style, can bring in or leave out the larger African and global public. While these questions loom in academia outside the continent, contextualizing one’s research within the African and global dialogue was seen as a bare necessity for a real contribution.
Participants in the 2016 MDWs are now working on revising their manuscripts and articles to submit them for publication. Some submitted their proposals to the African Humanities Series operated by UNISA Press and will soon see their books in print. Most scholars though face the question of dissemination of their scholarship. The divide between local and global circulation of academic writing is still felt when making a decision on where to submit. How do we make scholars in the United States and Europe read their colleagues in Africa? How do we ensure that books published on the continent go beyond the author’s country and beyond the continent? The fellows at the AHP Manuscript Development Workshops took the initiative to get together with colleagues from different countries and revise their work with a global readership in mind. Their work contributes to global knowledge and will enrich academic production worldwide.