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Award helps turn first manuscripts into first-rate books

November 30, 2012

A scholar of “medieval media studies” and a historian of modern Europe have each won a 2012-13 First Book Award from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for the Humanities.

Photo: Jordan Zweck


The annual award, funded by a short-term humanities grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, convenes an academic “dream team” of reviewers to help junior humanities faculty whip their first book-length manuscript into tip-top shape for publication.

Winners get to invite leading scholars in their field to review their book-in-progress and meet for a hands-on workshop in Madison in the spring. The competitive awards are intended to provide incisive feedback and collegial support for what is often the most difficult project of an emerging scholar’s blossoming career.

Photo: Daniel Ussishkin


“We have seen that this support has helped previous recipients write even better books, and it helps the university retain promising professors by ensuring that they meet a key requirement for tenure,” says Sara Guyer, director of the Center for the Humanities.

This is the first year that two scholars have won the award. Guyer hopes this trend can continue.

“Each year we receive many more excellent applications than we can fund. With some creativity, I am hopeful that from now on, we can provide two awards in support of the extraordinary research of emerging humanities scholars at the UW,” she says.

First Book recipient Jordan Zweck, assistant professor of English, is working on “Letters that Matter: Anglo-Saxon Epistolarity and Early English Media.” Her work focuses on the kinds of media that circulated in medieval times, when many people could not read or write. She feels “incredibly lucky” at the thought of so many smart readers providing feedback on her manuscript.

“Who wouldn’t want to be able to invite the best readers and scholars from UW–Madison and beyond to read their work?” she says. “It’s a bit intimidating, of course, but I know my book will be so much better for it.”

Daniel Ussishkin, assistant professor of history, is working on “Morale: A History.” His book examines the rise of morale as a fundamental precept for managing human conduct in modern imperial Britain. Given the nature of the topic, he says, he draws on scholarship from several sub-disciplines: history of war and society, history of the social sciences, and history of labor management, to name a few. He is looking forward to the rewards of a “truly collective effort.”

“The immense value of this [First Book] workshop resides in the new approaches, the different ways of thinking, that people bring to the table,” says Ussishkin. “I am very grateful for this opportunity.”

—Mary Ellen Gabriel