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First Book Award lends crucial support to junior faculty

February 7, 2012 By Susannah Brooks

From the time they are hired, humanities faculty members begin working to turn the dissertation that earned them a Ph.D. into a book that will earn them tenure.  But it’s not as easy as handing pages over to a publisher.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for the Humanities has made this process a lot easier for three scholars. Its First Book Award, funded by a short-term humanities programming grant from the A.W. Mellon Foundation, provides both scholarly and collegial support for junior faculty members revising their first full-length work.

Photo: Karma Chavez


Karma Chávez, assistant professor of communication arts, is this year’s recipient. The program will send her manuscript to a “dream team” of leading scholars in her field, and – after they’ve had a chance to review it – invite them to Madison for a hands-on workshop.  

“This is something that rarely happens at any career stage,” says history professor Steve Kantrowitz, interim director of the Center for the Humanities.  “It can be a really important turning point in a young scholar’s life.”

The First Book program is open to all tenure-track, junior faculty in the humanities and interpretive social sciences with manuscripts that are near completion, but still in a position to benefit from review. The goal is to turn solid and promising manuscripts into first-rate books.

Photo: Steve Kantrowitz


“Many graduate students only discover the real importance of their dissertations – the arguments and analyses that make them important contributions – in the last stages of completion,” says Kantrowitz. “Creating a book requires them to begin again. They usually do this while beginning their careers as assistant professors, busy with new teaching and other responsibilities. It can be hard to find the time to attend conferences and forge scholarly networks of support and advice.”

Chávez arrived at UW–Madison in 2010, already at the forefront of the emerging field of queer migration scholarship. Her book-in-progress, “Queer/Migration Politics,” was chosen by the Center for its potential significance in her field.  In an age of rising activism, Chavez examines how LGBT activists and immigration activists are building connections. 

Working with Kantrowitz, Chávez drew up a list of top scholars in the areas of queer studies, migration studies and woman-of-color feminism. She knows some personally; others are thinkers whose work she admires.

“I tried to select people whose work has really influenced me, but who also would be generous, helpful readers,” says Chávez.  “I’m a bit nervous, but very excited too, and grateful for the award.”

Chávez follows award winners Mitra Sharafi, assistant professor of law, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Merle Curti Associate Professor of History. Two years after inaugurating the program, Ratner-Rosenhagen published her book “American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas” last fall with the University of Chicago Press. The book has received favorable reviews in major publications including the New York Times Review of Books, Prospect, Times Higher Education (UK), The Wall Street Journal and The Nation.

Ratner-Rosenhagen first learned of this type of program while on fellowship at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006. Knowing the difference it had made for her colleagues, she leapt at the chance to do so at UW–Madison.

“Because I had been presenting my research and ideas at conferences and on fellowships, I already felt fortunate to have tested my work among a wide range of scholars,” says Ratner-Rosenhagen, currently on research leave. “But the award served as an important confirmation of the manuscript’s potential significance. It helped me understand what the manuscript already had effectively accomplished, and what it still needed to do to deliver on its promise.”

The feedback process yielded “an embarrassment of riches” for Ratner-Rosenhagen. Some tips addressed the book’s structure and flow, shaping the narrative or articulating points needing clearer evidence. Other conversations gave her different but equally valuable support: the realization that she was on the right track.

Finally, the process hinted as to what she might experience when she released the book publicly.

“It provided a preview of the book’s reception among a wide range of audiences,” says Ratner-Rosenhagen. “It emboldened me in the final stages of revision, affirming that I had gauged the manuscript both as a scholarly contribution to U.S. intellectual and cultural history, and as an engaging history for general readers.”

The program is still looking for permanent funding, whether from an individual or foundation. But Ratner-Rosenhagen has seen the award’s impact and hopes it will continue.

“As a junior faculty member, receiving an award to foster emerging scholarship at UW–Madison made me feel especially supported by my home institution,” she says. “This award underscored that sense that UW–Madison has helped cultivate my scholarly work.”