The call for applications to the second First Book Institute, to be held June 8-14, 2014 at Penn State, was recently announced by CALS Director Sean Goudie. The First Book Institute features workshops and presentations led by institute faculty aimed at assisting participants in transforming their book projects into ones that promise to make the most significant impact possible on the field of American literary studies.
Where do young scholars go to transform their dissertation into a first-rate book manuscript? This was the question that inspired CALS Director Sean Goudie to found the First Book Institute under the auspices of CALS at Penn State this past summer. Surprisingly no such place exists, even as this is an especially challenging time for early career scholars given the current state of higher education promotion and publishing. “By sponsoring urgent and path-breaking initiatives like the First Book Institute,” Goudie states, “CALS is becoming a recognized leader in the field of American literary studies.” Danielle Heard, a participant in the inaugural institute, agrees. She lauds CALS for sponsoring the First Book Institute, “a first of its kind institute that has been a long time coming. It is especially appropriate at this moment in the academy when the job market is increasingly competitive and likewise there are fewer and fewer resources for academic presses.”
Goudie, who co-directs the institute with Duke University professor Priscilla Wald—one of the leading scholars and editors in American literary studies—was astonished when over one hundred applicants applied for the eight participant slots in the inaugural institute. Such an overwhelming response is reflective of the great demand that exists in the academy for an institute such as this one. As Wald puts it, “All of a sudden you are on your own after graduate school. You’re not getting feedback on your writing. You don’t yet have relationships with many colleagues in the field.” The institute provides an especially compelling model for how to respond sensitively to that difficult reality, according to Wald: “The vision of the First Book Institute is a profound and a very generous one.”
According to its dual structure, the First Book Institute helps participants in the midst of a first career position as a postdoctoral fellow, lecturer, or tenure-track assistant professor at colleges and universities as diverse as Smith College, George Mason University, and the University of Chicago sharpen their book-in-progress and land a publishing contract with a top university press. It features workshops in which important issues and concerns are discussed, like how to write an effective book proposal. In addition, participants read and critique one another’s work. Collectively participants and institute faculty—comprised of leading professors from the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State—reflect on topics of interest to all first book authors while attending to the writing needs and concerns of individual participants. Reflects participant Samaine Lockwood, “The institute has given me a whole new perspective on my project. I have all kinds of ideas for how I’m going to go forward from here.”
Especially valuable, according to participants in the inaugural institute, has been the chance to foster an intellectual community of sensitive, like-minded scholars that will exist well beyond the institute itself—a supportive, careful, concerned group of scholars who share a desire to help one another write work that will make a difference. “I think we made connections among the group and feel like these might be ongoing working relationships. And that’s the really great thing,” states participant Sonya Posmentier. Co-Director Wald believes Posmentier and her fellow participants “are taking away a sense of a broader community and a larger conversation in which they’re participating.” Adds Wald, “One of the things participants said that came across throughout the institute is that generosity and openness are the beginnings of scholarship. That our work comes out of a place of being generous. Of being open and listening to others. The Institute is an opportunity to move from having mentors to having colleagues.”
Start-up funding for the First Book Institute has been provided by Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, the English Department, and Steven Fisher, a Penn State English alumnus and member of the CALS Board of Visitors. Goudie hopes that once friends of CALS and Penn State Liberal Arts alumni learn about the institute—and how it is impacting the future course of American literary studies by supporting the research of some of the brightest young minds in the field—they will want to follow Fisher’s lead and be part of the enterprise.
Indeed, the outlook for the institute is bright. Goudie and Wald are grateful to have received letters and emails from senior and junior scholars around the world excited about the First Book Institute initiative and wanting to take part in a future institute. “Word about the uniquely valuable experience that the First Book Institute provides young scholars is spreading far and wide,” Goudie notes. And while he acknowledges that the inaugural institute will be a tough act to follow, he is excited about the opportunity to plan and prepare for the second institute with Wald: “Priscilla and I and my CALS colleagues can’t wait to welcome the next cohort of First Book Institute participants to Penn State in June!”
For more information about the First Book Institute, including video testimony about the inaugural First Book Institute held in June 2013 from the participants and co-directors, please see: http://cals.la.psu.edu/first-book-institute