Associate Professor Niambi Carter's work specializes in political science with a focus on racial and ethnic politics. As a new member of the UMD faculty, Carter has pursued a partnership with SPP for her project, the Minority Serving Institution (MSI) Virtual Book Workshop, which connects junior faculty members from minority serving institutions to book publishers through manuscript workshops.
Sometimes, you don’t need the world to change: you just need some hope and an opportunity.Niambi Carter
Tell me about you. What shapes your identity?
I’m from Glenarden, Maryland in PG County. I attended Prince George’s County Public Schools from elementary all the way to high school. I would say my identity is shaped by my connection to my community and my relationship with my parents. Both of my parents survived the Jim Crow era in very different places; my father is from Maryland and graduated from a segregated high school in PG County. My grandfather was a business owner in Washington, DC for many years, and my mother’s father was a sharecropper in North Carolina for a good portion of his adult life. I would say those are the main experiences that shaped me and attached me to Black communities in different spaces. Who I am and what shapes my identity comes from feeling embedded in these spaces.
I chose to go to Temple University for my undergraduate degree where I was an African-American Studies major and political science minor. Then I had a choice to make: what do I want to do after college? I knew I wanted to be a professor and I was an undergraduate Ronald McNair Scholar which was a really transformative experience for me. For graduate school, I chose to go to Duke University in the department of political science with an emphasis on American politics, specifically racial and ethnic politics, which has inspired what I’ve studied throughout my career.
Tell me about your project, the MSI Virtual Book Workshop.
The MSI Virtual Book Workshop is a project that I developed with my colleague, Heath Brown, at John Jay College, which is a MSI. At the time of the project’s initiation, I was a faculty member at Howard University, which is a Historically Black College and University. During the midst of the pandemic, we were thinking about ways that our reliance on new technology, such as Zoom, could actually be useful and helpful for aspiring academic authors.
Book workshops have become a regular part of the academic publishing process at a lot of universities and, for junior colleagues, these workshops can be really beneficial. My colleague and I wondered how we could turn the devastating circumstances of the pandemic into opportunities, so we thought: why not leverage this online tool to have book workshops for people who typically don’t have the funding to host one at their university?
We decided to approach publishers with requests to fund this initiative, and we were really fortunate that we recruited some top publishers such as Cambridge University Press, Oscar University Press, Columbia University Press, New York University Press and a few others to partner with us and provide us with the money to be able to do this project completely virtual. Although the pandemic had shut the world down, it also showed us that technology can be used in place of costly, in-person meetings.
There are lots of MSIs around and so much talent on these campuses. I was inspired by two of my colleagues that I work with; my book came out on Oxford University Press, one of their books came out on Temple University Press. We were putting out really good books on really good presses but I was thinking that we should not be exceptional cases, right? This should be a norm because there are so many great scholars that don’t get the recognition they deserve. Of course, all MSIs aren’t the same, but at least these institutions are being included in these conversations.
My colleague and I wondered how we could turn the devastating circumstances of the pandemic into opportunities, so we thought: why not leverage this online tool to have book workshops for people who typically don’t have the funding to host one at their university?Niambi Carter
Summer 2022 was noted as the project’s maiden year: what did this initial summer consist of to introduce the community to the MSI Virtual Book Workshop?
Heath Brown and I hosted informational sessions for our caucuses inside of political science. We did one for the Latino caucus and the National Conference of Black Political Scientists hosted one as well. We also sent emails to the chairs of departments at various MSIs, which consist of Hispanic, Asian, Tribal and Indigenous serving institutions, as well as HBCUs to try and harness our networks in order to bring in applicants. When the applications started coming in, we assembled a board of scholars from all kinds of institutions; some predominantly white institutions, some MSIs. This board helped us vet the applications while we whittled the list down and picked our first six book manuscripts.
We started the workshops in June and continued through the first part of July. These were very intense, eight-hour days that consisted of the author coming in, introducing their manuscript, and then receiving critical feedback from interlocutors. At the end of the day, there would usually be a conversation between the author and an editor about any concerns regarding the editorial process. This would be beneficial because a lot of book publishing is about leveraging networks; so, if you don’t know anybody that’s done this or has worked with an editor, it can feel overwhelming and daunting. Being able to talk to editors can help demystify the publishing process. Sometimes we don’t even know what happens after submitting a manuscript—I certainly didn’t—but I was lucky to have colleagues who could help me along the way.
Being able to talk to an editor about what it is that they look for, what makes a manuscript interesting, what things an author should think about if they’re pursuing publication; these can be really great pieces of advice to finding the right fit for a publisher and getting in touch with top editors at renowned presses.
You have funding for two more summers. How do you hope to expand the MSI Virtual Book Workshop?
One of the things that we’re going to do, of course, is seek grant funding. Our hope is to be able to scale-up and have this project be self-sustaining. We only have so many of these book workshops a year, so the hope is that other organizations will work to replicate our model in some way. It’s one of the things that’s really exhilarating but also really disheartening about this kind of work. It’s exciting because you get to do something for other people so they can start creating and grooming the discipline that publishers want to see. On the other hand, we have limited capacity; we just can’t do everything. We’re two people and our board is made up of over a dozen other professionals who also have limits. We are hoping that others choose to adopt this model as a way to not only help junior faculty of color, but also other under-resourced faculty. Even on a campus with an abundance of resources, everybody on that campus may not have the same opportunities, so we anticipate others will try to implement a project like this within their discipline.
We are hoping that others choose to adopt this model as a way to not only help junior faculty of color, but also other under-resourced faculty.Niambi Carter
What exactly does the application process look like? For those who want to introduce their work, what do you look for in the manuscripts you accept?
The main thing that we look for is a complete manuscript. When you apply, you do the online application which is found through the American Political Science Association website. When we have your application, we first vet it to make sure that you are, in fact, at a MSI. Next, we send it to our colleagues to make sure that the person is a faculty member at an MSI and that they attest to having a complete manuscript. After that, we send the completed applications to our board members to rank each. The applications that everybody is in agreement about are our top choices, so we don’t necessarily debate those. For more marginal manuscripts, we sit down and have some conversations about those. Once we’ve selected the manuscripts, we reach out to the authors and see if they’re still interested in participating; if they are, editors participating in the workshop have about two months to review the manuscript so, when we meet in June, it is expected that they’ve read the full manuscript.
The application process is pretty straightforward because we wanted to make it as painless as possible. The really hard part is, for a lot of junior scholars, sometimes they’ll have a chapter or two written but don’t have the full book completed. We expect a full manuscript because we want to use book publication as a metric of success. The closer the authors are to publication, the better it is for them and our efforts.
Does the accepted manuscript need to be about a specific specialty such as racial or ethnic politics? You mention that different publishers focus on different things, so are there any guidelines to the topic of the manuscripts that you accept?
No, the manuscripts don’t have to be about racial or ethnic politics. The only real requirement is that the person be a junior faculty member at a MSI and, even the junior part is flexible. At a lot of MSIs, sometimes we notice situations where there are people who’ve been tenured at associate levels for a really long time, and part of what’s preventing them from moving to full is the publication of an additional text. Even some senior tenure folks can take advantage of this workshop, but the biggest requirement is being faculty at an MSI. Scholars can make their manuscript about whatever they want, we’re very open.
You said that this project is partnering with UMD as well as Howard University, which is an HBCU, and John Jay College, which is a MSI. What made you choose these three institutions? You worked at Howard University and your colleague is a John Jay College, so what made you pursue a partnership with UMD?
Well, I thought it was important because UMD is my university home now. This project is something that serves the university’s interests, especially with the Terrapin Strong effort, so I felt it was essential that I at least extend a partnership offer to SPP. Their willingness to participate was one of the reasons why I chose to come to SPP in the first place. The openness of the administration, and Dean Orr in particular, made me confident that the school is not only keen on diversity and equity, but also being open to faculty-led initiatives.
I’ve been working on this project before I even came here, and Dean Orr viewed that as an added value. It’s been really great to be able to include UMD in this effort; although this started at Howard, I thought it was important to keep this university as a partner as a way to further contribute to efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We say these words often but we don’t actually do anything about it; maybe we’ll write a vision statement or maybe we’ll create some goals, but this project is something we can actually do as a practice to make all of this worthwhile. If we happen to get like 18 books in the atmosphere and contribute to 18 minoritized scholars becoming tenured faculty or published authors, then we are making a change. Not having UMD be included with the book workshop would have been most unfortunate, so I’m very happy that SPP has embraced this effort and is excited about being a partner.
At UMD and SPP, there will always be someone who is receptive and—while that doesn’t mean you’ll always get a yes—at least you’ll be listened to. I think, many times, that’s all most of us want: to be listened to and taken seriously.Niambi Carter
You are relatively new to the School of Public Policy. What about the School drew you to bring your talents and your project here?
Fortunately, since we already had funding in place for the next three years, I didn’t have to ask the School for anything too big other than letting us attach the official university logo to the project. The School did not have a single reservation about that favor, and that made me feel very confident about my choice to come to Maryland.
The School showed a level of faith in me professionally despite being a relatively new member of the faculty. It was really heartwarming and encouraging because one of the things that they made clear is that I don’t have to be shy about bringing a new idea to the table. At UMD and SPP, there will always be someone who is receptive and—while that doesn’t mean you’ll always get a yes—at least you’ll be listened to. I think, many times, that’s all most of us want: to be listened to and taken seriously. So many of the folks around here such as Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, Alana Hackshaw and Nina Harris were really supportive and told me to run with the idea, which is not something that we get often. I know people think that universities are these places where all good ideas get listened to, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. I just felt really valued as a member of the community through SPP’s support of this effort on my behalf. Right now, the biggest thing we needed was the endorsement of SPP. Maybe there will be some other kinds of resources needed later but, in terms of this project phase, UMD has provided all we need.
Personally, as a scholar, the resources provided are a huge benefit. I certainly enjoyed my time and grew a lot as a scholar at Howard University, but UMD offered me a way to grow in a different kind of way professionally. My need to maintain some level of connection to Howard University—another true intellectual home for me—has been understood and supported, and I’m so thankful to my SPP community for that.
What are a few things you want the UMD community to know about this project?
The main thing I want people to know is that this sort of iteration of the project does not exclude you from trying to devise your own version of such a project. I’m sure there are lots of junior faculty on this campus who have book manuscripts that they’re trying to publish, so this project model might be a good way for us to engage and help our junior colleagues. Although it may not be this project, there are ways that we can do similar work to help promote our colleagues’ work.
While our workshop works with people at MSIs, your project does not have to focus on individuals whose identity is defined by race or ethnicity. That was a choice that my colleague and I made and we recognized some of the trade-offs in that decision; however, there is definitely room for a similar effort that focuses on minority faculty at predominantly white institutions like UMD. A similar version of this project could be a great way to support associate level and partially tenured faculty who have a project idea but aren’t allocated enough resources or support to move forward with the effort. There are as many iterations of this project as we can think of. I am so excited that we were able to come up with an idea, workshop it, and have our publishing partners believe in it and put resources into it. We were literally moving on nothing but a good idea and vibes; it was hard to tell people “we don’t know if this thing is going to work, but we have a lot of faith in it” and have them want to take it on.
The last big thought I have is the power of a “yes.” We were told “no” many times along the way, but it only took one “yes” to help us really move forward. Our requests weren’t astronomical or crazy, we were asking for things that were very doable at a time when academic publishing was very uncertain; during the height of the pandemic, people were tightening their belts and publishing was slowing down. It would have been very easy for those very same people to say “no,” but they didn’t. That one “yes” for our small idea was really integral. Sometimes, you don’t need the world to change: you just need some hope and an opportunity.