In February 2023, the University of the Free State, South Africa, hosted the workshop ‘Social History from the Global South: New Voice from Southern Africa’, funded by the British Academy.
This workshop was organised to address the issue of research output in the humanities from the African continent. In a series of six sessions, participants focused on the topic of journal publishing. They identified certain limitations, discussed writing techniques, and established new approaches to the publishing process.
Here, four of the workshop participants — historians Kate Law, Andrew Cohen, Matt Graham and Alfred Tembo — explain its aims and objectives, and highlight the programme’s principal outcomes.
Background to the British Academy Writing Workshop Scheme
Between 13 and 15 February 2023, 15 postgraduate/early-career researchers (two from Uganda, six from South Africa, one from Zambia, and six from Zimbabwe) came together at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to attend the workshop ‘Social History from the Global South: New Voices from Southern Africa.’ The genesis of the event had taken place some three years earlier when Kate Law (University of Nottingham), Ivo Mhike (University of Zimbabwe) and Ian Phimister (University of the Free State) worked together to submit a funding bid to the British Academy’s ‘Writing Workshop’ scheme.
‘The workshop has been very fascinating and a great place for networking. The mentors created a great environment for sharing ideas about successful writing.’
This programme, funded by the British government through the (former) Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and administered through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), is part of the UK’s commitment to address the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and was formulated in light of the recommendations made in the ‘Nairobi Report: Frameworks for Africa-UK Research Collaboration in the Social Sciences and Humanities’ with the ‘intention of the workshops… to cultivate professional networks and mentorship and provide access for early career researchers in developing countries to the academic requirements of journals, including international journals, and equip them with the necessary knowledge to publish in these journals.’ Between 2018-2021 the British Academy funded 98 writing workshops, and in 2022 the scheme was slightly rebranded as ‘International Writing Workshops’.
The position of the Humanities in African universities
Despite accounting for 12.5% of the global population, the African continent produces less than 1% of global research output. This statistic becomes even more alarming considering a 2014 report by the African Humanities Program which detailed the de-prioritization of the humanities in African universities, and – in the South African example at least – something which ‘drives a dangerous culture of “publish or perish”’. The workshop held in Bloemfontein attempted to practically respond to these issues, with the 16 PGR/ECRs in attendance being divided into small groups and subsequently paired with one of five mid-career academics (Andrew Cohen – University of Kent, Matthew Graham – University of Dundee, Kate Law – University of Nottingham, Rory Pilossof – University of the Free State, and Alfred Tembo – University of Zambia) who worked to support and mentor the attendees in preparing an article for publication.
With topics including the regulation of witchcraft in colonial Zimbabwe, inheritance customs in pre-colonial Zimbabwe, the history of cinema ordinances in Cape Town, and the history of cassava farming in Zambia, workshop attendees brought with them a rich and diverse set of draft articles that their mentors read and provided extensive, constructive feedback on. As well as working on their own discrete articles, during the three-day event there were six mentor-led workshops and roundtables, with this blog reflecting on three of these sessions:
In ‘Why publish in “International” journals’ – led by Law and Tembo, I, (Law) emphasised that the workshop did not seek to reinforce unequal (neo) colonial hierarchies which suggest that ‘international’ journals i.e., those produced in the Global North, are inherently better than those produced in the Global South, but rather that the workshop was concerned with demystifying the process of publishing in journals that the attendees may not have considered featuring their scholarship in, providing clear and practical support in this regard. Alfred Tembo then spoke about his own experience of devising a publication strategy as a scholar located in the Global South. For Tembo, the draw of publishing in ‘international’ journals was twofold. First, the (generally) higher impact factor of ‘international’ journals meant that his scholarship would be more visible to a wider academic audience, as many regional journals have limited visibility because they may not be routinely published online.
Secondly, Tembo noted the enormous pressure that scholars in Southern Africa are under whereby international recognition affects employability. In particular, he noted that globally, institutions are now using a range of citation metrics (e.g., H-index) to measure the reach and impact of a researcher’s published outputs, which have real implications in terms of promotion and career progression. In this sense, then, publishing in ‘international’ journals is not only an intellectual choice, but also a prosaic response to the realities of being an academic in the twenty-first century.
‘Publishing in international journals is possible!’
In an attempt to breakdown some accessibility barriers, the roundtable ‘What do journal editors want’ saw four editors: (Claire Eldridge, French History; George Karekwaivanane, Journal of Southern African Studies; Gaynor Johnson, Diplomacy & Statecraft and The International History Review and Rachel Leow, The Historical Journal) introduce the scope and content of their respective journals, reflect on what they believed made a good article, and finally discuss whether or not their journals had a mandate to support scholarship emanating from the Global South. At present, JSAS was the only outlet which did, but all editors spoke of wanting to encourage submissions from those located in the Global South, with some noting that this was a topic their journals were already discussing, and planning to take concrete steps on.
In the session on responding to a ‘revise and resubmit’, Andrew Cohen reflected on his own experiences of going through this process. Cohen shared a pre-circulated draft of an article he had first submitted to a leading American journal in his sub-field; the editor’s response and the unedited comments of the four peer reviewers; his response to the editor after making changes, and the final submitted version.
Many attendees expressed sheer terror at having to respond to four sets of peer review, and Cohen explained how he prioritised the recommendations of ‘reviewer three’. An important discussion followed in which those in attendance reflected on their triumphs as well as their disasters. It was clear that many are under huge pressure to publish in their own institutions, with one newly appointed lecturer being told that they needed thirty publications before they would qualify for tenure, despite not having any study leave and hundreds of undergraduate students!
‘Rejection is a normal process in publishing’
For his session on writing an effective abstract, Matt Graham – with mutual knowledge production in mind – drew on participants’ prior experiences of the publishing process to drive the session and stimulate discussion. As it is not uncommon for PGR students in Southern Africa to have published articles prior to the commencement of their doctoral study, Graham began with a ‘starter question’ on what abstracts were to gauge opinions, which he then used as a platform to structure the rest of the session. In particular, Graham led an interactive exercise that identified the component parts (literature, scope, methodology, and argument) of a good abstract before participants then peer reviewed each other’s abstracts.
Lessons Learned and Future Plans
‘Social History From the Global South: New Voices from Southern Africa’ was an intensive and stimulating workshop. At its conclusion, all participants emerged with an article that had been through several rounds of pseudo-peer review, with the vast majority having a clear publication strategy including a target journal in mind. Participants were asked to provide anonymous feedback on the event, with 94% declaring that the workshop was ‘very relevant’ in helping to think about future publication plans.
They were also asked to outline their key ‘take aways’ from the events, and participants variously commented that ‘publishing in international journals is possible! Networking is key’, ‘Rejection is a normal process in publishing’, ‘most importantly, we were inspired to think about the narrative of our careers’. In commenting upon the way in which the event was facilitated, one participant remarked that ‘the workshop has been very fascinating and a great place for networking. The mentors created a great environment for sharing ideas about successful writing’.
If we were to run the event again, or offer advice to others submitting a funding bid, then we’d make more time for informal conversations outside the mentor/mentee interactions and mentor-led sessions, and would have held the event over four, instead of three days. We were very conscious of the need to maximise our time together (and also of working within our budget) and as a result, our days were long. Although we organised three dinners (an on campus braai, and a visit to two different restaurants), some participants wanted a slightly slower pace, and asked that if we met again as a group, then we should organise a sight-seeing tour of Bloemfontein, and create more space for ‘water-cooler chat’. This is certainly something we would integrate into future plans.
‘We were inspired to think about the narrative of our careers’
We’d also like to highlight some potential bureaucratic issues which could have affected the running of the workshop. For instance, as the funding was awarded to the University of Nottingham (as Law was the PI) rather than the University of the Free State (where the event was held) UFS had to bill Nottingham in arrears for expenses occurred, which left us at the mercy of a volatile exchange rate. In addition, there was a lengthy process of setting up a Memorandum of Understanding between both institutions.
Whilst most of this was a boiler-plate contract, if the British Academy included a template for this in their post-award pack this would likely have saved considerable man hours. Finally, the biggest potential stumbling block was the fact that colleagues in professional services at Nottingham (who work in research support) are no longer provisioned in their workload allocation models to book flights for those who do not work at the University. There was an expectation that scholars located in the Global South would be able to book (and pay for) their own flights, and then seek reimbursement. Despite explaining how this was neither practical nor equitable, the University would not be moved on this point. As a result, we were lucky that UFS agreed to carry out flight bookings so delegates would not incur out of pocket expenses.
In summation, we are pleased with what we achieved in Bloemfontein and hope that the network we established will continue to grow.
We would like to thank all delegates: Samuel Nyasha Chikowero, Patricia Magodoyo Chipangura, Fernanda Pinto De Almedia, Chama Kaluba Jickson, Mellisa Chipo Kaliofasi, Perseverence Madhuku, Aisha Mashingauta, Tatenda Matriongo, Davidson Mugodzwa, Teverayi Muguti, Sibanengi Ncube, Jabulani Shaba, Enest Takura, Terence Tapiwa, and Mia Uys, for their commitment to the event.
Thanks also to Claire Eldridge, Ed Hart, David Hart, Gaynor Johnson, George Karekwaivanane, Rachel Leow, Ilse Le Roux, Ian Phimister, Rebecca Swartz, Chitja Twala, and Eleanor van der Westhuizen for their contributions to the workshop. Finally – as we did in Bloemfontein – we would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of one of the original organisers, Ivo Mhike, who sadly died in 2021, and who is much missed.
- Andrew Cohen. Andrew is Reader in Imperial History at the University of Kent. His research interests focus on the late 19th and 20th century British Empire and the early decades of independence in sub-Saharan African countries.
- Matt Graham. Matt is Senior Lecturer in African History at the University of Dundee. His core research interests include national liberation movements; nationalism; the ‘invention’ of traditions; political transitions; and the development of post-colonial governance.
- Alfred Tembo is Lecturer at the University of Zambia, and currently the head of the department of historical and archaeological studies. His first monograph, War and Society in Colonial Zambia, 1939-1953, was published by Ohio University Press in 2021.
- Cohen, Graham, Law and Tembo are all external research fellows at the International Studies Group, University of the Free State, which is headed by Ian Phimister.
 ‘Calls for Proposals: British Academy Writing Workshop 2020: Scheme Notes for Applicants’, p.2 (https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/2584/Writing-Workshops-2020-Scheme-Notes.pdf (last accessed 12 March 2023).
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr Kate Law is a feminist historian of the British Empire at the University of Nottingham.
Kate’s research focuses on modern South African and Zimbabwean history, particularly female activism in South Africa, contraception and reproductive politics, and the anti-apartheid movement. Her publications include Gendering the Settler State: White Women, Race, Liberalism and Empire in Colonial Rhodesia, 1950-1980 (2016) and ‘Women’s Activism in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1986-1994′ which is forthcoming with The Historical Journal.
Kate is currently writing a monograph about the history of contraceptive provision during apartheid.
Dr Andrew Cohen is Reader in Imperial History at the University of Kent, where he teaches predominantly on the global history of empires, conquest and resistance in southern Africa, and themes and controversies in imperial history.
Andrew’s latest book is Labour and Economic Change in Southern Africa c.1900-2000: Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, with Rory Pilossof (2021).
Dr Matt Graham is Senior Lecturer in African History at Dundee University, with a particular focus on South Africa.
His core research interests include national liberation movements; nationalism; the ‘invention’ of traditions; political transitions; and the development of post-colonial governance. Matt’s publications include Contemporary Africa (2018).
Dr Alfred Tembo is Lecturer in History at the University of Zambia, where he teachers the history of Zambia, and land and labour issues in Central Africa. His research interests include war and military history, the economic history of Zambia, and refugee studies
Alfred’s book, War and Society in Colonial Zambia, 1939-1953, was published in 2021.