The mission of SAR Press encompasses not only publishing research at the forefront of anthropology and Southwest and Native studies, but also providing resources to our past, present, and future scholars, as well as any scholar looking for more information about the publishing process. To that end, we are publishing a blog series comprised of interviews with diverse scholars including first-generation scholars and those from marginalized communities who have recently published or are in the midst of publishing their first book and who can offer guidance and encouragement to colleagues who are just starting to think about publishing. We hope that these interviews make a small contribution to supporting people as they begin the publishing process.
Our latest interview features Robert Caldwell, SAR’s 2020–2021 Katrin H. Lamon fellow. While at SAR, Caldwell worked on a book project titled “Indians in Their Proper Place: Culture Areas, Linguistic Stocks, and the Genealogy of a Map,” which explores some two hundred years of European and Euro-American thematic maps of American Indian homelands, languages, and culture elements.
If you would, tell me a little bit about who you are, where you are in your career, and what you study.
My name is Robert Caldwell Jr. I’m from Louisiana. I did my doctoral work at the University of Texas, Arlington, and graduated in 2018. I went to work immediately at a community college, and I’m now a visiting assistant professor at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.
My research involves the intersection of numerous disciplines: geography, anthropology, history, Native American and Indigenous studies. I’m interested in historical cartography, and my dissertation was on the ethnographic maps of Indian Country. That project I’m still working on and was able to revise most of while I was at SAR, but I’m still working on permissions because in the time of COVID many institutions have been closed or have limited staff. It’s been difficult to obtain the images I need, so that’s been a long part of the process. The University of Nebraska Press approved my book proposal with one hundred color images, which is extraordinary, but now I have to deliver those images with permissions. And so it’s actually been the permissions more than the revisions that have been difficult.
Tell me more about your background and your background as a scholar.
I started at a community college out of high school and knew that I wanted to do something in social sciences but wasn’t really sure what. It took me about five years while working full time to get a two-year associate’s degree. I went to the University of New Orleans, and I did bachelor’s degrees in history and anthropology. After my time at the University of New Orleans and a year abroad at Charles University in Prague, I went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and got a master of science in labor studies. I spent a number of years working on social justice, labor-related issues. After Hurricane Katrina, I helped found the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice with some colleagues and friends.
Post-Katrina fatigue led me back to my mom, back to our tribe, which is in rural northwest Louisiana, and also into a program on heritage resources. There I did a master’s degree and focused on the foodways of my tribe. Toward the end of that project, I reworked it into a book. I had some great conversations with Texas A&M University Press and University of Oklahoma Press. They both wanted me to create something more academic, and I knew that’s not what I wanted to do. The goal of the research was to make the information accessible to the public, but also to the members of my tribe—the younger members who might not have known the information and the elders who most of the information came from. I relied on oral histories that were collected in the late 1970s, early 1980s, but also the elders I interviewed myself. I wanted this project to be something that they could identify with, that they could actually review. So we had potluck meetings where I presented the research and they gave me feedback.
The book is broken up into short sections, and I tried to make it extremely user-friendly for a wide range of people. The small press I was working with, Stephen F. Austin State University Press, was very happy to work with me, so I was able to do what I hoped to do with that book.
What started you on this path, and how did you decide to pursue these fields?
I’ve had a lot of inspiration from many different directions. I had some mentors as a student, one of whom is an anthropologist, Pete Gregory. He was maybe the first academic to study my tribe, and I would say his methodology was cutting edge. He worked collaboratively with tribes in Louisiana from the late sixties, early seventies onward and helped in the tribes’ endeavors, and that’s true of our tribe and pretty much every other one in the state.
I’m very interested in so-called maps of discovery and colonial maps that depict Indigenous spaces. In the past twenty or thirty years, I’ve seen more study of Indigenous toponyms on European maps and more study of Indigenous maps, but what was lacking, I felt, was a critique or interrogation of these social scientific maps that are often used by historians and anthropologists as a teaching aid or as an accompaniment to a book. I feel like these kinds of maps were used uncritically, and no one has written extensively about them.
So that leads me to ask, where are you in your current writing and publishing process?
In my current publishing process, I’m doing revisions. My goal was to completely wrap up the process of revisions and send the manuscript off to University of Nebraska Press by the end of my time at SAR, but various things caused that to be delayed, as I was talking about earlier. They have been very patient with me—they want me to focus on doing things right rather than doing things quick.
How did you initially go about approaching editors and publishers? And do you have any advice for other people who are doing the same?
I would say to be intentional about talking to publishers and especially acquisitions editors. Also, work your existing connections. I had an offer from another press, and I was very happy to get it. That came out of the series editor being invited to be a keynote speaker at my school’s annual graduate student conference.
I think that what’s more important than finding a publisher and an editor is to try and find one that fits the project. That’s the most important thing because different presses, different editors, have different capacities. Sometimes first-time authors need a lot of help with the editing process, and sometimes presses just don’t do that. They don’t have the capacity, and it’s important to understand. Common sense is to find a series and a press that publishes on your topic, right? And that worked really well for me this time. I was first contacted by Nebraska through my time at the American Philosophical Society. They heard about my project prior to my dissertation being finished. It turned out my project fit very well within a series they have to do with social sciences. I thought of Nebraska primarily because of their strength in publishing Indigenous-related books, but in this case, they also publish a really strong series on the history of social sciences. So it worked out really well for me on both counts.
My small book that was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press was quite different. I talked to an acquisitions editor at another press; they liked the idea but didn’t know if they wanted to put up the money to do a full-color photo book, which is what I was considering at first. They encouraged me to talk to Oklahoma, who were hoping that I could revise into a more academic book. Ultimately, I decided not to go with them despite great distribution in the field that I was working on. Stephen F. Austin Press does have good distribution to the Texas Book Consortium, so I got much better distribution than I would have if I were self-publishing. But I will say that probably half of the units, I sold out of the back of my car to members of the community at powwows.
That’s another aspect—promoting the book, especially if the book has to do with a specific region or community. It’s really incumbent on authors to be part of that process and to work together with the publisher on trying to get the word out about their research and the book. I think some academics are quite happy just to have the line on their CV, even if it’s a specialized academic press that just hits the library-unit level of sales—those few hundred units that academic libraries might take.
Those are things that I would like to convey to other authors, especially those who don’t have a lot of support. I have numerous mentors, but a lot of this process I felt I sort of stumbled through. I didn’t really know what it was to write a book proposal. That’s not something they focused on in my academic program.
That’s exactly why I’m doing this series. I’m hoping I can keep talking to people and they can keep telling me about their experiences and then younger scholars can learn from that. What about the writing itself?
I’m one of those people who always gets excited about new ideas, new projects, and that becomes an excuse not to finish my existing projects. So for me, having some accountability—whether it’s with the editor, whether it’s with a buddy, whether it’s with the writing group—has been very helpful. I stalled during the initial dissertation, and luckily, my university started a dissertation boot camp. They got people across disciplines and brought us together, and we were expected to write while all of our needs were taken care of. We wrote for thirty days, and doing that writing again after having not for quite some time really helped jumpstart me.
Then I was part of two different writing groups. In those writing groups, we expected new chapters each month and met every week. We critiqued each other’s work, and there was accountability, there were hard deadlines, just like there were when I was doing coursework. So that really helped. It helped also on a social level because we met in person, usually at a place where we could have meals and drinks and some quiet space to convene. That was great. And even at SAR I really appreciated the feedback on the chapter I workshopped there.
Have some kind of accountability, whether it’s a writing group or whether it’s a colleague you depend on to do advanced editing and feedback. I don’t have those specific deadlines with the editor, so I have to create self-imposed deadlines or else it will stretch on forever. I’m interested in a new project, and I have this ethnohistory project that I’ve been working on for twelve years, and in the meantime, I have this edited volume that I pitched and got a publication subvention for. And so all of these things take time away from actually doing the initial project. I don’t think I’m unique in that. It’s exciting to work on something new, so for me, that’s really my biggest challenge: to stay focused and not let the bright, shiny things over there distract my attention.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.