Monday, November 4, 2019

The Book Production Blog, Part 1

On the morning of Tuesday, October 29th, I submitted the first draft of my new book, tentatively entitled Teaching Distracted Minds, to my editor at Basic Books, copying my agent on the e-mail. I explained in the body of my message that I was very satisfied with Parts One and Two, but that Part Three still needed a hefty dose of revision. I described Part Three as "ponderous and academic," destined for a 5K-10K word trimming. But I'll take care of it when you send me your revision suggestions, I concluded. I look forward to the feedback.

This is a PARTIAL list documenting the many stages of the book's
revision over the full two years of its composition. Every time
I decided to re-organize or change direction,
I started a new folder to give myself a fresh slate. 
I had no great feeling of satisfaction when I hit "Send," largely because I was so dissatisfied with Part Three, and felt like I had just slapped it together to meet my deadline. I headed upstairs to get ready for school, and stepped into the shower. When I stepped out of it ten minutes later, I knew precisely what I needed to do in order to make the necessary revisions to Part Three. I ran downstairs and sent another e-mail to the editor, asking him to hold off on reading Part Three until I could get him a revision, which I thought would take less than a week. (Authors, right? We're so annoying.)

The actual work I did on the book over the next five days began with my original vision in the shower, but then expanded into some other revisions that continued to tighten everything and make the remaining material pop. I condensed five chapters into four, and excised 8,000 words from the manuscript. (This leaves a good 50,000+ words that I wrote for the book which did not make the final cut. I know from past experience that I'll find ways to re-use some of that material.)

When I sent the revised version of the book to my editor on Sunday evening, November 3rd, five days after the original submission, I felt the sense of accomplishment that I had been missing. No doubt more revisions are in store, but for now I am satisfied that I have written a thought-provoking book about attention, distraction, and education. Two years after I first started thinking about this book, I still find the subject fascinating--which is important, since I still have to see it through a year's worth of production into an actual book, and at least a couple of years of promotion and speaking after that.

I submitted the book on November 3rd, 2019. Currently the book is scheduled for publication on Tuesday, November 17th, 2020. We chose this date because I'll be giving a keynote lecture at the Original Lilly Conference at the end of that week, and it will provide a nice opportunity to celebrate its publication.

But looking at those dates, you might be asking yourself about that timeline. What happens during that year between submission of the manuscript and the actual publication date? Why on earth does it take so long? Especially in this digital age, it seems like we should be able to produce books more quickly than a year, right?

I was frustrated and confused by the extended timeline of the book production process before I published my first books, when I was especially eager to see my babies get out in the world. But having been through this ringer five times now, and having served as the editor of a book series, I have a much clearer view of the reasons for what can seem like an interminable delay.

How I have missed writing in these beautiful, handmade
journals! They come from Bomo Art in  Budapest;
I discovered them while visiting Central European
University in the spring of 2018.
Over the course of the next year, I'll use this space to provide a monthly update on the book production process from the author's perspective. I hope it can help potential authors gain a better understanding of what they're in for--and I hope it will help them understand how they can take advantage of the production timeline in order to help make their books a success. In December's post, I'll tackle what I find to be the most annoying task in the publication of a book, in spite of its seemingly innocuous title: the author questionnaire.

For now, I'll finish by noting that I love writing books, but I also love being done with them. For the past six months I haven't posted to this blog, submitted an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, or written a single word in my journal. I'm excited to get back to all of those activities, which I love, and dream about the next big project.

If you have questions, you are also welcome to post them below, and I'll try to address them in a subsequent blog post.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Best Teachers Summer Institute: 2019 Edition

A little over twenty years ago, in response to a part-time job advertisement, I walked across the campus of Northwestern University from the TA offices of the English Department to the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence. I met there with Ken Bain, the Center's director, and learned about the work that the Center did in supporting teaching and learning at Northwestern. Ken was great, the hours worked with my schedule, and--with a baby at a home--we needed the money.

At that time I had a few years of teaching under my belt, both as instructor of record and as a teaching assistant, but I had no special interest in teaching. That all changed when Ken was generous enough to allow me to spend some of my time at the Center becoming acquainted with its library of research, both books and articles, on teaching in higher education. Through those books, and through the many conversations I had with Ken over the next few years, I became fascinated by the scholarly approach that Ken took toward two challenging questions: How do you help another human being learn? And how does our answer to that question translate into the messy context of a college classroom?

My part-time job led me eventually to accept a position as assistant director of the center, where I continued to work with and learn from Ken for three years before I left for a tenure-track position in my field. But those years at the center created in me an enduring curiosity about teaching, and a recognition that the scholarly project of trying to understand how to teach effectively at the college level holds enough fascination for a lifetime. Ken's work has remained a lodestone for me for the past twenty years, especially his seminal book What the Best College Teachers Do.

It thus gives me immense pleasure each summer to reconnect with Ken, and experience anew his ideas and approach to teaching and learning in higher education, at the Best Teachers Summer Institute. This year's Institute, which I now have the pleasure of helping to organize, along with Mindy Maris, will take place in West Orange, New Jersey from June 18-20th. You are cordially invited.

Each year we make improvements to the program, and this promises to be our most exciting year yet. In addition to the usual mind-blowing sessions with Ken, and supporting sessions from Mindy and me, the 2019 program will feature two sessions from Eric Mazur, one on peer teaching and one on the power of altruism to motivate students; and a session from Kathy Takayama on diversity and inclusion in higher education.

By the end of your three days with us, you will have reconnected with your passion for your discipline, taken a deep dive into the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, reviewed your teaching philosophy and practice from the ground up, and met lots of new friends with whom to share ideas.

We hope you'll join us, and we look forward to talking teaching with you this summer. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Happy Anniversary to Small Teaching

Today marks the two-year anniversary of the publication of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. It's no exaggeration to say that this book has changed my life. Since its publication I have received more than 200 invitations to give keynotes, workshops, or webinars of one kind of another on the subject of the book. I have only been able to accept a fraction of those invitations, but it has of course been enormously gratifying to hear from so many readers who would love to bring me to campus, and to learn about all of the book clubs and reading groups that have been dedicated to the book.Thank you!

Every word of Small Teaching was workshopped in my writer's group with Sarah Cavanagh and Mike Land, and the book would not have been anywhere near as successful without their constant help and support. Mike Land is a gifted storyteller, and has excellent instincts for knowing what needs to be enhanced and what needs to be excised; Sarah Cavanagh not only has that keen eye for stories and prose but also alerted me to many helpful resources and thinkers in cognitive psychology. This blog post could just as easily been titled "In Praise of Writer's Group," because that's the main point I want to make here.

I have the privilege now of editing a book series with West Virginia University Press, and helping bring the books of others to life. I love this work almost as much as writing--not quite, but almost. And the best advice I can give to my authors, and all of those who aspire to be authors, is to get yourself a group of fellow writers and make a commitment to read and comment on each other's work on a regular basis. You'll have to find your own writers, of course--you can't have Mike or Sarah. They're working with me through the drafting of Teaching Distracted Minds, and it will be an exponentially better book because of them.

To all of my fellow authors out there, happy writing.