Grad programs should teach students lifetime writing skills (opinion)

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In a previous article for Inside Higher Ed, I described how I decided to create a course last semester that would help graduate students in religion understand what it means to enter the world of writing books, reading works that they themselves would select to keep the course relevant to their interests. The course was also an opportunity to explore an ongoing interest of mine in this changing world of writing and publishing books. I have been worried about the future of the scholarly monograph in the humanities, given the radical changes in publishing and libraries we have seen in the 21st century.

For me, even though I do much of my own reading now on screens, physical books are sacred objects. Would they still be that for these students who are living in the digital world? Further still, this course was an argument for me about the continued relevance of teaching and writing books, even after acknowledging that the many things in the academy need to change.

Eight students, all either in their first or second year, signed up for the course. Three of them were U.S. based, three came from Turkey, one from Hong Kong and one from Taiwan. My hope was that offering this course to students early in their Ph.D. programs would help them see expansive possibilities for what a Ph.D. can do so that they would have that mind-set throughout their studies.

We spent the first half of the semester thinking and talking about books. I assigned some brief readings, including the introduction to The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book, which gave an overview of the field of book history, how it broadened in scope in recent years to include global perspectives and the changes currently taking place in how books are seen and used.

For the class discussion, I wanted them to think about their own relationships to books. I designed a questionnaire based on a series of interviews that Leah Price did with writers about their personal libraries—Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books—and asked the students to meet in small groups and discuss their responses to the questions. In those discussions, it was clear that thinking about books as historical—let alone sacred—objects was something they hadn’t ever considered.

In the second week, I met with students individually to discuss the book they would select, published by university presses or their equivalents, for the semester’s projects. That gave me the opportunity to get to know each student and their interests, and I loved the books they selected and looked forward to reading along with them. They mostly selected scholarly monographs, but some also chose some academic trade books. Although I originally intended to focus on the monograph as the step after the dissertation, their interests in academic trade books opened up conversations about the importance and possibility of public scholarship and perhaps some different ways to approach dissertation writing to make it more accessible and more focused on contributing to the public understanding of religion.

As we entered the world of the book, I wanted to be sure that it was in an up-to-date manner. I asked students to read their book in two different formats and write about the experience. Our conversation in class about the differences between screen and physical reading—and, for one student, listening to an audio version—was a lively one. I was surprised and pleased by how many of them preferred reading physical books, writing in the margins and building a library of their own. The idea of passing on a library of note-filled books—an intellectual inheritance—was also something that physical books distinctly enabled.

In other weeks, students had to write and peer review each other’s précis, write reviews of the books they chose, do research about the publishers, and delve into the scholarly conversation that their book engaged. To my surprise, they had never before received the advice to read the book’s acknowledgments to learn whom the author really was in conversation with, and none of them did it of their own accord. Teaching them to do that—along with paying attention to the footnotes, bibliography and publication data—might have been the most important lesson they learned. They were beginning to see books not just for their ideas but in the broader context of the conversations their authors were engaging in.

The students’ evaluations at the semester’s end suggested that they thought the most valuable sessions included a visit with an editor from Oxford University Press. They particularly appreciated his passion about his relationships with authors, which helped them understand that writing books is truly a collaborative process. They were beginning to make the connection between writing their dissertations and learning about the world of books by engaging with someone who edits them, as well as about the importance of reviews to make the books accessible to the scholarly community.

They also liked the session in which they read reviews of one of my own books and critiqued them using a guide I culled from an excellent essay on the dos and don’ts of writing such reviews. Writing reviews is an opportunity to engage in the scholarly conversation in their field, and several took me up on the suggestion of submitting their own reviews to websites that encourage contributions from graduate students. While I’m not sure students should spend time during their graduate school years trying to publish, being able to use a class assignment to this end can help them become known, which in turn creates all different kinds of networking opportunities. I was also glad to connect them to people who work in the world of books—librarians and book editors—to get them thinking about careers that involve reading books and helping others write them.

Once the students had become thoroughly acquainted with their chosen books through reading, rereading and writing about them, the next assignment was to teach about them to their classmates. My goal for this part of the course was to help students understand the importance not only of creating book-length works but also of presenting them to people who don’t share their interests.

It turned out that these teaching sessions were the best part of the course, by far. I met with each presenter individually in office hours two weeks before their presentations to go over their lesson plans, having given them a template to organize their timing and articulate their goals. They made great preclass assignments for their classmates and incorporated the responses into their lectures. They showed video clips of the authors discussing their books, and a few even invited the authors to meet with the class. The live sessions with the authors provided opportunities for the students to learn intimately about the process of writing books that faculty don’t usually share with their advisees.

The students were deeply respectful—but also appropriately critical—in their peer reviews of their classmates when we debriefed after each session. They were also challenged and intrigued as they were introduced to aspects of African diasporic, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist traditions that they had never encountered before.

The course thus created opportunities for students to do public teaching. Some students chose books on subjects unfamiliar to them and had also to translate their work to themselves first. One highlight for me was the Turkish Muslim student who was interested in religion and politics and who chose Anthea Butler’s academic trade book White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America for his text. I was deeply moved by the slide he prepared on lynching, something he (and all the international students) had no prior awareness of. The slide was blank; he could not bear to reproduce the shameful images he found online. The absence of one picture was worth more than the proverbial 1,000 words.

Reading Butler’s book also gave the class a chance to compare academic trade books and scholarly monographs and to consider the value of scholars speaking their minds about important social issues using books rather than blogs to do it. I hope it encouraged more of them to think about the value of bringing the insights from scholarly books into the public domain and writing such works themselves.

A Necessary Component

This part of the course reaffirmed my hunch that reading scholarly monographs and academic trade books is a necessary component of doctoral education in the humanities. Our robust discussions about timely topics derived from such books reinforced that idea. The books the students chose prompted provocative discussions about issues that matter: the role of religious expression on university campuses; the political and social differences that haunt and trouble religious traditions; the value of sacred objects, including books; and the importance of artistic expression to the religious worldview that enlivens the discipline of religious studies. Those findings challenge the current trend toward the cynical “too long/didn’t read” and reminds us again that writing and reading and talking about books allows for sustained, insightful and creative analysis.

The final project, writing a book proposal based on the specifications they found at a chosen publisher’s website, was meant to concretize the fact that writing a dissertation was not only a culminating event for their degree but could be the beginning of a process of publishing a book-length work. It intimidated them initially, but they rose to the challenge. To prepare, they read the recently published The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors by Laura Portwood-Stacer. She wrote the book because, in part, she resented not learning how to do this task in graduate school. The book helped my students write excellent prospectuses and cover letters for the books that I hope their dissertations will become.

And it reminded me of why I wanted to teach this course in the first place—my conviction that providing students with skills that they will use throughout their lives as writers should be part of graduate education. Judging from the work they handed in and the books based on their dissertations they were dreaming about writing, I believe that my students represent a generation of future scholars who will continue to bring the world new ideas and new takes on old ideas, no matter what career paths they choose.

It had been my practice over the years to invite students to my home for a meal at the end of every graduate course. In recent times, that was not practical or possible—it was too cold for an outdoor event in Philadelphia in April, and transportation would have been challenging. But I did want to give them something. So what better gesture than to give them each a sacred object—a book from my personal library connected in some way to what I learned from them this semester? I inscribed them individually, but each began with the words “This book used to belong to Rebecca Alpert, but now it’s yours.”

For me that summed up this experience well—an opportunity to pass on some things I have learned about writing, publishing and teaching to the next generation. I am fortunate to have had the privilege to teach such a course, and I hope that others will consider adding a course like this to their graduate programs.

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