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Constructing textbooks


For many students, a textbook’s author is merely a typed name on the front cover.  For students in SCSS 150, narratives of tragedy and grief, the textbook’s author stands in the front of the classroom.

Nancy Berns, associate professor of sociology, uses her own monograph, “Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us,” in her class. After six years of research, writing and revising, Berns’ challenging publication process offers students a new perspective in the classroom.

“They can ask questions about it, and they get a better sense of where I’m coming from in terms of my perspective on grief,” Berns said.  “I think students enjoy that part of it.”

Besides a new understanding of the instructor, students gain insight into the monograph’s extensive research, she said.

“It helps them understand the research process because I can talk about how I did the research on a book they’re actually reading,” Berns said.

Berns’ book targets both scholars and students, which added a tricky layer to the already arduous publication process.  Directing a book toward two distinct audiences, Berns said, unnerves publishers.

“It was really hard trying to balance two audiences,” Berns said.  “It was a fun challenge, too, but that certainly was tough.”

For Berns, the tough publication process and the finished product are equally rewarding.

“I enjoy the process a lot,” she said.  “I guess that’s why I can be patient through the years.  It’s not just the end result I’m enjoying, it’s actually doing it that’s fun.”

Drake’s College of Business and Public Administration also features its own textbook author in Douglas Hillman, a professor of accounting.  Hillman’s love of teaching led him to pursue textbook writing in 1980, and the rest is history.

After nine editions of “Principles of Accounting,” and seven editions of “Financial Accounting,” the ever-changing teaching trends keep Hillman motivated to modify his textbooks.

“If it takes two years to write a book, you’ve got to be thinking two to three years out,” he said. “That’s what you’re always trying to do.”

Monitoring educational trends improves Hillman’s teaching, he said, even leading him across the nation to pursue new methods.

“For me, it has really helped my teaching over the years because I have kept up so well on what’s happening,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel and visit faculty all over the country about teaching. I’ve been able to go and sit in on focus groups and listen to faculty saying what they’d like to see in a textbook, what they’re teaching, what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. All those experiences have certainly helped me working on the books and have helped me in my teaching, too.”

Though his textbooks aren’t currently used in any Drake courses, students routinely respond to his writing with interest.

“Some of them are surprised,” he said.  “Some of them are intrigued. It may give the professor a level of credibility amongst his students. In other words, ‘Oh, he must know the subject.’”

1 Comment

  1. Brittany February 28, 2012

    I was eranuocged to comment here after disagreeing with the tweet mentioned in the article (it lives on as a retweet, evidently, months after its first appearance).I currently teach in the College of Media at the University of Applied Sciences in Leipzig in the field of electronic publishing and multimedia. Personally I am extensively engaged in new media, having blogged for years in various places and for a variety of purposes, among other Web 2.0ish activities. One of my main goals during my time here is to encourage students in Germany to become much more open to the possibilities presented by modern Web technologies. Germany, in general, is slower to adapt new technologies, something I used to mock but now find somewhat refreshing because it means questions get asked and discussed. But, in general, I am the furthest thing from a Luddite.My typical role is as a librarian in the United States. As such, I have a professional interest in the organization and dissemination of information. Of course I support the notion that all should have the right to choose whether or not they put their work out there for the world to see, but the implication of this post is that this should not be a choice, but an imperative. That goes too far.Personal choice matters a great deal. While some are comfortable–perhaps too comfortable–letting it all hang out on the Web, many people are not, or are at least highly selective about what they choose to share. I agree, to an extent, with the sentiment here, to the extent that students should understand these publishing platforms both from the creation and consumption sides in order to be capable of processing and filtering the information ocean. But to imply that it is time for everyone to publish everything removes any notions of personal choice from the equation.Think back to your own days as a student. I did some stellar work as a student, but would be mortified if even the better work were publicly available. Why? Because I was learning, and got better. I choose deliberately when to expose my writing or other creative work to the world, and this is a personal right and a good thing, to boot. Some of the work I did was crap, pure and simple, cranked out to get a grade and move on. That material has, thankfully, died a quiet death in some box or trashcan, and that is also a good thing.Believe me, librarians love to preserve everything, but even we understand the need for selectivity. Were one to amass everything just because it is there, we would have no ability to process it intellectually.So, yes, teach the tools and skills students need, by all means. I do this both here in Leipzig and in libraries. But advocating that we toss everything out there to exacerbate an already vexing overdose of information is a bit too enthusiastic, and tramples the notion that students take varying views about their work.

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