If I never again see the word "utilize" in a textbook, I'll be a happier man.
A recent article, Don't 'Problematize' Anything
, had me shouting "Yes!" Which really startled the cat dozing in front of my monitor. The article discusses various issues that came up in a panel discussion, including this one:
I could see folks in the audience squirming in their seats when someone said, "Don’t problematize anything. Avoid words like historicity, materiality, hegemony, paradigmatic, judicialize, conceptualize, experientialize." The panelists agreed: Words that end in "ize" are bad. Looking through the titles on the program, it’s clear they’re also endemic in academic writing. —Rachel Toor
Which brings to mind the word "utilize." I've come to abhor that word. Why? Because those extra two syllables are not needed
in most cases. In my opinion. Unless your goal is to sound smarter or "more scholarly." But in my mind, that's exactly what makes it sound a bit pretentious when used in a textbook.
As Joshua Rothman suggested a few years ago in The New Yorker
article Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?
, using the less "ordinary" language of academic writing may be what's needed to publish in certain journals or gain tenure. Okay. But when trying to help students—perhaps undergraduate students who have challenges of many sorts—why not use "ordinary" language?
Why not simply use the word "use" instead?
In fact, a while back I did a search of the entire draft of my largest textbook (over 1200 pages) and got rid of every "utilize,"
save one that was in a quote from American Medical Association
. That's how much that word bothers me.
In fact, it's a constant struggle for me to watch that my vocabulary remains "ordinary" and my sentence structure avoids unnecessary complexity. However, I think my constant vigilance has slowly improved the quality of my textbooks and, at the same time, honed my skills in writing for students.
Again, I know that academic vocabulary and complex sentence structure are part of how educated folk are supposed
to write. Perhaps even using unnecessary jargon
. But that doesn't make it right for textbooks. Or, at least, it doesn't make it clear
. And writing with clarity is essential in textbooks, if not in all scholarly writing.
I'll end with a quote from Russel Jacoby
that I had taped up in my writing studio for many years:
As intellectuals became academics, they had no need to write in a public prose; they did not, and finally they could not.
Whether you already have an email newsletter or a social media stream (or two) that relate to your discipline or your textbook(s), you may want to consider starting a Nuzzel newsletter.
I have a few blogs
going. Some address either students
in my field (or in any field). Others provide updates and insights about specific textbooks
I author. And each of them has a related Twitter account, Facebook page, and email newsletter that sends each new blog post by email.
This sounds like a lot more work than it is. I have systems
that automatically post to my social media streams and email the newsletters out once a blog post is published. So nearly all the work is posting each blog article. Not that this isn't work--it is--but all that other stuff is mostly automatic
once it's set up.
I never thought
that any other layers of social media posting would be useful to me as a textbook author trying to stay connected with--or at least visible to--my present and potential users.
But then a former editor started a Nuzzel newsletter, to which I subscribe. It's a daily newsletter.
It turns out that his interests--digital education resources--overlap mine. And he's got a good eye for what's new and what's relevant. So I looked into what Nuzzel
is and how it works.
Nuzzel is a free tool
that piggybacks on your Twitter account. So you need a Twitter account
before you can use Nuzzel. Each day, at a time you specify, Nuzzel sends out a list of headlines
that are gleaned from your Twitter connections' feeds. Each headline includes each original article's title, first few lines, image, and a link to the whole article in the original location.Nuzzel will find the articles for you,
based on the how many of your connections have shared the same article. You can let it run all by itself, but you have the option of "curating" the content.
You can do this be looking at Nuzzel's suggestions and deleting those not relevant to your purpose. You can add other articles by browsing "Friends" feeds or "Friends of Friends" and other aggregations provided in the Nuzzel dashboard. You can even upload a URL
of a news item not found in those lists.
You also have the option of adding a comment
by any (or all) of the articles that appear in your curated newsletter. You can also add a custom headline
each day if it suits you.
You can distribute a link to your Nuzzle newsletter to any contact list (Nuzzel will help you automatically load them from your email contacts or LinkedIn, for example).So I started my own Nuzzel newsletter.
For my Twitter feed @theAPprofessor
, which targets users and potential users of my textbooks. Then I set Nuzzel to post to Facebook and LinkedIn
in addition to my Nuzzell subscribers.Here's what I learned:
- Nuzzel is super easy to set up and use.
- My Nuzzel newsletter has been subscribed to by people outside my subscribers in any other channel. That is, it has gained me a wider readership than I had before.
- I get a lot more re-posting of content than in any other channel. This has helped me grow my Nuzzel readership beyon "the usual suspects" by its wider, organic distribution of individual issues.
- I often include one "headline" from a past posting from one of my blogs. This allows me to recycle content that is still useful but is easily overlooked by my regular blog subsribers.
- My recycled blog posts frequently appear in Nuzzel's list of my most frequently read articles for the week. So I know that folks are digging into my blogs, reinforcing my reader ship there.
- It's easy. Did I mention that? It's not perfect, though. Read on.
- It's daily--no skipping days. Not even on weekends. you can always just let Nuzzel pick the news to share, based on popularity among your Twitter friends.
- I found that I prefer to actively "curate" each day's issue before it goes out, because the automatic listing nearly always has stuff that doesn't relate to my purpose. Some folks just have to post something related to politics or celebrities or other stuff that is not relevant to my readers--and if a few of them post the same thing, it may show up in my newsletter.
- Some news items I find on my own cannot be added to my Nuzzel newsletter. I'm not sure why, but I'm advised that "this is not a valid news item." And nothing will allow me to add it.
- Some articles get posted in Nuzzel as "Article Not Found" or something similar. Probably an artifact of differing ways that metadata is formatted. But the link still takes you to the article you want. I've found that adding a comment that outlines the title and/or content of the seemingly broken news item is helpful when that happens.
Check out past issues
of my Nuzzel newsletter here: nuzzel.com/theAPprofessor
Click on archive,
then look through several. Looking at just one won't give a very complete picture of the potential of Nuzzel. You can subscribe at the same link.
It's all about anatomy and physiology and college teaching--but you may find the news items interesting no matter what your discipline is.
Greetings on National Author's Day
What better way to celebrate than to begin a journey through a fellow author's work, eh?
Here are four books I recommend for textbook authors that have helped form my perspective on writing educational material.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott.
Besides the fact that I love Lamott's informal and humorous storytelling, this book is one of the best books by a successful writer on on authoring that I've read. And I've read a few.
The title is based on advice given by Lamott's father to her overwhelmed brother when he realized that the report on birds that he had months to write was due the next day. Dad advised, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." What textbook author can't relate to that as we start a new project or revision?Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.
Written for students and teachers in an engaging, nontechnical style, this book identifies some key concepts in how we best learn for the long term. It turns out that there are some surprises revealed by recent learning research that turn some of the long-held ideas about learning upside down. Many of the techniques we have used help us learn for the next test, but do little if anything to help us "make it stick" in the long term.
When I was a new teacher, I was SO frustrated that my students seemed to remember nothing from their prior courses. Then I realized that no matter who their teacher or which school they attended before, this was just the way it is. I learned that my energy is better spent getting my students up to speed than to complain about their prior learning. And on changing my techniques to bolster long-term learning. After reading this book, I realized that it's the common methods of teaching and learning, not the failures of prior schools or teachers, that make my students underprepared. It confirmed some of the techniques I'd begun using in my courses and introduced me to others.
When we write textbooks, we teach. So I've been trying to adapt the emerging principles of learning science in my writing. This book has been a useful guidebook for that journey.
The last two (of four) books I'm recommending today have already been reviewed by me in recent posts, so I'll just list them here and link them to those previous posts.
Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide
by Mary Ellen Lepionka, Sean Wakely, and Steve Gillen.
This new edition is available for pre-order for a December 2016 release.Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts
by Steve Gillen
Short, well-illustrated book that every textbook author should use when reading, negotiating, or re-negotiating a publishing contract.
The title of this book says it all,
it truly is as comprehensive a guide to getting a textbook project off the ground (and keeping it going) as one could imagine.
Honestly, I had some reservations about the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA)
jumping with both feet into publishing books themselves. But this is the second book I’ve seen come out of that effort and both are outstanding in their usefulness and their instructional design. I’m a believer now, TAA!
(See my previous review of Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts
As a book of 320 pages, one is always concerned about whether it’s just too big to be very useful for a busy academic. Nothing to worry about, there!
First, the book is thoughtfully “chunked” into parts, chapter, sections, and subsections—making both reading and “raiding”
the book easily accomplished. You can learn more about “the art of chunking” on p. 164.
Second, the internal design features many lists, tables, samples, graphics, and sidebars that organize the information visually. We all know that this helps any user find information
and build a conceptual framework
for how it all fits together.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that the text narrative is written in a direct, conversational style
that tells the story of what’s involved in developing your own textbook. It’s like having a team of mentors sitting on your shelf,
ready to give advice whenever you need it.
When I hear about a new guide or manual, I want to know who created it.
Is it someone who can reliably be a virtual mentor
to me? For this guide, we have three main authors who exceed usual expectations in that regard:
- Mary Ellen Lepionka has done it all: professor, author, editor, publisher.
- Sean Wakely brings his wide and deep editorial and textbook development expertise.
- Steve Gillen is a former publishing attorney who has been in private practice representing textbook authors for decades.
I’ve experienced and benefited from the work of all three for a long time, so I’m not surprised
that their collaboration has produced such a useful guide.
Besides the main authors, the guide is sprinkled with brief “Author to Author” essays
written by textbook authors whose long experience ranges widely in discipline, publishers, types of textbooks, and personal style of authorship. They tell stories that clarify how textbook authorship isn’t simply something “on the side” of your main career, but is a profession unto itself
—one that has all the intricacies, jargon, customs, and pitfalls of any professional endeavor. In short, they tell you why you need this guide!
Of course, no guide like this can tell you everything,
but I can’t find any important topic that isn’t considered (at some level) in its pages. And I really tried to find one!
I wish I’d had such a helpful and thorough guide when I started
working on textbooks thirty years ago. But I’m glad to have it now.
It will help me keep up to date on current trends
in my profession—and get advice on specific topics from trusted colleagues.
I looked at a pre-publication copy for this review, but you can download a free 17-page sample
by visiting this page at TAA's website:
Fill out the form in the pop-up window, or click the circular "download" button on the page.