My Book Manifesto
Exciting news! I’m writing a book for the popular press (or as my 10yo puts it, “a book you can actually find at Barnes and Noble*”). Here I reflect on my complicated feelings and make some pledges.
Some Really Great News!
Thanks to my wonderful literary agent Jessica Papin at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret I have accepted an offer from Grand Central Publishing to write a book for the popular press tentatively called HIVEMIND: The Perils and Promise of Our Collective Selves, due out in March 2019.
This book will consider the ways in which we sometimes operate more like honeybees in a hive than we do separate, individualistic beings, and how social media are amplifying these tendencies, for both good and for ill. It will review research on emotional contagion, cults, echo chambers, massive multiplayer online games, team dynamics, and apps that hack your life. Through interviews and stories, it will share the voices of scientists, software engineers, speculative fiction writers, and social activists.
My Ambivalence About This Really Great News
In part of the online conversation about these dueling pieces, a Twitter friend whose opinion I really value had this to say:
At that time I had accepted Grand Central’s offer but we hadn’t yet inked the contract, and so my internal reaction was a bit:
In a similar conversation, Andrew Przybylski raised this question: should academic psychologists be writing books about topics which they have not researched themselves and published in peer-reviewed journals?
These comments, as well as a recent piece by W. Keith Campbell called The Truth About Writing Popular Psychology Books got me thinking — why is it that I want to write this book? And how can I write the sort of book that I wouldn’t roll my eyes at if I were on the other side of the hardcover?
Ever since I read Kevin Gannon’s Teaching Manifesto, I’ve been enchanted by the idea of manifestos. They seem to take the power of clear goal-setting, sprinkle in a dash of pep-talk, and serve up a list of actionable steps.
I now think about manifestos all of the time. What would my teaching manifesto look like? Parenting manifesto? Cooking manifesto?
Inspiration struck — I’d resolve my ambivalence by writing a book manifesto.
My Book Manifesto
#1 — I will write the book through a teaching lens, which is my primary expertise.
Andrew’s critique/question about whether people should only write within the expertise they’ve developed through rigorous, peer-reviewed investigations prompted me to consider the standpoint from which I’ll be writing this book.
As someone who chose to teach nine courses instead of applying for extra grants in graduate school, who set out to find a job at a small liberal arts college (SLAC) from the outset, and who co-directs my college’s Center for Teaching Excellence, I have always been a teacher first and a scientist second.
The scientific world doesn’t value teaching very much. I once attended an early career panel at the Society for Psychophysiological Research and a fellow attendee asked the panel: what to do if one was offered a job at a SLAC? Should one take it if there were no other options? (That such a position would be a temporary way-station was taken as a given). One of the panel members, a big name in the field, responded, “Well… perhaps. I mean, it is a step above flipping burgers. But not a really big step.”
I slunk down in my seat as the rest of the audience shared what to me was some pretty ugly laughter. Ugly for several reasons — for its denigration of those of us who have chosen teaching-focused jobs, for its disrespect for our undergraduate students and what they contribute to our academic institutions, and for its rank classism.
I value teaching. I think it is a noble pursuit.
I also think a teacher’s perspective is a highly appropriate one for writing a critically reflective book. I will certainly share observations from my own research but much like when I teach, the bulk of the book will be focused on other people’s research, a birds-eye view of our current state of knowledge.
When reviewing both my research and that of others, I will also bring the carefully evaluative, thoughtful eye to the methods and conclusions that I try to encourage in my students.
I won’t just be reviewing psychological science either — I’ve been amassing my reading list and it includes literary theory and history and circa-1900 sociology.
I also plan on bringing to the book many voices other than my own by conducting interviews with people thinking fabulous thoughts and doing fascinating things. For instance, I’m attending a honey festival to talk with Dan Conlan of Warm Colors Apiary to see just how far this hive metaphor can get us (I’m also hoping he’ll introduce me to his little bee friends). I’ll hit a library bar in Manhattan to drink, well, Manhattans and discuss how social media has allowed speculative fiction writer Teri Clarke to find a community of like-minded creators and launch her public writing career. I’ll visit the Bose Corporation’s new technologies showroom and try on some of their new social equipment with musician and design lead Joe Geiger.
#2 — I do not believe polemics are the only interesting sort of book to read, and I refuse to write one.
I don’t have a horse in this race, and I’m not selling a viewpoint.
I think that complexity is inherently interesting, and that probing boundary conditions and contextual influences is fun.
I think we’re smarter than the need for soundbites.
#3 — I will pen this book to try to write us into a better future.
Much like my post Emotions for an Uncertain America, this book will also be my therapy of sorts, trying in the smallest of ways to help us think our way out of these frightening, polarizing times.
#4 — Most of all, I will write a book that will be fun to both write and to read.
My answer to W. Keith Campbell about why people write psychology books for the popular press is much like Jim Coan’s recent answer to why he is recording a podcast series called Circle of Willis — I’m doing it because it is fun, because it gives me pleasure, and quite honestly the writing is something I’d probably do anyway. Why not turn it into a book to share with others?
Tastes vary, of course, and my book is unlikely to be everyone’s cup of tea. But I would absolutely love it if some people found the same enjoyment reading my book as I hope to have writing it, and as much joy as I had reading some of my favorite science books (that also happen to meet manifesto criteria #2–4):
So there she is — my book manifesto.
But manifestos only work when enacted, so now I’m off to write (after a bit more teaching).
Thanks for listening.
*To be contrasted with my academic book The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, which you *can’t* find in Barnes and Noble but which you can find by clicking on the title link, or here on Amazon. And which my editors would want me to plug here.