Jul 20

What is it like to have a book in print?

Blank page intentionally end of bookMy first book was published in February. For an academic, this is an entirely normal event: to progress in most humanities fields, you need a book. But it’s also a big deal. I started the book in 2008, as my doctoral dissertation, and it was a big part of my life for a long time. Now it’s finished. It’s out there. I don’t have to (or get to?) work on it anymore. Since it’s an odd feeling, I wanted to share some thoughts about what it’s like.

The biggest difference is mental. I’ve been thinking about children’s moral tales and the history of the novel for the better part of a decade, and constantly had that topic in the back of my mind: I read every new work of scholarship through that lens, looking for arguments I felt myself in conversation with, or new theories that might be relevant to my argument, or mentions of some relatively obscure tale I was writing about. It’s an attitude that’s hard to turn off, and I still find myself considering roads not taken.

To give just one example: Jesse Rosenthal’s forthcoming Good Form: The Ethical Experience of the Victorian Novel argues that “when Victorians discussed the moral dimensions of reading novels, they were also subtly discussing the genre’s formal properties.” That’s pretty close to the conclusion at which my book arrives — albeit, from a different direction. While I argue that children’s moral tales shaped Victorian reading habits, Jesse links those habits to Victorian moral philosophy. My book has quite a bit to say about moral intuition (my dissertation’s outside reader was Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who worked in that field), but one of the manuscript’s reviewers found the moral psychology part a bit extraneous. I wonder if Good Form might have helped me integrate it a little better, and at the very least it would have bolstered the historical argument. Now that my book is in a fixed, unchangeable form, I’ll never know.

Greg Colomb, an important mentor to me, was fond of saying, “perfection is the enemy of finished.” New scholarship will keep appearing, and I’ll keep thinking about how I might have incorporated it into my argument. But I’m learning to let it go.

And a sense of freedom comes with publication, too. Not having the moral tale always in mind means I can start another project. While I was on the job market, I had a “second project” about Victorian psychologies of learning. I made fitful progress — a couple conference presentations, some blog posts, lots of miscellaneous notes and scattered paragraphs. I still like the idea, but it was a “second project” for so long that it still feels secondary. As I’ve freed myself from constantly thinking about the moral tale, I find myself pursuing another project that interests me more.

Just because the book is out, though, doesn’t mean I stop thinking about it. Instead, my relationship with it has changed: now that I’ve written it, I’m supposed to promote it.Peacock terms.png

Self-promotion comes naturally to some people. I have a friend who, at a conference we both attended, encouraged others to ask their university library to purchase his book, even checking WorldCat to make sure they’d done so (and following up if they hadn’t).

Many academics are uncomfortable with that level of self-promotion, even while recognizing its necessity. (The issue, like everything, affects some more than others). Some at the conference were put off by my friend’s insistence, especially when he brought it up a second (or third) time. I recognize the importance of self-promotion, but I’m also sort of uncomfortable with it. I tweet about my work when it gets published (and write posts like this one), but I don’t take a sustained or systematic approach.

Luckily, publishers do. My book is published with the University of Tennessee Press, who put me in touch with their marketing assistant and an event coordinator (“events” in this case means sending out review copies; the global book tour presumably comes later). They make sure university libraries have the book, distribute copies to reviewers, advertise it in various venues, help me target some prizes to submit to, and send books to personally relevant publications like my college magazine (which will feature the book). Their work helped me realize that others have a stake in the book as well, which takes some of the “self” out of the self-promotion.

Last but not least, there’s an element of ego: I have a book out. You can buy it on Amazon (don’t ask me where the used copies come from). It just feels good.

Do you have a first book our, or coming out? Or do you remember your first book? How does (did) it feel? Is it different with a second (or fifth) book?

Jun 11

Down around Biloxi

This weekend I’ll be traveling in Jimmy Buffet’s footsteps, and will find myself down around Biloxi for the Children’s Literature Association conference. I’m presenting another section of the project I’ve been working on, about psychology, pedagogy, and literature in the nineteenth century. I’ve been thinking mostly about fact-based learning and prior knowledge, and that’s that the conference paper is about, adding readings of Peter Parley and the Alice books, on top of what I earlier wrote about Peter Pan. The abstract is pasted below.


“Now what I want is Facts,” says Thomas Gradgrind in the opening sentence of Hard Times. Dickens satirizes the Gradgrindian mode of education, and surely we reject Gradgrind’s claim that “Facts are all that is wanted in life.” Our educational system values experiential learning, such as learning through play, more than the rote memorization that Dickens caricatures. So why does Gradgrind remain such an appropriate caricature of a teacher? Why do we ask students to learn facts? In other words, to borrow a question faced by teacher at all levels, why do students have to learn that? These questions – especially relevant today as states seek to standardize education and testing practices necessitate a focus on information that can be conveyed in multiple choice – have a history of their own, which this paper will explore.

Psychologists have long recognized that facts are an essential component of critical thinking: higher-order thinking requires a context and a background, a network of prior knowledge in which to process new information. Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham stresses this point in Why Don’t Students Like School (2009), and as early as 1898 William James, in his Talks to Teachers, recognized the necessity of prior knowledge. E. D. Hirsch makes the case in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them that a standardized national education would result in a more equal society, providing cultural capital to lower-income and migratory students who might not get it at home. If these were the main justification for teaching facts, few would resist.

But fact-based learning is generally associated with rote learning, and with conservative, outmoded education. And it has been since at least the beginning of the 19th century. This paper will address the history of reactions to fact-based education in two popular nineteenth-century children’s books: Samuel Goodrich’s Peter Parley books and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Goodrich’s series, published in America and widely pirated in Britain, rejected fiction and fairy tales in favor of true, factual information. He writes in his autobiography that Hannah More “had discovered that truth could be made attractive to simple minds. . . Did not children love truth? If so, was it necessary to feed them on fiction?” And as Alice falls down the rabbit hole she recalls a litany of facts, which follow throughout her journey: her reliance on her previous education helps her process the nonsense world she enters. Even as Carroll separates his child heroine from the adult world, she proves unable to process her surroundings without relying on her internal network of prior knowledge. I read the Peter Parley books as an attempt to bring literature in line with schools’ emphasis on factual knowledge, and the Alice books not as mere parodies of Victorian education but as genuine attempts to consider the role of facts in learning.

Mar 09

Character Education and the Moral Tale

Having just completed a complete draft of my dissertation, I’ve been thinking lately about its scope, and about avenues of inquiry that might lead away from my study of the narrative forms of moral tales. My main focus is on the intersection of children’s literature and the novel in the nineteenth century (you can read my abstract here), and so the most obvious contributions — the ones I’ve been anticipating from the beginning — are to literary fields: the history of the novel, Romantic and Victorian studies, children’s literature studies, and narrative theory. But there is another field that also thinks hard about moral tales: character education.

Writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Maria Edgeworth wrote her children’s tales in an explicitly pedagogical framework, drawing not just from her literary precursors but also from philosophers of education (like Locke and Rousseau) and from contemporary scientists like Erasmus Darwin. With a much more robust framework than that available to Edgeworth, twenty-first century social scientists like Darcia Narvaez have explored the experience of reading moral texts.

Drawing on research in reading comprehension, schematic processing, expertise, and moral judgment, Narvaez argues that while adults “often assume that if they provide good reasoning or a good story, the child will understand what the adult wants them [sic] to understand,” in fact “this is a faulty assumption . . . What readers remember is not the text as it was but, as meaning makers, what made sense and was meaningful to them” (“Moral Text Comprehension” 48). Children, in other words, “may understand texts in ways different from the author’s intention or the perspective of the instructor” (“Moral Text Comprehension” 49). This was something that Edgeworth and Rousseau were very aware of: Edgeworth constructs her tales to exploit this danger of misinterpretation, incorporating narrative challenges into her stories. She hoped to create a particular reading experience, in which the child reader (probably with an adult’s help) considers and reflects on the potential interpretations and moral conclusions.

Novels have historically played major cultural roles – one thinks of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Sinclair’s The Jungle – and narrative theory is applied in disciplines beyond literary studies: “the novel as a form currently enjoys the best press of its three-century career. Novels get credit for character-building renovation of readers into open-minded, generous citizens” (Keen, Empathy and the Novel 39). But the lesson we might take from Narvaez, a lesson we perhaps should have learned from the moral tale a century and a half ago, is that the experience of reading is in fact more complicated than that. As Suzanne Keen warns,

Character education is often taught in American primary and middle schools by means of stories illustrating core values, with the aim of shaping children’s values and behavior, as well as supporting academic success. Between underlying human temperaments and predictable outcomes in the form of response to narrative lies a great gulf, often bridged in educational psychology by hopeful constructions of the impact of didactic tales on children and convicted criminals . . . Younger readers may not be so malleable, or they may be deriving different lessons from their reading than the intended inculcation of virtues. (“Readers’ Temperaments” 301)

An understanding of the moral tale – how authors have historically constructed the narratives they wish to improve their readers, what methods they rejected, how these narratives interacted with the available understanding of educational psychology – becomes all the more important in these contexts. An understanding of the narrative form of the moral tale could opens doors not only for studies of children’s literature, the novel, and nineteenth-century British literature, but also perhaps for inquiry into how our culture bridges the gap between moral instruction and reading.

Works Cited

Narvaez, Darcia. “Moral Text Comprehension: implications for education and research.” Journal of Moral Education 30.1, 2001, pp. 43-54.
Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Keen, Suzanne. “Readers’ Temperaments and Fictional Character.” New Literary History 42.4, Spring 2011, pp. 294-314.