This year, for the first time, I’m teaching a course in scientific writing (with both graduate and undergraduate versions). There were lots of decisions to be made in designing the course: what topics to cover; the blend of lecture, workshop, and assignment; how to accommodate graduate and undergraduate students in the same classroom; and more. But one decision was easy: which book to use as a text. There are quite a few books on the topic, but I assigned my own, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, without any hesitation*.
Well, not really without any hesitation. Actually, I can’t help feeling mildly embarrassed by joining That Bunch Of Profs Who Assign Their Own Books. How arrogant! How closed-minded! How ridden with conflict of interest!
On “arrogant”: although I can’t help feeling that, I know it’s not really so; or at least, it isn’t any more arrogant than any other teaching decision. In every course I’ve ever taught, I’ve chosen what to cover and how to cover it. The only difference: this time, I made those choices a few years ago while writing the book, rather than last month while assembling the syllabus or just now while writing tomorrow’s lecture notes. Is it arrogant to think my book is the best choice for my course? I put in the book what I put in because it was my best thinking about writing. Wouldn’t it be deeply weird if I preferred some other book now?
On “closed-minded”: it is, absolutely, possible that assigning my own book could lock me in to an approach. It’s easy to rip up last year’s lecture notes; it’s less easy to tell the students that Chapter X or Y of my own book is wrong. I’m not too worried about this, though. Not because parts of my book mightn’t be wrong – I’ll be shocked if, 5 years from now, I haven’t changed my mind about some things. Instead, I’m unworried because I’m like a broken record, even in the book, that there’s no single prescription that works for every writer in every situation. In fact, peer reviewers of The Scientist’s Guide wanted me to be more, not less, definitive about my advice. (I resisted.)
Finally, “conflict of interest”. Here, I admit, there could be a good case to be made. It’s true that I make a little bit of money each time someone buys a copy of The Scientist’s Guide. (Thank you.) It isn’t much – about $1.25 Canadian at the moment), but in principle at least it’s unfair for me to profit personally from my choice of which book to assign**. So I decided early on that I needed to address the conflict. Here’s what I’ve done (and it’s not a novel solution). I indicated on the syllabus that my royalties associated with the course were to be donated to a charity of the students’ choice. During our first meeting, I asked the students to nominate 3 charities, and in our second meeting I held a secret-ballot election. The result? I donated the princely sum of $11.25 to the local chapter of the SPCA. That wouldn’t have been my first choice – I was pulling for either the food bank or the New Brunswick Nature Trust. But of course that’s exactly the point: I resolved my conflict of interest by giving up any say in where the royalties went.
So: I’m unrepentant. I’m also resolved to no longer look down my nose at others who assign their own books. It’s possible, though that you’re still rolling your eyes; that you’re unpersuaded. Push back, please, in the Replies!
© Stephen Heard February 6, 2018