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Archive for August, 2010

It’s tough to write educational materials for people when you disagree with their basic pedagogical approach to teaching.

Right now I’m working as a subcontractor for a contractor working for a client who is more focused on the paraphernalia surrounding the main narrative than in the quality of the narrative itself. And that window-dressing is ugly. Everything they want involves reducing options for students AND teachers while emphasizing a single way of presenting the material being taught.

Clearly the client wants to dumb things down as much as possible. However, they also need to hit state standards that have been written to push critical thinking skills. So they need smoke and mirrors.

The result is an array of labels designed to identify questions as requiring critical thinking when in fact the majority of them do no such thing. Because when I try to ask such a question, it is labeled as too hard or having too many possible answers. The questions that do require students to be creative and analytical are so out of sync with what they are being taught in the rest of the book that it’s laughable.

It’s all such a sham. The hypocrisy of the entire approach is evident to anybody outside of the corporate culture promoting it. I remember mocking this publisher’s books for their superficiality over a decade ago when I was working for a rival company. When I accepted this project, I hadn’t realized that the spate of mergers within the publishing field had put this imprint under the umbrella of a larger client. But I can see that the same editorial guidelines are in place.

I will be glad when this project is over. Textbooks are never the most exciting things to read or write, but I’m somewhat embarrassed at how bland and restrictive this one is. I would never want my own children taught from these books.

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At least.

In my nearly 15 years of experience in the world of publishing, primarily the realm of textbook publishing for K-12 social studies, it has been my overwhelming experience that the book Design is never ready when it’s time to start writing or revising the Manuscript.

This is a problem, because the modern American textbook is an uneasy alliance between Design, Content, Images, and of course, Standards. In the old days, rumor has it that Content drove the bus. Design fiddled around with fonts and margins a bit, while Images (which are the bastard children of Content and Design) summoned up appropriate maps and tables and a slew of very boxy, often black-and-white pictures that usually depicted a battle, object, or famous person referred to in the text. Content Standards were something of a pipe dream, like the politicians off in Washington.

Today, Standards drive Content. Anyone who denies this is (a) not trying to sell to a major state market, (b) actually convinced that the Standards are the same thing as Content, or (c) lying. Everything in the Content has to be correlated to show which state Standards are being addressed in the chapter narrative and any associated features. Moreover, one must show that the questions being asked about the Content are also synchronized with the Standards.

The major problem here is that today, Design also drives Content. A shift as “simple” to describe as “switch from a two-column layout to a single-column layout” wreaks havoc on the text. One year everything is rounded, the next year Image wraps are being run ragged, and suddenly it’s all back to sharp, squared delineations between Content and Images again.

In case it isn’t obvious to the casual observer, without knowing the final Design of a book’s pages, you can’t create remotely reliable templates for manuscript. And without reliable templates, you have no real idea if you are writing too much or too little in said manuscript. You do know that writing to accommodate the Standards is the bare minimum that you must achieve. But every publisher can do that. Ostensibly you want your Content to be distinctive in some (hopefully positive) fashion.

So you add a healthy dose of Style, which may or may not be your own, depending upon how draconian the publisher’s stated style guidelines are and how ruthlessly they are enforced. To this Style you add a dash of extraneous Knowledge, a sub-category of Content defined by the fact that it does not correlate to the Standards. It is simply interesting and/or useful information.

Back to my original point: the Project always starts before the Design is ready. The Powers That Be at the Publisher determine a publication date. Backtracking from that, editors and managers determine when they need to start writing or revising the manuscript.

Realizing almost immediately that they barely have enough time to do things like create, edit, copyedit, fact-check, acquire Images for, and receive permissions for the quoted Content in the book if they start right now, they hold a series of semi-frantic planning meetings and then start a week or more later than that. Thus writers begin creating manuscript, Content guided by the Standards with a dash of Style.

The Design is not ready. This might be some quirk of quantum physics: a final Design cannot exist in the same place and time as beginning Content. It might be that nobody asks the Design department how much time it will take them to produce a Design when the schedules are made. Perhaps the unfortunate truth is that while Content has preset Standards and even publishing-house Style to provide signposts for its journey, Design is subject to the fickle winds of taste. Nobody on the team can agree on what looks good. Everyone on the team agrees but the manager two levels above who has to sign off on the product dislikes the end result. A Design is decided upon and then fails utterly in focus group testing.

Whatever the cause, if you are a writer or an editor working with Content at the manuscript stage, you will begin the project without a Design. Instead, if you are lucky, you get very rough templates. If you are unlucky, you get vague estimates about line counts and characters per line.

Unlike nearly every other element of the Project, which has assigned to it a (often fanciful) date on a schedule, the Design has no real deadlines attached to it.  It will simply happen at some stage in the process. You walk outside one morning, the leaves are starting to change, and Look! There’s a Design on your doorstep.

It is perhaps a sad commentary on human nature that after weeks of complaining about the lack of a Design and its crippling effects on their ability to know if they are writing too much or too little Content, when the Design finally arrives, the writers and editors Will Not Like It.

This is because, almost invariably, the Design received resembles the Design implied by the templates in the same way that distant cousins might resemble each other if seen in poor lighting. The resulting feelings on the part of writers and editors range from Betrayal to Incredulity to Horror to Resignation That This Is The Same Old Shit All Over Again.

Needless to say, this is not the response the Design team was anticipating or hoping for when they revealed their child to the world.

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