A reference that should be sought

May 28, 1999

English lecturer Rob Pope, talks about the writing of his textbook, The English Studies Book .

In the current climate for academics in higher education, the question of whether to write a textbook has becomes a pointedly professional as well as a personal issue. The predicament can be neatly expressed in terms of that ubiquitous but unevenly matched pair: research assessment exercise versus Quality Assurance Agency - research versus teaching quality.

The RAE is, of course, an "exercise" in name only. It wields big carrots and hard sticks. It also means that academics in British higher education are increasingly being persuaded, and in some areas virtually driven, to concentrate on research. For me, the problems can be put quite starkly. Do I submit The English Studies Book along with my other publications to the RAE English panel? Or do I do what I did with an earlier large-scale textbook and submit it to the panel in Educational Studies?

To be more specific: will the book count as "refereed", as in the sense of a "refereed"journal? Before publication it was subject in part or whole to use by and comment from over 1,500 students, 20 colleagues and ten specialist readers from around the world. Compare this with, say, two or three journal editors and their referees on a "research"journal. Curiously, the answer may turn out to be "no". The English Studies Book may not meet the requirements or expectations of the English panel - although it may, as did my previous textbook, receive full recognition from the education panel. Odd.

But what about the next time my English department is subject to an inspection by QAA - a panel which, unlike the RAE, has no carrots and few sticks? Most probably, my work and that of other colleagues committed to the making of advanced textbooks will be hauled out and waved around to show what a jolly good job we are doing of integrating our teaching and research, and how seriously we take our students' learning - even to the point of including samples of their work in our publications. Probably, there will be plenty of brownie points for that, and maybe it will help towards another "excellent" or some such grade for the department. But you can be sure there will be precious little encouragement in the form of extra funding.

So why do I write textbooks? Perhaps if I explain "how", the "why" may become clearer. Textbooks have to grow as well as be built. They must have a life and character of their own. The English Studies Book finally weighed in at 420 pages and 180,000 words. However, it started life more than a decade earlier as a critical glossary at less than a tenth the length. In between, it grew, and, equally importantly, from time to time it was savagely hacked back, re-shaped and delicately pruned.

First it sprouted a practical introduction to the various "isms" that populate the subject: from "practical criticism" through to "poststructuralism" and "post-colonialism". Then, grafted onto this, was an overview of the many pasts, presents and likely futures of the subjects that together go to make up contemporary English studies. Again, this was rooted in practice.

Meanwhile, in close consultation with colleagues and students, the publishers and I consolidated the underlying pattern for the entries in the various sections. Each was to be three to ten pages long and to consist of "preliminary" definition leading to "fuller" explanation and examples, and these in turn were to be reinforced and refined by an interlinked series of "activities, discussion and further reading". In this way, entries on everything from "author" to "versification" and "psychoanalytical approaches to new Englishes" went through the same sequence. For students there was the promise of reassuring regularity and for the lecturer the convenience of different materials in readily adaptable formats. There was also a pedagogically desirable cycle of "telling and showing" extended by "doing, reflecting and researching".

In terms of content, the big breakthrough - or crunch point - came when we decided to add an anthology of extracts from primary texts. The idea was to represent a wide variety of "Englishes", past and present and from all over the world. This massively increased the book's complexity, size and cost.

In outline the anthology was no problem. Like numerous lecturers elsewhere, a colleague and I had already developed a do-it-yourself, cut-and-paste anthology for use on a big introductory course. However, copyright laws were tightening and our main teaching resource was threatening to become prohibitively expensive and probably illegal. At the same time, this was evidently a widespread problem. The provision of some such anthology seemed to make sense. So - with much trepidation beforehand and some huge headaches immediately afterwards - we finally went for it.

Straightaway there were more than 100 copyright permissions to sort out: costs quickly crept beyond the notional limit of £5,000, and I for one already had more than enough to do redrafting my own text. The only way out was to plead imminent insanity and beg for further help from the publishers. Mercifully, this was forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the seemingly endless process of pruning and paring down went on and on and onI We had long since passed the "slash and burn" phase (that was when the book was a mere 20,000 words over twice its original contracted length). But there were still luxuriant undergrowths of inverted commas to rake out (I was evidently a compulsive scatterer of "scare quotes"). The three-tiered cross-referencing system still looks a bit fussy (perhaps we will reduce it to just two tiers for the next edition - bold and SMALL CAPS, with no asterisks).

All this is a routine part of book publishing, of course. But I now realise it is an absolutely crucial part of textbook publishing - and all the more so when (as here) the book is built for reference as well as teaching purposes.

Next time I will try to get it right from the start. But of course next time will involve another book with another challenge. That too will no doubt have to be built - and allowed to grow and be hacked back - in its own sweet time. Subject to deadline and length, of course. And maybe some renegotiation with the publisher.

Rob Pope is principal lecturer in English, Oxford Brookes University.

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