November 4, 2021 Read More
Since 1976, the AAP has sponsored the PROSE Award for Excellence in Physical Sciences & Mathematics. Every year, upwards of 20 judges spend our precious hours reading about the mineralogy of meteorites, or the ecosystems of California, or solutions to boundary-value problems in diffusion science (to name but a few of the recent winning topics). You may ask, why does AAP offer this prestigious award for Physical Sciences & Mathematics? To my mind, the answer is simple. The world needs more great science books and great science books deserve to be celebrated. You may not immediately agree with that statement, but hear me out.
First, a small philosophical digression.
Ever since Heraclitus, humanity’s deep thinkers have doubted the capacity of the human mind to comprehend the mysteries of the cosmos. In the modern era, proponents of a position known as mysterianism have followed this line of argument, suggesting that the solutions to certain “hard problems” (most notably, how consciousness somehow arises from physical processes in the brain) lie beyond the cognitive reach of Homo sapiens. After all, they say, everything we are, biologically speaking, is the result of a random process of evolution. Unless our distant ancestors were assisted in spreading their genes by a deep knowledge of the workings of the universe, why should we expect that evolution would have endowed our brains with such esoteric capabilities?
There are others who find this to be an overly pessimistic view. Having identified a mystery, are we not already on the path to solving it? The philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it this way: “As soon as you frame a question that you claim we will never be able to answer, you set in motion the very process that might well prove you wrong: you raise a topic of investigation.” Speaking for myself, a mere mortal with a limited grasp of these questions, I confess to (a) a headache brought on by thinking too hard and (b) a preference for the latter, more optimistic, approach.
What has all this got to do with books? Well, if hard problems are hard to think about, they are even harder to write about. And if you can’t write about them in a convincing way, your ideas are unlikely to gain much traction. Compelling writing is no less important in the scientific realm than it is in works of literature, say, or young adult fiction. In the sciences, I would argue, books (or, to use a more scholarly descriptor, monographs) provide the ideal setting for the careful laying out of a complex argument. Journal articles, with all their constraints and conventions and need for speed, are simply not suited to this purpose; they serve a rather different function in the research ecosystem.
As an exemplar of the power of the scientific monograph, I direct your attention to the winner of the 2021 PROSE Award for Excellence in Physical Sciences & Mathematics: David Merritt’s A Philosophical Approach to MOND: Assessing the Milgromian Research Program in Cosmology, published by Cambridge University Press. If this seems a challenging topic, see above, and I don’t propose to go into too much detail here. Just bear with me through the next paragraph.
In brief, MOND refers to Modified Newtonian Dynamics, a theory advanced by the physicist Mordehai Milgrom as an alternative explanation for an apparent anomaly in the dynamics of galaxies. The speed at which stars or gas clouds orbit at a certain distance from the galactic center can be predicted by applying Newton’s laws of gravity and motion, given the observed distribution of mass in the galaxy. Astrophysical measurements have shown that this holds true near the centers of most large galaxies, but perplexing deviations begin to appear farther out in the galactic disk: the orbital speed is found to be systematically larger than that predicted by Newton’s laws. In the “standard model” of cosmology, this observation is explained by assuming that galaxies are embedded in haloes of “dark matter,” a mysterious substance that has never been directly observed. By contrast, the MOND theory posits the radical idea that Newton's laws are themselves modified in regions of very low mass density, such as the outer reaches of galaxies.
Is MOND an accurate description of what’s really going on, or should we stick with invisible dark matter? I have no idea, and Merritt does not claim to have answered that question definitively. What he does demonstrate, though, is the value of a carefully reasoned long-form scientific argument. Constructed with exquisite care over 270 pages and beautifully written for its intended audience, his book builds its argument with devastating logic. A glance at the reviews shows that even the skeptics are impressed with the way he develops his thesis. As a physics graduate myself (though in ancient times), I confess that I found the book entirely gripping, despite having to skim over some of the really complicated stuff. In some distant foggy recess of my brain, I am still pondering the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and wondering whether modified Newtonian dynamics might have a part to play in that.
If Sir Isaac Newton is furrowing his brow, that’s got to be a good thing: it’s how the hard problems get solved. And so, in closing, here’s my heartfelt plea to the deep thinkers of the world: write more books like this, please. And to my fellow science publishers: publish more books like this, please, and don’t forget to submit them for the PROSE Awards. If we work together, maybe we can keep those pessimistic mysterians in their place.
November 2, 2021 Read More
When was the last time you read a graphic novel? And when you think of them, do you think of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, Batman and Superman, or webcomics like xkcd?
While many people associate graphic novels or graphic narratives with comics, the truth is that these robust works are often used to explore a wide range of complex topics, including scholarly analysis of historical events, educational materials related to science and medicines, memoirs, and biographies. Although scholarly graphic novels frequently tackle the same serious subjects that are found in traditional books, readers engage with them a different way.
In fact, Graphic narratives are often used in educational settings as a way of encouraging reluctant readers. They’re usually seen as fun, especially to those who view reading a book as onerous. But it would be a mistake to say that these works are ‘simple’ when compared to text driven publications. On the contrary, by using a combination of visual and verbal communication, these works are quite complex, simultaneously engaging multiple literacies. As a result, they can be used to convey information or emotion more effectively to the reader.
Recognizing the growing importance of graphic novels, last year the Association of American Publishers created the Nonfiction Graphic Novels category for the annual PROSE Awards. This category recognizes the creativity and innovation in publishing graphic narratives and showcases the best of the genre.
Judging from the submissions we received for the 2021 PROSE Awards, the first year with the Nonfiction Graphic Novels category, publishers are making good use of the format. One great example is Witness to the Age of Revolution: The Odyssey of Juan Bautista Tupac Amaru, published by Oxford University Press and authored by Charles F. Walker and Liz Clarke, which won the category last year. Part of OUP’s Graphic History series, the work follows the life of Juan Bautista Tupac Amaru, from his participation in the unsuccessful Tupac Amaru Rebellion in the Peruvian Andes, through his imprisonment following the revolution, brutal forced travel, first across the Andes and then across the Atlantic, and eventual release and return to South America decades later.
Chronicling the experiences of Bautista, Walker and Clarke engage the reader through a hybrid approach of nontraditional narrative of the Age of Revolution, filled with highly detailed illustrations, followed by a traditional narrative with additional details of the same story, and then primary sources. Witness to the Age of Revolution is well researched and structured in such a way that it nearly writes itself into a course syllabus.
As a librarian who often advocates for the use of graphic narratives in college classrooms, I like to refer to them as “sneaky vegetables”: students are often excited and, anecdotally, say they are more likely to read the graphic narrative on the syllabus. Even though they think of it as fun reading, they still engage with the material in a meaningful way.
While works like Witness to the Age of Revolution lend themselves well to classroom use, graphic narratives are not valued simply for their educational uses. The 2021 PROSE finalist, Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning, published by University of Toronto Press and authored by Alisse Waterson and illustrated by Charlotte Corden, brings together art and anthropology and asks the reader to reflect on their place and purpose in the in the world at this moment. Part of University of Toronto Press’ ethnoGRAPHIC series, the work is based on Waterson’s 2017 speech at the American Anthropological Association's annual conference, the work offers those not present for the address the opportunity to engage with the work in a different way - in the graphic narrative, the reader is able to join Corden and Waterson, traveling together through space and time to meet more than a dozen writers and activists and engage in conversation with them, while presenting a call for action to create a new future.
I love graphic narratives because they’re fun, but also because they challenge me to engage with material I might not otherwise read. I’m excited to learn from this year’s submissions.
October 26, 2021 Read More
“Accessible” has to be one of the best back-handed compliments: “Oh, you’ll enjoy that book; it’s very accessible.” Wait, is that a crack at the book, or a crack at you? But accessibility in the sense of availability and appeal to a wide audience is hardly a shortcoming in the mind of a book acquisitions editor or an art director. Trade book publishers, in that sense, thrive on accessibility and make the Outstanding Work by a Trade Publisher PROSE Awards category uniquely rewarding.
Appeal is not a disqualifier for significance, and Trade publishers have always been major contributors to scholarship. In the current publishing and academic environment, I would even venture to say that Trade publishers have a unique and essential role to play, bringing vital perspectives and distinct advantages, qualities that are helping to balance and propel professional scholarly work.
First, we rely on Trade Publishers to strike notes with current resonance. Academia tends to remain aloof from what it perceives as transient cultural trends, maintaining a distance social phenomena deemed temporary, passing. The Trade is not bound by this particular pretense. Indeed, the Trade Publishing industry thrives on being au courant, which means its contributions are often highly relevant to the current cultural moment and, at their best, help to contextualize and define as-yet undefined areas of exploration.
In 2020, the PROSE Award for Outstanding Work from a Trade Publisher went to W.W. Norton & Company for Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Hall’s extensively researched work tells the story of three sisters springing from the Southern establishment who are carried by the currents and eddies of American social thought and geographic migrations to very different vocational end points. Among many other things, the story speaks dramatically to our current moment of splintered political discourse, suggesting that our rifts can be viewed in the context of America’s ongoing intellectual development, almost beckoning us back from the edge of apocalyptic interpretations of our political state. The use of rigorous scholarship to tell a politically or socially relevant story—one that is made more impactful precisely because of its meticulously documented factual detail—is a vital contribution from the Trade publishers.
Another space we look to the Trade to fill in professional and scholarly publishing is a widening gap of scholarship’s own making. Ever-increasing specialization and the curation and indexing technologies that drive professional communities into narrow and isolated channels have diminished the opportunity for (and benefits of) serendipity and cross-pollination, particularly in science but in the humanities as well. Unconstrained by rigid conventions manifest in the academy, the Trade Publishing industry has the luxury of a broader view, one that can take a chance on cross currents and meta-conclusions.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan and the 2019 PROSE Award winner for Outstanding Work from a Trade Publisher, published Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, which weaves author Lisa Margonelli’s experience following researchers in biology, computer science, robotics, and natural history into an unassuming work of observation with strong contributions to engineering ethics, the history of science and even epistemology and philosophy of mind. It’s a fine example of the Trade Publishing industry’s ability to apply an unorthodox perspective on scholarly pursuits to produce interdisciplinary insights.
I’m personally looking forward to the submissions from the Trade publishers this year. What emerging issues will get a unique spotlight? What serendipitous encounters are being synthesized? I for one will relish the “accessible” insights.
October 8, 2021 Read More
In searching for the truth, one should deeply question organizations that require resorting to falsehoods to create their narrative. The new inclusive access misinformation site, developed by SPARC and their backers, weaponizes myths surrounding inclusive access to confuse consumers trying to make the best choice for their education.
For the past ten years, publishers have forged ahead with a twin focus on quality and affordability, leading to a significant decrease in the cost of course materials. In addition, publishers have been able to provide students with innovative new products that increase accessibility, decrease expenses, and provide them with a broad spectrum of options to choose from. However, this new SPARC site uses myths to conceal the progress publishers have made, while pushing fake “facts” to create a false storyline surrounding inclusive access.
Through their website, SPARC pushes a series of fictions easily dispelled with real facts published by research groups Student Watch and Student Monitor, as well as by the College Board itself. First, SPARC claims the cost of college course materials has risen over the past twenty years. This is simply untrue. Recent surveys from two different groups, Student Watch and Student Monitor, found a 36% drop in the amount students spend on course materials over the past decade.
SPARC also makes the incorrect claim that Inclusive Access constrains faculty ability to choose course materials. In reality, Inclusive Access is extremely popular precisely because its flexibility encourages academic freedom for faculty: programs can be implemented on a department level, but they can also be provided on a course-by-course basis, or even by course section.
SPARC falsely asserts that Inclusive Access limits student choice, but students are always able to opt-out, and the truth is that there is a robust market for used books and rentals for students to choose from, as supported by data from Student Watch.
SPARC argues that American students should be forced into a one-size-fits all solution of taxpayer funded OER when it comes to course materials. There is no question that high quality, innovative and constantly updated course materials offered by American publishers are critical to education, and in the case of some of the most iconic and groundbreaking works available, admired around the world.
Despite SPARC’s rhetoric, it is clear to everyone in the education ecosystem that faculty and students need access to first rate, professional course materials and need the freedom to choose the materials that work best for them, both in terms of quality and affordability. Indeed, the Inclusive Access programs that SPARC attacks are an increasingly popular option because they deliver on both fronts.
SPARC’s website relies on the idea that students are paying more for their course materials, and Inclusive Access contributes to that, but the data shows this is simply untrue. The facts matter, and data published by the College Board, Student Monitor, and Student Watch, shows students are spending less than ever.
While we’re always open to honest debate, we find it disheartening that SPARC has chosen to resort to disinformation to make its point. SPARC should ask themselves why their arguments rely on faulty facts as a driving force. And we should all be wary of the intention behind sites that make such obvious attempts to mislead the public.
June 16, 2021 Read More
The 2020-2021 academic year presented incoming students with the unprecedented challenge of learning in a new virtual environment. Many students – and some educators - felt unprepared and unsure of how they might access the materials they needed to succeed in this virtual learning environment. Without the ability to access libraries, classrooms, and physical materials, students, teachers, and parents alike were faced with the question of how to best serve students and set them up for success.
But as professors, teachers and students made the move to remote learning, publishers had their backs, with a wide range of new, online course materials that helped to alleviate some of the stress that accompanied this unusual – and rather unsettling -- online school year. Education publishers were uniquely positioned to meet the moment and invest in change. As an industry, publishers have spent decades shifting first-rate content and learning solutions to a variety of innovative formats that better enable students to learn and succeed from anywhere at any time.
Here is some important background: in recent years, education publishers have focused on quality and affordability, as well as on ensuring that students have easy access, when creating education materials. Quality has, of course, always been a watchword for education publishers, who invest heavily – and annually – in ensuring that education materials are up to date, and top quality.
When it comes to affordability, publishers have embraced a wide array of new, affordable digital choices, including digital rentals, and inclusive access programs, that have helped fuel a phenomenal 36% decline in student spending on course materials over the past decade, according to independent researchers Student Watch and Student Monitor. In contrast to the overall rise in tuition and other college costs, the decrease in student spending on course materials is a rare bright spot, making the efforts of publishers more than a little noteworthy.
Because the focus on digital options isn’t new – publishers have been developing these materials for many years now — some instructors were already well versed in using digital alternatives when teaching, giving them a great advantage in switching to virtual instruction at the beginning of the pandemic.
To quote Donna Vandegrift, Dean of Rowan College at Burlington County,
“As a Dean, when COVID hit, we definitely had to readjust in a lot of ways. My division was uniquely prepared to pivot to support our students as they were learning remotely because we were using a lot of inclusive access materials. Our students and our faculty therefore had easy access to materials. Because our students and our faculty were familiar with the materials, they were able to readjust quickly to provide learning opportunities for their students in a remote environment. Students already knew what to do, and they were ready to do it. And our faculty didn't need to take time to readjust. All of those new materials were easily accessible for the students and for the faculty.”
We’re proud that publishers made a positive academic experience possible during the pandemic, and even more proud that they make quality, affordability and accessibility their watchwords year in, and year out, making every academic year better, and some academic years – like the one we just had – possible.