Towards a Book

As readers of this blog are aware, we have for seven years been carrying out an ambitious national study of higher education. For the last year and a half, we have been busy—analyzing data, writing dozens of blogs, giving occasional talks. We believe that we could write hundreds of blogs, scores of articles, several books—but life is short, and we want to get the most important messages out, efficiently and effectively.

Toward that end, we have had good conversations with our wonderful team of researchers and also with friends and advisers. A recent conversation with colleague Andrew (Andy) Delbanco crystallized our conundrum—What to do and how to do it?

Drawing on decades of writing fine books and powerful articles, Andy said, “You can’t really progress unless you answer two questions: What is the story/narrative that you want to tell? And to whom do you want to tell it—who is the audience?”

Paradoxically, we have been doing this for some time—without quite realizing it. But when in the past we had in effect followed Andy’s advice, we had done so for specific audiences with clear parameters. To use the most vivid example, in January 2019, Howard gave a set of three lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, his home institution. Of course, he knew the audience: friends, colleagues, and students. Howard could presuppose some interest in the topic, or at least in his perspective on it. He also knew he had approximately three hours spread over a week, plus another hour or so for questions and answers. (Wendy was present throughout and answered some of the most challenging questions.)

The lecture series—however it came off to others—broke down into three sessions: 1) What we did and how we did it: 2) What we found; and 3) What it means. This approach has worked well enough that, despite various nuances, both of us have used it in subsequent presentations to various audiences.

However, over the last year, two facets have changed. First of all, we found that once one reports a social science finding, audiences can almost invariably explain the result—indeed, explain it away. So instead, of beginning with results, we instead begin with questions, and, as appropriate, ask the audience to anticipate what we found. For example, we ask: What’s the biggest issue on campuses? What books do individuals value? What do various constituents think about the purpose of college? Seeking to answer these questions, audiences learn how far from the mark they typically are; this state of affairs increases their attention and, with luck, their respect for what we have accomplished.

Second (and this is why we have avoided high-stakes presentations, or interviews with the media), our initial impressions have not always been borne out by more careful analysis of the data. Accordingly, we have now changed—or at least nuanced—some of the previous headlines from the study.

So returning to the two questions posed by Andy Delbanco, here are our current answers:

The story: There are many problems with, and complaints about, higher education in the United States. There are also admirable aspects. More than seven years ago, we decided to act in the manner of physicians—looking for the various ailments among the various constituencies. Specifically, the constituencies that we interviewed across a wide range of public and private campuses included incoming students, graduating students, faculty, senior administrators, parents, alumni/ae and job recruiters—a total of over 2000 interviews! We sought to determine the pressures and symptoms across these constituencies as clearly and reliably as possible. We then identified and studied evidence-based therapies for those ailments—with the goal of helping higher education become a healthier and more valuable (and more valued) sector of our society.

The audience: We begin with the goal of addressing individuals most involved in higher education. This includes the range of constituencies whom we interviewed—from students and faculty to administrators and job recruiters—as well as any other individuals or groups that have a stake in higher education (which would include legislators at the local, state, and national levels). If we are fortunate, and the narrative that we create is powerful and effective, we also aspire to reach the broader reading public—often called the “intelligent lay reader”—as well as those who read or listen to popular accounts of books that aspire to “change the conversation.”

Of course, on their own, these words sound either grandiose (who do Wendy and Howard think they are?) or self-evident (every research-based book has a narrative structure—ranging from subtle to sledge hammer). The proof will be in our execution—which we hope will be drafted in the next year and published shortly thereafter.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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2 Comments on “Towards a Book”

  1. Nada Vukicevic July 17, 2019 at 4:39 pm #

    Thanks. Nada Vukicevic.

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  2. Rihab Khalifa July 21, 2019 at 7:30 pm #

    I have had the pleasure of listening to Professor Gardner speak about the project in a research symposium in Harvard in June, and very keen to read about the findings. Will keep following this space!

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