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Adding Popular Nonfiction to the Syllabus
March 17, 2010 - 9:51pm

Okay Heath brothers, here's one for you. I'm tremendously enjoying your new book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard and I'm wondering how you would recommend a change in the academic cultural status quo that would encourage the inclusion of popular nonfiction in courses?

Placing popular nonfiction at the core of your syllabus is a practice somewhat frowned upon in most departments. Obscure books from university presses and densely written journal articles are signifiers of insider knowledge. A course with a liberal dose of popular books may be looked upon, well, as less than academic.

The "switch" we need is to create a culture where the popular nonfiction book can have a role alongside primary documents and academic journals. Each has its strengths, and in many ways they will complement each other.

What sort of books and courses could make sense for popular nonfiction? Some basic criteria would be books that synthesize academic research for a popular audience, are well-written, and have made an impact on our culture. Daniel Kahneman should get a royalty for maybe half of the books in my list (below), his research (with the late Amos Tversky) being featured so prominently. Assign the original articles from the master in addition to a book that popularizes his theories - and watch retention and enjoyment increase. (Go check out Kahneman's TED talk: "The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory).

The following list could fit well into a range of courses in economics, sociology, history, psychology, marketing….what else?

--Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein

--The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

--Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety by Dalton Conley

--Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

--How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

--Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

--Supercrunchers by Ian Ayers

--False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World by Alan Beattie

--The Drunkards Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

--The Omnivore's Dilemna by Michael Pollan

--The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

--Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

--Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen

--Kluge by Gary Marcus

--The Ape in the Corner Office by Richard Conniff

--The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook

--The Numerati by Stephen Baker

--Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman

Why should popular nonfiction make it into the curriculum?

1) Creating Lifelong Learners: A goal, certainly one of the goals of higher education, is to create lifelong learners. A great way to accomplish this goal is to "nudge" our students into becoming lifelong readers of nonfiction. A well written book, one that relies on stories and narrative as well as data and analysis, may be remembered months and years after the course in which it was assigned ends.

2) Participation in a Community of Learners: Popular nonfiction has two advantages. The first is that it usually synthesizes the best of the academic work. The books are accessible gateways to scholarship. The second advantage is a critical mass of other readers. Students can engage other people interested in the books and the ideas explored. Student created video projects, blogs, or accessible online articles may find a readership and a community.

3) Multi-Platform: What all of the book above have in common, besides the pithy short titles and a focus on behavioral economics, is that I listened to them as audiobooks. Assigning popular nonfiction as part of the curriculum allows students to buy and consume the book in whatever format works best for them. I'd love to see experiments where students are given audio, e-book and paper copies - and told to use the platform that they like at the times of their choosing. I'd bet students would mix and match, and end up reading more.

What popular nonfiction books would you like to see taught in higher ed? How would you go about nudging a switch to this practice? Is this even a good idea?


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