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Evolution of an Idea
January 13, 2010 - 12:49am


When I started teaching eons ago—by which I mean 12 technology years—most ambitious teachers hoping to see the work of their class in print could only photocopy booklets of student writing for the class’s own consumption. In 1998 we might have been calling these efforts ‘zines, since rhetoric departments believed that using the word “‘zine” was avante-garde in the way Russians in War and Peace think they’re awfully sexy speaking French.

Remember, websites were not easy to build then, and blogs were a thing for the future. Click to see how Yahoo’s and our government’s sites looked in the mid-‘90s. And remember how big a splash that coffee pot made? We were hard up, man.

But students were enthusiastic and inventive with the platform they had, as I’m sure it has always been. (Think of how enthused the art class in Lascaux was with their work.) More to the point, students’ writing improved with an increased awareness of audience. One semester at the University of Miami my students produced full-color “magazines” on the city they knew from life and from their reading. (Our photocopy print run was fewer than 50 copies; enough for parents, roommates, and friends.) Knowing their work would be put into hands other than mine, in a form that looked something like what a consumer might actually read, students took more pride in authorship and worked through multiple drafts of writing they’d otherwise resisted.

Since then I’ve tried course management software for semester-long collaborative writing. In its archive function the system can serve as a kind of clunky, unattractive, but comprehensive online publication. Blog templates are free and easy now, of course, but in some ways that strips the product of its thrill. Every goober keeps a blog.

Then a couple of years ago Print On Demand technology started becoming practical. Coincidentally, about that time university administrators requested we find opportunities for undergrad research and publishing. I began to think that one of my classes might compile a real book, print it with PoD (or go paperless, as with Featherproof Books’ chapbooks), advertise by word of mouth and online, and sell it by PayPal or through some distribution channel. (Distribution is a very large problem.) Any minimal profits could go to a worthy charity, but even better the experience would be a practical, real-world one for students, which is sometimes hard to get in the humanities.

Such a project would, I felt sure, be restricted only by imagination, leadership, and talent. After all, the Foxfire books, which I’ve always admired, were done with high school students, and Dave Eggers compiles his Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies with high school students too. What might intelligent undergrads accomplish?

I wrote a couple of posts here about the new print technology. At the time I was this close to starting my own book publishing company and had talked to some genuinely excellent people about collaboration. I even had the idea worked out for the first book—a funny but significant one, for a wide readership—which could be put together with or without student involvement. I was about to make a call for submissions here at the blog. Then my novel was accepted, other opportunities followed, and I almost gratefully backed away from what would have been a massive task.

One day after I’d started writing my nonfiction book, my commissioning editor told me that the publisher was interested in my working with students at the university to produce an oral history of the town. This offered a return to my previous idea without the additional mess of becoming a publisher.

I put in months of work setting it up: Getting the uni’s okay on students working on it as a class project, rearranging two semesters of my teaching schedule, organizing creative nonfiction classes around the idea of Studs Terkel-like work, trying to understand how the institutional review board would want their approvals and consents for what they’d view as testing on human [interview] subjects, figuring out how the residential academic unit that would host my special topics course might let in non-resident students, asking around if anyone wanted our filthy lucre, etc. There were difficulties and resistance at every turn, except in giving away free money.

Then my editor quit. No contract had been produced. Both the managing and the new commissioning editor claimed not to have been told about the discussion and asked me to make a new pitch. Right at the start of the semester one of my lackluster students told an amateur historian—and former mayor—in town what we were hoping to do, and the guy submitted his own book proposal to the same publisher and fouled up the works, which I only discovered a couple of weeks ago.

C’est la guerre, I thought with Gallic weariness. Je reviens à la première idée, les ‘zines. Toujours les ‘zines.

But I decided to try one last thing before I pulled the plug. The week after New Year’s I came up with a different idea for a print anthology and wrote a proposal to a good academic press. The director called me less than 24 hours after I dropped it in the mail and gave me the go-ahead. I don’t have a contract in hand yet, so I don’t want to be explicit, but it’s looking good.

Ever get the feeling that smiling through the thrashings you take in trying to get something done would be the mark of brilliance? I hope that’s not true.


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