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I am an editor at the University of California Press and author of the first full-length handbook ever published on the subject of developmental editing.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Course Packet Is Not a Book

Anyone who has taught or attended college in the past three decades knows how much the teaching world has become dominated by the course packet. When students first arrive in class, they receive directions to the local Kinko’s that sells the instructor’s packet (or instructions for downloading it onto their computers). These packets contain selections from various published sources (reproduced with permission), usually interleaved with unpublished material by the instructor. If the instructor teaches the same course for many years, she may gradually replace most or all of the borrowed material with her own work.

Such packets can have real potential for acquisition by a publisher. After all, they have been created to fill a need not met by existing textbooks, and they’ve been tested in the classroom for effectiveness over many years. But they can also contain developmental issues that are difficult to rout. First, packets invariably bear the stamp of the instructor’s personality—quirks that can be entertaining and effective in the classroom but that may not translate well to the written page. Second, because packets are often devised to distinguish an instructor’s approach to the subject, other instructors may be unwilling to abandon their own packets in favor of someone else’s. Third, the course itself may be an interdisciplinary hybrid with few counterparts on other campuses.

But the most challenging aspect of the packet-turned-book, from the DE’s perspective, is a pervasive lack of transitions providing context. Effective teachers like to surprise their students at the beginning of each class with a change of subject, then eventually demonstrate how the new topic fits in with topics discussed in previous sessions. Much of this relevance is purposely withheld from the written packet to enhance the drama of the “reveal” during class. But a book version needs to supply that missing context. Therefore, the author of a textbook derived from a course packet needs to revise to consciously integrate her lecture and discussion material with her required reading.

The scope of the challenge is not unlike that of revising a dissertation for publication (see Beth Luey, ed., Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors, updated edition, UC Press, 2007). But it can be harder: the instructor has lived with the packet so long, she may have difficulty seeing its deficiencies as a book. DEs, authors, and publishers alike do well to acknowledge these special challenges before attempting to transform a course packet into the backlist staple they desire.

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