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Observations on teaching and textbook writing

During a career spanning several decades, I have often reflected on the relationship between teaching and textbook writing. Indeed, in my experience, every successful textbook author I have met or read about has always been a very accomplished—often a prize-winning—teacher. The reverse does not seem to be the case, however. I know of excellent teachers whose textbooks never gained traction. And there are thousands of great teachers who do not have the slightest interest in writing a textbook. (I too never aspired to textbook authorship until a publisher approached me about becoming the junior author of the leading introductory art history textbook. I eventually consented because I found enormously appealing the prospect of extending my teaching nationwide and reaching tens of thousands instead of hundreds of students every year.)

However, despite the close correlation in my judgment between excellence in the classroom and success as an author, the required skill sets are not identical. Yes, many of the ingredients of effective teaching are prerequisites for success in textbook writing: ability to explain complex concepts clearly; well-organized syllabi and lectures; the ability to tell a good story (at least in the humanities and social sciences). But there are other skills that great teachers often possess that cannot transfer to textbook writing: a loud, sonorous voice; dynamic body language; ability to navigate seamlessly between PowerPoint, YouTube, and two other apps.

Nonetheless, I have found that there is one skill that I regard as indispensable for success in both endeavors. I call it “Never Forget.” For me, that means never forgetting what it was like to be a student in the course you are teaching or new to the subject you are writing about.  In my own field of the history of art and architecture, it means constantly reminding myself that as an Art History 101 student, I was baffled by architectural ground plans, internal elevations, and longitudinal cross-sections, even after someone enlightened me what those strange terms referred to. It means never forgetting that you cannot assume that your students and readers know who Minerva or Vishnu is, or what happened at the Annunciation or during the Hijra. I cannot overstate how big a mistake it is to assume that your audience knows what you think they should know. And I also never forget that most students very likely do not have any pre-existing interest in your material. (The senior business majors in the back row selected my course because they put off fulfilling a humanities requirement and they were free at 3:30.) I have never entered a classroom or started writing a chapter without asking “How do I hook my audience and make them want to know anything at all about things that I am passionate about?” The Never Forget principle has served me very well for decades and I highly recommend it.

One other thing I never forget is how valuable my TAA membership has been for my career.

Fred KleinerFred Kleiner is Professor Emeritus of History of Art & Architecture at Boston University, where he served five terms as department chair and won several teaching awards. He has been a TAA member for 30+ years and was Secretary from 2008 to 2010. Fred is a winner of one McGuffey and two Texty prizes and the author of Gardner’s Art through the Ages, the leading art history textbook, now in its 16th edition. He has also published scholarly monographs and dozens of peer-reviewed articles in his field. He was editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Archaeology from 1985 to 1998.