Monday, September 22, 2008

Is what Booklab does "coaching"?

This morning someone sent me an interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about book coaching on campus. It cites the program at Emory where I have spoken with Amy Benson, who guides authors (although it does not name her), and also programs with more of a clinical psychology focus at Vanderbilt and UMass-Amherst; it also mentions a couple of private academic coaching firms. They all sound valuable and necessary, but they bring up an interesting question, at least to me. Is what we do at Booklab coaching?

Eh, I'd say sort of, but most authors who come to Booklab have no trouble motivating themselves to write. They have earned their jobs because they did and do write and publish, and typically by the time they find themselves with a job at Georgetown they've overcome most issues they have with time management, deadlines, goal setting and more. Although this office was originally imagined as a resource for all book authors, but especially first-time ones, it was surprising to observe that most of the people who consult Booklab have published before and are now interested in moving their careers into an even higher sphere of literary influence. (I eventually learned that it is a characteristic of many well-published scholars to ask for help. It is often a characteristic of the unpublished to disdain it. Ponder and report.)

The issues that I address with our faculty usually involve this bigger career picture, tackling questions such as how one transcends mere productivity and moves into becoming essential in one's field, or where the prizes are for particular kinds of scholarly publishing. What is out there to reach for besides tenure, or the rank of full professor? What university press titles win the Pulitzer and why? How does one become a public intellectual and participate more consistently in the discussions on NPR, CNN, C-SPAN Book TV, MSNBC, and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and, for that matter, The Chronicle of Higher Education?

This may be coaching, and I certainly enjoy the psychological aspect of this job, but it is also envisioning, and it involves me and my own writing trajectory as much as my authors. We're all in this together, imagining among ourselves what Georgetown can and should be in terms of its publications, and how we as colleagues can challenge ourselves to think about our books and articles in ever-more ambitious and publicly necessary ways. In a media-soaked world still thirsting for meaningful intellectual conversation that speaks across disciplines and to thinking people outside of academia as well, what we do is vital. Fun, yes, and rewarding as can possibly be imagined, but also darned important in a world that likes to say "publish or perish" as though that's all the goal is about.

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