Why writing books makes us better teachers: A post for professors

Guest post by Lawrence A. Peskin

What is the connection between writing and teaching?

That’s a question that I get asked all the time as an academic historian. Up until recently I would have had to answer with generalizations: classroom discussions sometimes prompt new research questions; research findings sometimes prompt new ways of approaching material in the classroom.

That  changed for me, however, with America and the World: Culture, Commerce, Conflict, which Edmund F. Wehrle and I wrote in direct response to classroom concerns.

Several years ago I began to co-teach a new course that we called “America and the World,” to differentiate it from traditional diplomatic history. I was inspired by a slew of new monographs and articles that established the international context of American history. Unfortunately, these books were too specialized for the undergraduates in our courses, and the few general treatments were not fun to read at all.

My chief criterion for classroom texts is that they should be enjoyable. While some of my best friends have written commercial textbooks complete with full-color illustrations, I never assign them. I can’t imagine anybody curling up with one of these behemoths and reading it for fun. What sort of signal do we send to students when we tell them that reading is a chore?

At any rate, no such textbooks existed for a class on America and the World then (nor, so far as I know, do they now). We resolved that America and the World must be a book that students (and even non-students) might actually enjoy reading, even without illustrations—full color or otherwise.

Our first challenge was organization. Since no previous models existed, we had to make some very basic decisions about what to include and what to exclude. Ultimately, we determined that rather than try to retell all of American history, we would select just the portions that were most revealing of America’s global relationships. This decision granted us an incredible sense of liberation from the traditional master narrative of American history. The incidents we chose to write about largely fell into three major categories: diplomatic, economic, and cultural. We decided to organize the book around those categories within a larger chronological framework.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of writing the book was catching up on all the literature that had been produced on the subject over the last decade or so. I spent about two years in libraries and online, reading all sorts of monographs and articles I had meant to read but hadn’t had time for, and many others I never knew existed. I had a chance to read deeply into such topics as the non-American dimensions of the American Revolution, the impact of Haiti on the United States, and the European appropriation of Native American methods of warfare.

Our job was to make the ideas in this literature accessible to readers, much as we must make complicated material accessible to our students whenever we lecture.  In fact, I even incorporated and expanded on aspects of my classroom lectures in portions of the book, as some of my former students will no doubt notice if they read it!

Now that I am through with the book and back to teaching America and the World in the classroom, I find that my lectures are much sharper than before thanks to this deep immersion in the field. I know my students have appreciated the text, because I had them test-drive portions even before it was published (and their reactions helped with the final edits). My newfound command of the literature has spilled over into other classes as well and helped me to frame new research projects. Teaching and writing have finally merged together into a seamless whole. I recommend that everyone write a textbook or synthesis in mid-career!

An associate professor of history at Morgan State University, Lawrence A. Peskin is the coauthor of America and the World: Culture, Commerce, Conflict, and the author of Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry and Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785-1816, both also published by JHU Press. The views expressed here belong to the author and in no way reflect the official opinion of the JHU Press.