Pleasures & Perils of Writing Non-Fiction, Post #4
Post #3 discussed Phase One of non-fiction writing: locating and collecting accurate information. Let’s think more about that.
Post #3 suggested that non-fiction authors always use documents of one kind or another. OK, not always. There’s another way: direct contact with human sources. One can interview or, better, observe or “shadow” people to better appreciate the nuances of their situation.
Historians work very largely with documents. But if they’re dealing with the recent past, they’re dead keen to interview participants in the events they’re recounting. This wasn’t a source I could consider for my history book, “The Aptitude Myth,” which begins in the days of Aristotle and ends in 1926.
Typically, my work relies on the reports of anthropologists, those intrepid “participant-observers.” Reflect on what it feels like to travel alone to a location that, often, is totally off the grid, to live for months or longer with strangers whose language you speak haltingly, and to take copious notes on everything they’re doing and how they think about it. I have unbounded respect and admiration for that undertaking, which might explain why I’m drawn to the reports of anthropologists and want to help others become aware of their insights.
(Once I did a somewhat similar project. This was for my doctoral dissertation. I lived in a New England town for three months and attended middle- and high-schools almost every day, sitting at the back of classrooms. I interviewed students, teachers, administrators, and parents. My goal? To understand the experience of immigrant Portuguese students in American schools. My discovery? They found our schools laughably easy, “not serious.”)
These anthropologists whom I respect and admire, could I actually meet a few? Worth a try! Some declined because they’d never heard of me and I don’t hold a university post. Persistence paid off and I spent a few hours with three of them.
Dr. Jin Li of Brown University was the first scholar I met. She has a fascinating background: As a child during the Cultural Revolution, she was “sent down” to the countryside. Later, she excelled in Chinese schools. After coming to the U.S., she got a job as a substitute teacher (of German!) in a Vermont high school. She was appalled by what she experienced there. Li’s Harvard dissertation was published as “Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West,” on which I draw in both my books.
Dr. James Stigler of UCLA is the living scholar most extensively involved in the decades-long research effort to discover why East Asian students learn more effectively. He co-authored “The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education,” which was unusual in being written for the general public. Stigler wrote an endorsement for “A Mirror for Americans,” which appears on its back cover and includes this: “As one of the researchers whose work is included, I can say that Grove gets it right.” :-)
Dr. David Lancy of Utah State University was not involved in the East Asian research. He collects and analyzes the works of scholars of all types who explore how children are raised and socialized worldwide, including in societies that flourished in the distant past. Lancy’s magnum opus is “The Anthropology of Childhood.” This book’s bibliography is 104 pages long, and its Index of Societies lists 450+ including all the usual ones plus Pirahã, Qashqa’i, Baulè, !Kung, and many others that people don’t know exist but where scholars have studied children and parenting. Lancy recently tried his hand at a book intended for the general public: “Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures.”