Writing an Unusual, Interesting, Challenging, and Empowering Book
Doug Irvin-Erickson and I are in the home stretch of writing our peace and conflict studies textbook. That means that we have two challenges. Finishing the few topics we haven’t fully covered yet. Pulling the whole thing together so that in a way that grabs the attention of its readers. Although we had planned to focus on the former for the next few weeks, our bosses (aka our editors at Rowman and Littlefield) asked us to do the latter. In the end, we realized we have been writing an unusual book because we felt the need to make it interesting, challenging, and empowering. Unusual, interesting, challenging, and empowering are rarely words one associates with textbook, so I thought it would be useful to spell out why we are doing so in a blog post that will, in turn, help us polish the final draft of the all-important first chapter.
This was (relatively) easy. Peace and conflict studies has little in common with comparative politics, which I’ve also written textbooks about. Done right, courses in peace and conflict studies have to help people see and then question “big picture” assumptions we all make about the problems that trouble our world. The hard part is to make that clear from the beginning of the book. So, we start p. 1 by having the students put the book down and do an exercise in which they map a global or national issue of their own choosing. They may not realize it, but in so doing, they built an agenda for the entire book, the course they are taking, and potentially for the rest of their lives.
We both have spent the bulk of our careers as academics. We have therefore seen our colleagues make interesting and controversial seem tedious. Given our subject matter, we can’t afford to do that. So, we started out with decisions not to use jargon, to pick interesting examples, and integrate the book into a website that could serve as an online platform for peace and conflict studies in general. We also knew that neither our field nor our prose would likely lend themselves to a blockbuster movie. Nonetheless, we saw enough twists and turns in its story arc to build at least a bit of drama into the book as we show how our colleagues grappled with unexpected and mind-boggling events like the end of the Cold War and the 9/11, both of which dramatically altered the way we did our work.
It is not hard to make a book on peace and conflict resolution challenging. In fact, it would be dishonest of us to not make the challenges we face as clear as possible. In our case, mastering the material is not all that challenging. However, doing something about it is. We both see our challenge in a potential final exam question for a course in comparative politics that a student asked me thirty years ago. The world is messed up. Discuss. I used it. It produced the best and most depressing set of final exams I ever read. It also led me on the challenging path I am on now—convincing people that we need something akin to a paradigm shift and that forging one is at least plausible.
Peace and conflict studies is not like comparative politics or most other typical introductory courses. Most students typically take courses in which our book might be assigned in part because they want to make a difference. Many are even thinking about building a career in the field. I can count on my fingers the number of students who have done that in comparative politics. So, we will be including a chapter on how readers can become part of the world(s) of peacebuilding and conflict resolution during the rest of their lives at the end of the book.
In keeping with our desire to make the book unusual and interesting, we have asked the students in Doug’s introductory course to help us write final papers on what they think the future of the field should be and how they could fit into it. In both cases, they have to justify their answers. If they don’t think there is a place for them, that’s fine as long as they explain why.
And, to make the last chapters of the book even more unusual, we will be writing them with two remarkable young women who took the course not so long ago. Nora Malatinszky took the course with Doug at George Mason a year ago and has been work with us ever since. Bethany Gen took the equivalent course at Chip’s beloved Oberlin last spring and has been teaching him about gender-related issues in peacebuilding ever since.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.