The Unexpected Joy of Teaching Psychology Through Writing

david_myers
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“Of making many books there is no end.”

Ecclesiastes 12:12

The National Museum of Psychology’s invitation to gift my textbooks to their archives prompts me to pause and reflect on my team’s long-term educational mission—to help spread the contributions of psychological science to human understanding, over 40 years, in 22 languages.

My role began unexpectedly, after being invited to join seven other American social psychologists, and sixteen European colleagues, in a week-long research retreat at a castle near Munich. There I was providentially assigned to sit adjacent to University of Massachusetts professor Ivan Steiner. Six months later, in January of 1979, McGraw-Hill’s psychology editor, Nelson Black, called Steiner, circled at left, asking if he might help author a new social psychology text. Steiner demurred, but in the spur of the moment he gave them the name of a little-known social psychologist shown at right.

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Black’s ensuing out-of-the-blue phone call to me began months of conversation, which led to my agreeing—with considerable self-doubt—to risk the project (reasoning that even if the book flopped, I would at least become a more informed teacher). Fast-forward to 2024, and here are the fourteen editions of Social Psychology and nine editions of the brief Exploring Social Psychology (with recent editions now co-authored by Jean Twenge).

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Shortly after Social Psychology went into production, my editor, Alison Meerschaert, moved to Worth Publishers (now an imprint of Macmillan Learning). A week later, she called with an invitation to author an introductory psychology text. After more weeks of pondering, I accepted. Fast-forward 40 years, and here are the resulting 50 editions of varied length and format, including special editions for the mushrooming population—now 300,000+ annually—of AP Psychology students. (For recent editions, Nathan DeWall and June Gruber have joined our team as co-authors, as has Elizabeth Hammer for our new AP edition.)

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A word on behalf of oft-maligned textbooks: Textbooks are no substitute for caring teachers, who can personalize instruction with enthusiasm, give-and-take discussion, and engaging demonstrations. But compared with home-brewed or most free online materials, the best publisher-provided texts are more thoroughly comprehensive, meticulously edited, professionally reviewed, frequently updated, attractively illustrated, and accompanied by interactive resources and tested pedagogy.

While reading and reporting on my discipline's fruits, I have occasionally felt an urge to share its wisdom with those outside the academic realm. I have fed that itch in these periodic TalkPsych essays, and also in general-audience books exploring topics such as the scientific pursuit of happiness, the powers and perils of intuition, the psychology of hearing loss, and the meeting ground between psychological science and faith.

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In The World’s Last Night, C. S. Lewis described “two sorts of jobs”:

Of one sort, a [person] can truly say, “I am doing work which is worth doing. It would still be worth doing if nobody paid for it. But as I have no private means, and need to be fed and housed and clothed, I must be paid while I do it.” The other kind of job is that in which people do work whose sole purpose is that of the earning of money; work which need not be, ought not to be, or would not be, done by anyone in the whole world unless it were paid.

How blessed I am to have the first sort of job—to be tasked with discerning and communicating wisdom gleaned from the most fascinating subject on Earth, and hopefully, also, with expanding minds, deepening understanding, increasing compassion, arousing curiosity, cultivating critical thinking, and, as a gratifying by-product, with being philanthropic. How blessed, and fortunate: If I relived my life a thousand times—sans that providential castle seating assignment and name-dropping—I surely would never have become a textbook author.

Moreover, I have been blessed to work on a creative team that loves its mission and loves one another. Although one name appears on most of these covers, the pack is greater than the wolf. For my introductory psychology texts, our pack has included many, some of whom I’ll mention:

  • Jack Ridl. My books all acknowledge “the editing assistance and mentoring of my writing coach, poet Jack Ridl, a master writing teacher [Michigan’s 1996 Carnegie Professor of the Year]. He, more than anyone, cultivated my delight in dancing with the language, and taught me to approach writing as a craft that shades into art.”

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  • Phyllis Vandervelde and Sara Neevel, our meticulous manuscript developers until their premature deaths,
  • Kathryn Brownson, my in-house project manager/researcher/editor of 25 years,
  • Christine Brune, my Worth/Macmillan editor/guide of 37 years—surely one of the most enduring author/editor collaborations in American publishing (with 53,404 exchanged emails since 2000),
  • Carlise Stembridge, our executive program manager of 19 years,
  • Catherine Woods and Kevin Feyen, our senior publishers across decades,
  • Tracey Kuehn and Won McIntosh, our managing (production) editors,
  • Talia Green, our associate project manager,
  • Charles Linsmeier and Shani Fisher, VPs who oversee us all,
  • Betty Probert, our longest-serving team member, and painstaking editor of pedagogical supplements,
  • Nancy Fleming, Danielle Slevens, Trish Morgan, and Ann Kirby-Payne, our gifted manuscript editors (Trish also edits this blog), and
  • psychologist colleagues Tom Ludwig, Rick Straub, Martin Bolt, and John Brink who independently authored the highest quality text-accompanying teaching/learning resources . . . and, also, my supportive colleagues in the Hope College psychology department, who have offered for their gifts of space, freedom, and encouragement.

Other team members have put our words into millions of student hands. These include our longtime marketing exec Kate Nurre (and her predecessors, including Kate Geraghty and Renee Altier). They supported the on-the-ground sales team, led by legends such as Tom Kling, Bill Davis, Rory Baruth, Guy Geraghty, Jen Cawsey, and Greg David. Our privilege of supporting AP Psychology teachers and their students has been enabled by the success of Janie Pierce-Bratcher, Ann Heath, Yolanda Cossio, and their many colleagues.

Kudos also to Worth Publishers and its parent Macmillan Learning for investing in quality. As I first contemplated this project, publisher-owner Bob Worth explained that his simple aim was “to produce a few Mercedes rather than a lot of Chevys.” He made good on that promise, investing his resources in world-class talent, and in networking us all, as in our triennial book planning retreats:

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With more texts in the works, we have, God-willing, miles to go before we sleep. At age 81, still in my Hope College office, I look above my monitor at the encouraging onward nudge from Psalm 92:14: “They will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green.”

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves? Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on X: @davidgmyers.)

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1 Comment
EdBecker
Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

Dave - an incredible legacy.  I was fearful this might be your good-bye message until I read the last few sentences.  I am not willing to see you leave anytime soon, so stay healthy and passionate, the latter I have no doubt will endure forever.  My friend Dave.