Paul J. Silvia: On Writing

This is the latest in a series of interviews with APA Books authors. For this interview, Linda McCarter, Senior Acquisitions Editor at APA Books, spoke with Paul Silvia, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He is the author of many journal articles and books, including Write It Up: Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles (2015); Public Speaking for Psychologists: A Lighthearted Guide to Research Presentations, Job Talks, and Other Opportunities to Embarrass Yourself (2010, with David B. Feldman); and the bestseller How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007).  In November, we published his most recent book, What Psychology Majors Could (and Should) Be Doing, Second Edition: A Guide to Research Experience, Professional Skills, and Your Options After College, with Peter F. DeLaney and Stuart Marcovitch.   

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

 

paul silvia

Paul J. Silvia, PhD, is a social-personality psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He has served as the director of the department’s honors program, and he teaches undergraduate courses on creativity, personality, academic writing, and professional skills.  

LM: You’ve been writing about writing for a long time. Has your own writing process changed over time? If so, how?

PS: My “process” is basically obdurate stubbornness: write according to a schedule, typically a bit every weekday morning. If we write a little every week, things will work out. People spend so much less time writing than they think they do.

The scheduled times, though, have changed. Having kids shifted my writing to much earlier in the morning than before, but I still write every weekday. I probably spend less time writing than I did in 2007 (around 10-12 hours a week instead of 20), but I use my time better and choose my writing commitments more carefully.

LM: What writers, academic or otherwise, have influenced you?

PS: My own sense of style owes much to William Zinsser and Sheridan Baker. Baker’s book The Practical Stylist had an enormous effect on my writing. My writing seems warmed-over if you read his book.

Anyone looking to write a book ought to read Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing, which mixes practical advice and quirky hilarity in a way I admire.

Beyond the books about writing, I owe a lot to two psychology professors I worked with as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California: Denis Mitchell and Shelley Duval. Denis Mitchell was the first person to explain to me that writing is the crux of all scholarship. He used to say “Write the book!” meaning that the people who are known for an idea are the ones who wrote review articles and books about it, not necessarily the ones who had the best ideas and did the best studies. It’s hard to unpack all that I learned from Shelley. He invited me to co-author a book with him even though I was still in grad school.

In hindsight, I can see how lucky I was to get such good mentorship as an undergrad, so undergraduate professional development is one of my passions.

LM: What are you reading currently? 

PS: In 2016 I combined two self-betterment goals: (1) waste less time reading online and spend more time with actual books, and (2) read the books I own before buying new ones. I’m going to roll this goal over in 2017 because I’ve been tearing through my shelves.

I tend to impulsively grab non-fiction books that seem interesting, so the topics are eccentric.

I just finished reading The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art, by Anjan Chatterjee. It’s an elegant and provocative book. Before that, I read Felix Martin’s Money: An Unauthorized Biography, a quirky history of the development of money over the centuries, and Alexis McCrossen’s Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life, a fascinating look at the concepts of time and modernity in American history.

Next up is probably Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy. (I’m trying to read the entire Oxford History of the United States).

LM: In November, we released the second edition of What Psychology Majors Could (and Should) Be Doing: An Informal Guide to Research Experience and Professional Skills, which you wrote with Peter Delaney and Stuart Marcovich. What do you think has changed since the first edition came out in 2009?  What should psychology majors be doing differently today, and what does the new book do differently?

PS: The post-college landscape is so different for psychology majors now. We wrote the first edition at the tail end of the boom years, when psychology majors easily found jobs right after college. Because of the bright economy, students handled career uncertainty more easily.

These days, the competition for graduate school spots and jobs is much more intense. I think students are thinking about their post-college life with a colder, more pragmatic eye. They want to know that something will be lined up after graduation.

The new edition resembles an all-new book. It is 50% longer and 40% less zany (let’s just say that not all jokes age well). We have much more to say about the world of work, writing CVs and personal statements, and about the nuts and bolts of preparing for jobs and for grad school.

write it upLM: What prompted you to write Write It Up, and how does it differ from How to Write A Lot?

PS: How to Write A Lot focused on motivational problems in writing, and I think most of its audience is outside of psychology. Write It Up is a “street level” look at writing empirical articles for fields that follow the APA Style Intro-Method-Results-Discussion format.

Like anything else, article writing is easier when you have some tricks, tips, and strategies. I try to distill what I learned the hard way and what others graciously taught me. It starts with picking projects worth writing up and choosing journals, shifts to writing the sections of the article, and ends with dealing with journals.

how to write a lotOddly, a theme of Write It Up is that we should probably write less. I think people should “write for impact” instead of for “mere publication.” People will accomplish more if they focus on their best ideas and craft their papers to be as compelling as possible.

I had wanted to write a book about how to write good journal articles for a long time. But most of these strategies are tacit, and I couldn’t work out my ideas on paper. It took me much, much longer to plan and write Write It Up than most of my other books.

For what it’s worth, I’m proudest of the writing in Write It Up. It was hard to pull off.

 

LM: On your research page, I noticed that one of your interests is interest. What first got you interested in interest? And how do you study interest?

PS: A person who studies interest and curiosity ought to have an answer to that, but I don’t. I suspect that I got into this field because my curiosity is easily tickled, and I take on new hobbies more often than is prudent for a grown man.

Most of my research on interest is done in the context of aesthetics and the arts. It’s a small but valiant area with some incredible researchers. It’s easier to study interest in a context like art than in other areas, like academic ideas, essays, or people.

LM: On a personal note, I know you like to buy and restore old watches. Are you working on any now? What is it about restoring watches that you find appealing?

PS: I do catch-and-release watchmaking as a hobby: find them, fix them, and let them back into the stream for someone else to use and enjoy.

A recent patient belongs to a friend of mine. It’s a big Elgin pocket watch from 1890 (a 15J “G.M. Wheeler” Grade 75, for the fans out there). It was the watch his grandfather used while working in a sawmill, and the case has some scary nicks in it. After that, I have a big pile of Illinois pocket watches waiting in intensive care. I blog about the watches I work on in what might be the world’s least necessary blog: AdjustingVintageWatches.com.

The inner workings of watches are so complex and elegant that it is amazing that people made them so long ago. Watches have dozens of absurdly tiny parts, some measured in the hundredths of millimeters. Placing a .08 mm staff into a .085 mm hole requires a patience and inner calm that doesn’t come naturally to me.

LM: Are you writing anything now?  

PS: The academic life has grant-writing seasons and book-writing seasons. I think the long, bitter winter of grant-writing is nearly over, and the book ideas are coming out of their houses and starting to shovel the sidewalks.

I write down all my ideas for books and articles, and I have around 30 book ideas. Around 18 of them are inane and 2 are good, but I don’t know which 2 yet.

 

 

Teacher Appreciation Day

Happy Teacher Appreciation Day! Over the years, our authors have written quite a lot for teachers. Here’s just a sampling:

APA book: College Teaching: Practical Insights From the Science of Teaching and Learning

College Teaching: Practical Insights From the Science of Teaching and Learning

This book is for beginning instructors as well as those who have been teaching at the college level for many years. Author Donelson Forsyth applies direct classroom experience with best practices from the science of teaching and learning.

Chapters address planning, lecturing, leading discussions, student-centered teaching methods such as collaborative or experiential activities, testing and grading, helping students through feedback and guidance, managing classroom dynamics, using technology effectively, and evaluating and documenting one’s contributions as a teacher.

Brief research analyses show why certain techniques work better than others. Through lively examples and prompts to continually personalize the material, readers learn how to structure their teaching and what to do to ensure their students are treated fairly.

 

APA book: Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology

Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology

The most popular activities from APA’s successful Activities Handbooks for the Teaching of Psychology are gathered together and updated in this book of teachers’ favorites. The lesson plans, which encourage active learning and involve the whole class, have stood the test of time and proven themselves to be entertaining, effective, and easy to plan.

Contributed by psychology teachers nationwide, the activities are most appropriate for courses at the college undergraduate or high school level, yet many are also applicable to more advanced classes. Both beginner and experienced teachers will appreciate the wide variety of teaching techniques described, including demonstrations, experiments, discussions, and simulations.

Each lesson plan is presented in an easy cookbook format that lists materials needed, timeframe, instructions, and discussion items. The activities are grouped by topic and cover history, statistics, and research methods; the brain and sensory processes; perception; states of consciousness; learning and memory; thinking, problem-solving, and language; motivation and emotion; developmental psychology; personality; psychological disorders and treatments; social psychology; and race, gender, and multiculturalism. Busy teachers will find themselves turning to this book over and over again for inspiration.

 

APA book: Activities for Teaching Positive Psychology: A Guide for Instructors

Activities for Teaching Positive Psychology: A Guide for Instructors

Positive psychology is a rapidly expanding area of study that is of great interest to students at the graduate, undergraduate, and high school levels. But the field is so broad that teachers who want to cover all the bases when designing a positive psychology course may have difficulty locating and selecting materials.

Activities for Teaching Positive Psychology addresses this problem by presenting a comprehensive set of fun, interactive classroom activities devised by contributors who are experienced teachers as well as leading scholars in their areas.

Chapters cover all the topics typically included in existing positive psychology textbooks, emphasizing the hands-on experience that makes positive psychology courses so powerful. Extensive reading lists point interested readers towards a fuller understanding of the topics.

The book is a rich source of ideas for all teachers of psychology, from novice to experienced instructors.

 

APA book: Teaching Ethically: Challenges and Opportunities

Teaching Ethically: Challenges and Opportunities

In this book, editors R. Eric Landrum and Maureen McCarthy identify four broad areas of concern in the ethical teaching of undergraduate psychology: pedagogy, student behavior, faculty behavior toward students, and considerations in the diverse classroom. Together with their team of experts, they provide evidence-based advice and case studies that illustrate the application of relevant ethical principles.

Ethical teachers need to reflect on commonly accepted practices and make individual decisions about responsible teaching behaviors, such as honoring individual differences and respectfully challenging beliefs. Other challenges examined in this book include grading, textbook adoption, honor systems, online instruction, and conducting and using research on pedagogy to improve classroom practice. Infusing the undergraduate experience with ethics is the focus of chapters on supervising student internships, coauthoring research with students, and modeling appropriate professional boundaries.

 

APA book: Evidence-Based Teaching for Higher Education

Evidence-Based Teaching for Higher Education

Over the past two decades, a growing body of scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) has emerged. This empirical study of teaching methods, course design, and students’ study practices has yielded invaluable information about how teachers teach and learners learn. Yet, university faculty members remain largely unaware of the findings of SoTL research. As a result, they tend to choose their teaching techniques and tools based on intuition and previous experience rather than on scientific evidence of effectiveness.

This book synthesizes SoTL findings to help teachers choose techniques and tools that maximize student learning. Evidence-based recommendations are provided regarding teacher–student rapport, online teaching, use of technology in the classroom (such as audience response systems, podcasting, blogs, and wikis), experiential learning (such as internships, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and in-class research projects), students’ study habits, and more.

In order to stimulate future SoTL research, the book also recommends numerous areas for future investigation. It concludes with advice for documenting teaching effectiveness for tenure review committees.

The Mid-Semester Blues: No Student is an Island

by Kristen Knight

This fall more than 20 million people will attend American colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. They will likely experience the satisfaction of learning new things and getting to know peers, among many highlights.

But students also can face a range of challenges, from financial and academic pressure to social and emotional stresses. In fact, the American College Health Association reported in 2014 that about 44% of college students surveyed said they felt above-average stress within the last 12-month period, about 47% said their coursework had been very difficult to handle, and about 86% felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities at some point in the past year.

Even without looking at the statistics, anyone who has ever attended university or helped someone prepare for college recognizes that the beginning of the school year can be exhilarating, but stressful. I know from experience that it is easy to feel rudderless at times. In the midst of the confusion, you may not realize that you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. It’s important to remember that there are many resources to help along the way.

APA author Donald Foss has supplied one such source. After decades spent teaching and in administration at the university level, Dr. Foss took a closer look at the factors that determine success in college. His evidence-based book, Your Complete Guide to College Success: How to Study Smart, Achieve Your Goals, and Enjoy Campus Life (2013), provides students with up-to-date information and insights about how to flourish in school and post-graduation.

Dr. Foss draws on research and the knowledge of professionals in the field—including his own—to address topics across the student-life spectrum, from academic success to career interests. The Guide begins with an “orientation,” covering the basics about the book and college life in general as well as personal space and time management, and it moves on to include sections on acing academics; managing goals, attitudes, and planning; using university resources, such as tutoring and staff expertise; dealing with challenging courses; and addressing specific facets of campus and commuting life.

I wish I’d had access to this book as a new college student. About studying, for example, Dr. Foss writes, “There is no need . . . to rely on trial and error to discover what works best. I’ll provide those pointers in this chapter and the following ones. The good news is that studying smarter is much better than studying longer.” Good news, indeed.

Later on in the book, Dr. Foss tackles attitudes and emotions and how they affect college life and academics. Wisely, he notes that “academic and personal issues can lead to restless nights and worse. Even positive emotions—especially affairs of the heart—can result in loss of focus to the point that class work suffers . . . we’ll take a closer look at your feelings and attitudes, and examine how you can make them work for you, even the feelings that start off being unpleasant.”

In fact, I feel I could still benefit from the book’s advice in my life as a “grown up.” Depending on where you are along the way in your educational journey, you may find one of APA’s many other student-oriented publications just as useful.

References

American College Health Association. (2014). American College Health Association National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2014. Retrieved from http://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/ACHA-NCHA-II_ReferenceGroup_ExecutiveSummary_Spring2014.pdf

Foss, D. J. (2013). Your complete guide to college success: How to study smart, achieve your goals, and enjoy campus life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Fast facts: Back to school statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372