StudentsThe following is an excerpt from a letter by Karl Barth to Prof. Georges Casalis on 26 June, 1964. (Barth, “162a” in Letters 1961-1968, 167). I liked it because of its implications for educators/teachers and students like me.

Barth wrote this letter to Casalis, after an article titled “Students” appeared Le Semeur, a French Christian student journal, No. 3, 1964.

“…these students are people who neither can nor will study. Work bores them… this does not prevent them from acting like gravediggers [studying dead philosophers who have nothing of value to say, even]… Barth–myself. And to call all this “the search for a new ethics!” And to publish it all….
“What does all this mean? I implore you… to try to make these poor sheep understand–by your teaching and example–what it is to study, not in order to pass examinations, but because of the necessity and beauty of serious and regular intellectual work the savor of which seems to be strange [to them].”

To ask if God educates by distance is not a question asked for the sake of being silly. I’m wondering this because our college is exploring the possibilities of online education (earlier called “distance education” but now I guess no one likes the negative connotation of distance). The college I teach in is encouraging the faculty (including me) to do a few online courses ourselves. It’s a wonderful idea to help skeptics become comfortable with the process and see first-hand the possibilities in store.

But as I embark in my reading about online/by-distance study, I’m quite surprised by the overwhelming positive literature around the subject. It’s hard to find critical (negative) material that argues against online education. Recently, I read one article (It was course reading, author was not named) that stated that “transforming” students was the goal of education, and that we should also focus on the “end goal” of teaching—the transformation of students. The author shows is to be theologically consistent, because, according to him, even Paul was focussed on the end goal, the transformation of the believers. The implication is if the “end goal” is the transformation of students, then the delivery method (online or on-campus) of getting there, should not matter. The article further argues that “presence” of the community and the teacher need not be a face-to-face presence. A virtual presence, especially where the teacher is able to listen to the real concerns of students and interact with/responds to it, is just as present. Furthermore, this presence if acted out well, it is as effective (sometimes even more effective) to achieve the end goal.

This argument is tough to refute because it challenges the notion held by educators like me who state that transformation can only (can mostly) happen on-campus. We think that face-to-face learning is the (best?) way (method) students learn to apply ideas, learn to practice what they have been preached, and even be transformed in the likeness of Jesus. But now, this article, argues that transformer does not need face-to-face, physical presence, rather a virtual presence is just a real and effective.

If this is true, if physical presence is not necessary for transformation, then, to visit the opening question, could God actually be the ultimate distance educator?

To the world, and even to many of us Christians, God is mostly invisible. We know He is here, but we cannot see Him. He communicates, but to most of us it is not through an audible voice (that we associate with face-to-face), but with his word (Holy “text book”, even a holy “email”?!). And while he encourages us to join a cohort (local church), the larger church seems to be virtual (a “universal” church that we cannot see, but believe exists).

I’m not trying to be funny. Though it could be (esp. the Holy email part). But my point is to ask whether we’ve gotten distance all wrong and rather than focus on presence or absence, we should focus on effectiveness to transform. The idea that God’s presence is actual can be debated… because if we cannot see God, then perhaps we need to redefine what is meant by “actual” presence. And again, what if the fact that we can feel/experience his EFFECT, becomes the argument for presence rather than material presence. So, rather than the fact that we need to set a seat for him to sit next to us, we see God’s effect because we are being “sanctified” in the daily grind of life, guided by the word, through the invisible Spirit. So, it can be argued, that God cares more about whether we are changed/whether we grow, rather than whether we can see him face-to-face.

Something seems wrong. But I’m not able to put my finger on it. Ok, maybe I can.

It’s the incarnation. If God could change us/transform us through His invisible presence working visibly for an effect on our behalf, there may have been no need for Jesus to walk amongst us. The necessity of the Son of God, becoming human/coming to earth, walking with the disciples, challenges us to think of God in purely “distance” terms.

After Jesus, the Spirit, yes, is present. Yet apart from some charismatics/Pentecostals, I doubt many Christians experience the Spirit as a being who walks next to them. The reality, again, becomes invisible. So we’re back to the first question, does God eventually become a “by distance” educator?

Well… the problem of seeing the spirit as an invisible being is really where the theological problem lies. We cannot see the Spirit, not because the Spirit cannot be seen, but because “we” are not able to see the Spirit. Our eyes our not clear enough, our vision is not capable of seeing the all-present, all-powerful One. That invisibility does not make God invisible, but rather it points to our inability to see. Perhaps like blind students in a class, we use other senses to see and experience God’s “presence” but God is still present. He is not far away, he is not absent, He is not even invisible. It is that reason why Jesus comforts his disciples that he is not leaving them (us) like orphans. Another (the Holy Spirit) is coming. Has come. Here. With us. God is here.

So, is God a by-distance educator? No. His invisibility should not be thought of as lack of material presence. God is here, in time-and-space. In the living Church. In our lives. He is affecting the change, not giving us suggestions to change. He is helping us understand His word, he’s not giving us an assignment/test to understand His word. He is here.

All this does not mean that by-distance education is bad. Distance (online) education can, and probably is, still good. But I’m glad that God is not a by-distance educator.

I just submitted final grades for the last time. This means that today marks my last day teaching online. :( For the past 3+ years, I’ve been an online adjunct faculty member at a university here i…

Source: Why today is my last day teaching online…

This above article represents the voice of those who have “tried and are still negative” about online education. Admittedly, they are rare. And unsurprisingly I am biased towards it.

Nevertheless, one significant point in the article is to highlight that “learning experiences” are more important than getting the right answers etc.

This above is such an important point that it applies to all on-campus learning, not just online learning. I doubt many of us teachers focus on the learning experiences of our students… instead, many of us focus on getting the message/ideas across, or even ensuring that the students perform to the best (or better) of their capacity.

In contrast, the focus on learning experience is not just student centred, but enables the focus to shift from what is being taught to how it is being learned/apprehended. The struggle and eventual success of finding a book in the library, is a learning experience. The disagreement with fellow student, and then suddenly seeing his/her perspective, is a learning experience. Changing my mind by adopting a new idea, is a learning experience. Even getting questions, real questions, answered is a learning experience.

That is, and should(?) be, the focus of education. Too often however we ignore and/or bypass and fail to evaluate of these learning experiences, and rather we stick to the traditional approach of “testing” (assignments included).

Can there be an improved focus on the learning experience by the students, in classroom teaching? Can there be an improved focus on the learning experience in online education?

Good questions, no answer just yet.

online-learning

Whose online is it anyway? (image source: dynamicrecruit.com)

(edited heavily two hours after I first wrote this article)

Oh I hate it! I really hate online education. It seems everyone is being forced to move in this direction. And so, inevitably, even I’m being made to do a course to learn its supposed benefits and learn how best to do online education. Grrrr!!

OK, with that rant out of the way, tone down time. :)

My “hate it” is an overstatement. Because I do value online education. Much of my own learning has shifted online. Even as I continue to learn (informally), I rely on online books/journals, online news, online discussions and even online Bibles. Almost all my learning requires the internet in some way or the other. So, you can see, “irony!”

So, let me rephrase. I don’t “hate” online education. I fear it. I fear the trend towards online education is not fully thought through by the many colleges that are using it (this is not a factual statement, only a gut feeling). I fear that many of the faculty who deliver online education are not trained in using its strengths. I fear that many of the students who want online education only want it for the sake of easy certification.

But as I think about it, nothing I’ve said above is the fault of the online medium. Poorly prepared faculty and poorly motivated students are problem that residential seminaries have been facing for ages.

So what’s the big deal? Why is it that I resist online education so much?

I think I resist online education because I fear/dislike bad education. Whether its online or not, “bad” education hurts the learner. For instance, “bad” education is when the teacher expects without empowering; when the teacher discounts the student’s prior learning, ignoring how much the student already knows and instead reinforces the notion that the student does not know, or does not know enough. In a similar way, by failing to recognise the true level where each student is at, the “bad” educator is unable to help (empower) the student to move from a “C” grade to a “B” grade, and instead makes them feel guilty for not meeting the “A” grade. For the “bad” educator, a “bad” student is always to blame.

The reason why all the “bad”s above are in quotes, is because I’m aware that my designation of “bad” is problematic, whether it applies to teachers or students. Motives are indiscernible. I am in no position to judge an educator, even as educators rarely understand their students. I remember, for instance, having some teachers in school who labelled me as good, when I was actually slacking in their class. And some teachers who labelled me bad, even though I was trying really hard to survive in their class.  I felt that teachers had no real clue (or seemed to have no clue) what was really going on in me, and so I developed  a kind of cynicism of learning. I tried to fool my teachers into believing something positive about me (controlling the narrative), rather than use the class time to engage in the pursuit of knowledge (an example was to ask questions at key moments in class, to look like an interested learner).

Sadly, to my loss and discredit, some of my teachers were excellent (from what I can remember). Many made an extra effort to reach out to me, to try to help me understand. Some were gracious to me and helped me pass, even when I didn’t deserve to. But I think I was too far gone down the path of educational-cynicism to recognise their sacrificial efforts.

Ironically, a transformation for me began in college when the “teacher” was removed from the equation, when there was no teacher to impress. Funnily, it was the Indian examination system, where all that matters is an external exam and not what a teacher thinks, that gave me a new desire to learn. All I had was the college library and an examination date, and I had to find my own motivation to study. I could have gone off the rails, so to speak, but by some miracle I didn’t. And instead, that’s when I had my biggest breakthrough. I became self-motivated and started learning, for learning sake.

And if what I’ve just written looks like an affirmation to self-directed learning of the online system, it’s not. My realisation then was that now that I understood what I was reading, I would have loved some more help. I would have loved guidance on whether I was on the right track. But when my designated teachers were not able to sense my change, and incapable of helping me improve, I had to rely on myself and somehow (through a miracle) I survived. Not everyone does. Not everyone will.

So when, through another miracle, I became a teacher, I decided to be the opposite of the “bad” teachers I remembered. I decided to be alert to the challenges of the educational system. I  walked with my students to the library, much like one of my favourite teachers had done. I tried to be a guide, a helper. I attempted, even though the workload would make it difficult, to stand as much as is possible with students. I also tried to break institutional status quo’s (which I felt worked against learning). All this I tried to practice outside the classroom. But also inside the classroom. I tried to develop lesson plans after seeing what level each of the students were in, and try and adapt courses accordingly. In effect, every course I ever taught was different. I would have talks with the students before hand, to try and see what they needed, and meet those particular needs through classroom discussions. I would also be open to changing course directions mid-way, especially if something was not working right. It was an obsession, to help students. To understand them. To, as much as is possible, learn with them. This, I believed, was “good” education.

Sadly, while sometimes I succeeded, many times I failed. I found that when I adapted courses to meet student needs, students felt I was erratic. When I tried to move against status quo, it was said that I made students uncomfortable. When I tried to walk with students, and work with them, I was “over helping” and not allowing them to think for themselves. And when I still did all of the above, and more, I was stressed, over-worked, and feeling there was no point of “good” education because there was no visible positive result. With all good intentions, I was neither understanding the students, nor doing myself any favours.

I realised, then, that it was probably not that my previous teachers were bad. Perhaps it was the system that was problematic, a system that did not provide the teachers with adequate resources (time, training, space) to truly understand the students, or even work individually with each one. Similarly, it was not that all students were bad. But that some students were just too far down the road of cynicism to benefit from the efforts of teachers. And even the good teachers must have struggled with disappointment when students like me showed no sign of improvement.

All this above points to the failure (challenges) of on-campus education, but it makes me all the more guarded against online education. I feel that the effort that I have (and continue to) put into on-campus education must at least have some limited benefit. There is hope that somehow the hours spent with students is part of their holistic development. But with online education, even the little that has been possible, would no longer be possible. I would no longer be able to look into a student’s eyes, would not be able to see their body-language, would not be able to gauge where the student really is (regardless of where they think they are). I feel that adapting course work to suit students need would no longer be possible and instead, students would hide behind their online presence and easily manipulate their teachers.

Even as I type this longish note, I realise that my fear of online learning emerges from a sense of current disappointment with on-campus learning. I believe in good education, but I don’t think I am a successful educator.I feel I still need to improve in sensing what the students need and how to truly meet that need.

I also realise that if knowing a student better, and moulding content to suit her/his needs is good teaching, then I need to find out ways to do that online. Not everyone knows how to hide their “real” self online. There are clues, there are ways to determine what a student knows and what a student expects. The easiest way, perhaps, is to simply ask them. Not everyone is a closed book, not everyone is impossible to read. And importantly, if I’m not able to discern the signs of students online, then I’m the one that needs to change and grow/improve in that ability. If it’s important for me to understand who the students really are, then I should try to find out ways to determine that through the online medium. There is no absolute knowledge of a student possible, even if I was face to face (as I have demonstrated in my on-campus frustrations), so perhaps only “adequate” knowledge is possible online as well.

All this to say again, I doubt whether we can argue that “knowledge of a student” and “flexibility in course design” are sure ways to guarantee good learning. In my case, for instance, it was a terrible examination system that led to my biggest learning opportunity.  Could then the online medium, still be a successful learning medium, so that true learning happens despite it or even because of it?

So, what began as hate note, has become a hesitant call to action. An assertion that we (I) must be willing to give online education a chance. So that what I think is important in “good”education, will be preserved (even if differently) through a different medium. After all, all learning is learning, all good education is good education, regardless of medium.

———————————————————

With all this said, here below is a link to a site that criticises online educators/education. I hope I will not fall into these traps:

http://www.geteducated.com/elearning-education-blog/5-things-real-students-hate-about-online-learning-degrees/

Research Methodology

My Research Methodology class.

I’m struggling at the moment to build / rebuild my curriculum for Research Methodology. I have been teaching Research Methodology for the past three years to MTh/MPhil level students (and sometimes DMin and PhD) at SAIACS, the theological institution where I work. The course, like in many other institutions, is mandatory and all students have to take it at the beginning of their programme.

I was initially happy for the opportunity to work with this subject, mainly because it gave me to the opportunity to impact students who had just joined the college… give them a good start, so to speak. I was also given a lot of freedom to devise the course as I wished. During my course planning, I was also exposed to expectational teacher-training material, particularly action and objective based learning, where the goal for the students was more the focus than the goal for the teacher.

I planned a really good course, I made it exciting and practical (I thought), and it turned out to be one of the best courses I had ever taught. However, a few weeks later, after my course, about 6 of my students were caught plagiarising, and they confessed to their teachers that they still did not understand the rules (I had taught them the rules). Then, a few months later, when I began to work with a few students from my class (within my specialisation), for building their thesis research proposals, I found that none of them remembered my rules/methods of research. All those exciting classes were as if they did not even exist. I had to start from scratch, helping students understand many basic elements of research and even had to go through the rules of plagiarism and formatting again. At that point I really felt like a failure. I couldn’t believe that after so much hard work, there was so little positive to show for it. I couldn’t help but think that something was wrong… in my teaching methodology, in the students, but also perhaps in the course itself.

After much reflection, and as I redesign the Research Methodology course yet again (I will be teaching it in June), I have at least identified a few problems.

A few of my struggles with the Research Methodology course are as follows:

i) The pace is too fast. In my own experience, I learned research by doing research through my long academic journey as a student. My Research Methodolgy course was not where I learned Research Methods, but over a period of several courses and years of trial and error. Research Methodology thus comes too soon, and attempts too much, in a short period of time. Many ideas of research are actually (in the developing world setting) fundamentally new for students (let alone some weakness in English), and I envisage that it could take more than a few courses/months to correct primary academic/thinking flaws.

ii) Spiritual vs academic. Research methodology is also a terrible “first” course for students entering seminary/theological colleges, because many of us come to such places with a “spiritual” goal, but the first course is as “non” spiritual as it gets. It’s hard to bring in theology consistently while teaching formatting rules, style guides, categorisations, argument construction etc.

iii) The institutional expectations tend to be unrealistic. Students, after doing this one-month course, are held accountable for understanding not just the Institutional rules (like footnote styles / formatting etc), but also, critical thinking skills, general research methodology skills, and sometimes most importantly, the ability to break a life-long habit of plagiarism. In my experience, most students, me too, learned most of these skills over time… but having a month, at the beginning of the academic year, with the students mostly just getting adjusted to the institution, its expectations and its ethos, there is just not enough time to achieve all this.

iv) The students are just not able to learn theory before practice. While I have tried making my class “practical” with lot of discussion, practical assignments… etc… there is no way I can prepare a student for what she/he will actually face in their first assignment and beyond. Learning the skills in abstract, separated from the real-life scenarios that the student will face (not just assignments, but departmental teacher-expectations), is actually no learning at all. Students are able to grasp the concepts in the month I teach, but they find themselves having to learn entirely new methodologies, ways of writing, researching, when the teachers gave courses. Ultimately, students adopt a practical methodology, a way of writing papers that is often completely different (even opposite) to the “theory” of research that I have been teaching. And naturally so. How much better would it be to work WITH students whlie they do their courses… while they do their assignments. In fact, focus on different aspects of research methodology for different courses/assignments. (perhaps within this is the natural problem of higher education where we teaching theories/theologies outside the real-life context of the world/church… as a result, here too students are faced with a dichotomy between theory and practice).

v) Large classes. Again, I think I did a good job putting people in smaller groups, getting discussions and activities within a smaller unit of the large classes. Yet, it was still evident that different students were learning at different paces, and especially the weaker students were getting left behind. (The stronger students, ironically, did not even need the research methodology course because they intuitively seemed to get everything).

vi) It’s not as much fun as actual research. As much as I try to make the students “do” research in the class, I find that the focus of learning skills is less exciting than actually going out and asking/answering questions. In a sense, what else is research methods but the learning to ask the right questions and finding the right way to answer those questions. And yet, the course focuses on meta issues, and addresses the needs/lacks that the institution finds in the students, rather than emerging as a need that the students themselves have, and thus want to find ways to solve/find help in.

So that’s just a brief list. In my more negative days, this list is longer. And I must admit that I have considered quiting teaching this subject. But I do feel that while some problems cannot be changed (like the course timing), perhaps the last point (vi), where I make this subject really something that students feel they need help in… to help students identify their own problems so that they seek out the solutions… could actually bring more lasting impact/change/help in them.

 

I realised that I haven’t actually noted that the book is released on this blog, and so here’s the announcement. A little late, yes, but still… it is exciting. :)

What is Religion? A Theological Answer

What is Religion? Front Cover of the South Asian edition

The South Asian edition of my book, What is Religion? A Theological Answer is finally out. While the first time I held the Wipf & Stock edition (2013) was exciting, this edition is very very special because it is a subsidized price edition that makes it more accessible to the initial intended audience.

The original Wipf & Stock edition and the South Asian edition are essentially the same, though the formatting of the South Asian edition is different (as well as the paper thickness) and so the number of pages of the South Asian Edition is more. The South Asian edition also has a few corrections, which I have informed Wipf & Stock about, and hopefully they will be correcting their edition as well. Details of the changes are in the South Asian preface. I am grateful to Wipf & Stock for entering…

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This post tells my “user” experience of getting mGoogle-book-reviewsy book listed on Google Books.

I was surprised to see that my book What is Religion? published in the US by Wipf & Stock was not listed on Google Books after several months. I thus thought that the process was probably complicated. So when I began to delve into this issue for the South Asian edition, I was surprised to find that listing a book on Google Books wasn’t that complicated at all… especially, if you have connections with the publisher and the designer.

Preliminaries

Step 1. Get your publisher to agree to put the book on Google books. I found that there was some understandable hesitancy on behalf of my Indian publishers, like how much of the book will be visible etc. However, in principle my publishers were happy to have the book listed and also have me to do it for them.

Step 2: Have the pdf file ready. (Hopefully, your publisher can trust you with a pdf layout of the book. I put the cover and the backcover within the pdf, so that there would be no need to upload a cover separately).\

The Google process

Step 3. Register as Partner: Go to Google books (https://play.google.com/books/publish/) and register as a partner. You need to have a google id, but you also need to be clear that you represent as author or as the publisher. Because my publisher authorised me to proceed with Google books, I acted as the publisher.  There is also an option to add a “user”, so I added my publisher’s email id as well, so that my publisher could also add information or books at a later stage.

Step 4. Add the book: I was then asked to “Add book” for which I needed the ISBN number handy as well as all the details about the book. The procedure is pretty simple if you follow the instructions. (The “template” is applicable if you want to publish multiple books and so having a template is handy so you can keep certain fields (like name and address of publisher unchanged).

Step 4+: Visible Pages: I had to specify how much of the book was visible. The minimum is 20%. I would have liked more of the book to be searchable, but I felt my publisher would probably want restricted access. Which, again, is fair. But what’s interesting here is that I could essentially keep changing this amount whenever I want. So in a few years, once the book is no longer in demand, I could increase the amount of the book that is available for viewing… all the way up to 100% if needed.

Step 4++: Specify Region Rights: One of the interesting things Google does is that asks you to state your publishing region “rights”. In the case of my publisher, they had the Global (World) rights for most of the books they published. However, for my book, we only had the Asian/South Asian rights. Sadly, there was no option to include only Asia/South Asia… so I had to manually enter the two letter country codes (which I found in a Wikipedia site), for each of the countries I wanted Google books to be visible. So, sadly, if someone is in the US, they will not be able to see the Google books editon of my book… but that also protects the territorial rights of publishers, which I respect.

Step 5. Upload Content: In the “add content” add your single pdf file (which includes front and back cover) so that you don’t have to upload multiple content pages.

Step 6. Payment profile: Now by default, Google books gets a book ready for Google play; which is their ebook portfolio. Thus, if you set up a payment profile, you can actually list the book for sale in Google Play Store and the ebook could be available for purchase. My publisher was a little more nervous about this, because giving google their bank account number was not something that they were interested in. And since I didn’t specifically have the ebooks rights of my book (Wipf & Stock didn’t specify, but I’m assuming that’s the case), I had to manually disable this option. Note that if you publish the book on google play and not provide a payment profile, then it after uploading you will get an error.

Step 6+. Where to buy?: Even if you do not want to set up a payment profile, Google will ask you to specify where to buy the book. If you have a site (and it should be your official site) that sells the book, then Google will list it first among all the other sites where the book could be available.

Step 6++. eCopy for reviewer: One interesting thing Google offers is that you can enable “reviewers” to have a copy to be readable online, as if the book was being read on Google Play Store. By giving a particular email id, that recipient would get full access to the electronic version of the book. I could, then, remove the rights of the Reviewer at anytime. This I found useful for sharing to people who wanted to have a look at the book before committing to buy it.

Step 7. Waiting: Finally, after all the options are entered, you wait. First the book gets uploaded, then it gets listed. But then, I had to wait for a little over a week before the book could be searchable on the Google search engine. In fact, it was really sad to see the book on Google books, but Google itself not being able to “find it”. Nor were the words in the book searchable during that stage. I even sent a mail to google to enquire if there was something wrong, and they wrote back saying that they were facing some technical difficulties, but should get it sorted soon. So perhaps that week-long delay is abnormal.

Now my book and the other two books I uploaded for my publisher are on Google and searchable.  It’s great to see, and easy enough to do.

And to prove that it works, here are the links to the books I uploaded on Google Books:

What is Religion? http://books.google.co.in/books?vid=ISBN9788187712329&redir_esc=y

Christians in the Public Square: http://books.google.co.in/books/about?id=3ICgAgAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y

Indian and Christian: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=uJmgAgAAQBAJ&dq

 

 

After publishing What is Religion? A Theological Answer through Wipf & Stock (US), I was ready to begin work on the South Asian edition.

Wipf & Stock had made me change my Indian spellings into US spellings (so “Saviour” became “Savior”). I decided to edit my document again for the South Asian edition and change the spellings back to the Indian (UK) spellings in which my work was original written. The other change I made was to make my quotation indents more in tune with SAIACS style guide (4-lines-or-more are indented). Wipf & Stock style guide says 8-lines-or-more are indented, which meant many of my crucial quotes were merged into the text and not highlighted as I had wanted them to be. Naturally this resulted in a change in page numbers, and yes, a change in index as well.

My mentor, Cor, strongly advised against making any changes, especially since they could change page numbers. He urged me to keep consistent page numbers to avoid confusion. But there was both political (“Indian”) and personal interest (indenting) and so I went ahead and made the change.

Shockingly, I found a few more errors in my manuscript. So I changed them in the South Asian edition and informed Wipf & Stock of the same. Wipf & Stock uses a print-to-order press, so I hoped that the few errors I did find could be corrected in a later run. With a revised layout, revised index, and even revised cover in place, I was ready to submit my document to my Indian publisher.

Ironically, and completely unexpectedly, my Indian publisher said that they were not currently ready to print my work. I had simply assumed that they would print my manuscript, once I submitted it. However, I was shocked to learn that due to a financial crunch, my manuscript was low in the priority of projects.

They did say that they wanted to publish my work, but only “not yet.” If I wanted to expedite the process, they said, I could help cover the cost of printing. But that was certainly way beyond my ability, so I had to agree to put the project on hold.

That was a big blow, something I had not considered. And so I asked my Indian publisher if I could look for alternative publishers. They agreed.

Looking for alternative publishers was itself another long process, and surprisingly for me more complex than printing/publishing in the West. I basically offered Indian publishers two choices. 1) I asked publishers whether they would co-publish the South Asian edition with my first choice Indian publisher. Which meant, they would share the cost of printing the book and then jointly market the book (along agreed upon prices), 2) I asked publishers whether they would publish my book as sole South Asian publishers (and take on the full load of marketing).

I began by asking a local Christian publisher (in Bangalore) whether they would be interested in co-publishing. This publishing house said that they found the book interesting, but they couldn’t print it because it was too academic and it had a limited market that would compete with my other publisher’s market share. It was a fair argument, so I thanked them for graciously considering my request and moved on.

I then tried a big Christian publisher. They expressed interest, and I sent them a copy of my work. But after several weeks (a couple of months actually), they still hadn’t gotten back to me. I tried contacting them, but I think they forgot about my work or that they felt it was too academic and not worth pursuing.

I then asked two other established publishers, one secular and another Christian. The Christian publisher sated that they do not jointly publish (which meant they did not even want to partner with Wipf & Stock, and were only open to publish something that was exclusively published through them. The secular press felt that my book was too specialised beyond the scope of their print profile. Both were very courteous in their mails, which was nice.

I then explored a print-by-demand option; where I could publish through my first-choice publisher, but I would only print about 100 copies so that the liability for the publisher would be less. However, the was quite expensive… coming to about 350 rupees per book. This was just too expensive and so I dropped that idea.

Finally, however, alls-well-that-ends-well, because my first-choice publisher got back to me and said that they had finally gotten some funds and were ready to print my book. Once approved, the manuscript went through the printing process quite fast. Especially since I had already edited, and revised my layout.

We were also able to negotiate a deal with the printers to print fewer copies (350 copies), so that the Publisher would not be stuck with a huge pile of unsold books. Thankfully, as a result, I didn’t have to pay anything either, though I realised I would have to do much of the marketing of the book, and also I had to consider how to get reviewers interested in reading/reviewing it.

It was ironic that after a pretty straightforward to publishing process in the West, I was struggling a bit to get my work to the press in India (the primary audience of my work!). But at least South Asian edition, something I really wanted, was coming out. Which was a relief.

Summary thoughts

1. If publishing in India, be sure that you have a publisher who is willing to publish your work.

2. If you are willing to finance your own work, you will find more publishers. If money is an issue for you, then you will have to be willing to wait.

3. Try to keep your options open (though that didn’t really help me initially). These contacts may come in handy at a later stage.

4. Negotiate the printing of fewer copies, so that your publisher need not be stuck with too many copies that may not sell (dissertations are tough to sell). Explore print-by-demand options.

5. Finally, be ready to market your own book. See where and how you would like to spread awareness of your work.

A Theological AnswerIt was an exciting day, when I received free copies of my printed dissertation: What is religion? It looked so much better than my thick-bound printout in the library archives. It made sense that I should publish. And certainly, this should not be the end. And now that my PhD dissertation is published (by Wipf & Stock and SAIACS Press) I have decided to pen my thoughts… about the publishing process. Hope that any doctoral student reading this will find it helpful. What I learned was quite surprising; publishing is not something to be feared, even though it does require some “more” hard work (so don’t get tired of your completed unpublished PhD dissertation just yet!).

Step #1. Say yes to publishing

This is something I had to learn, and I want to thank one of my mentors, Dr. Cor Bennema, for pushing me to publish. The end of doctoral research did not stop at “writing”, or even defending the work, but in publishing it, he would say. He urged me again and again to look for publishers, present my proposal and hope for the best. Personally, I felt “publishing” a dissertation was more like a vanity project, but his constant emphasis made me feel as if my work was incomplete until I could gain a larger readership.

Step #2. Look out for publishers as soon as your doctoral defense is over.
Do not delay the process. If you’re from a context like mine, where once we finished doctoral studies our sending institutions overload us with work!!!, then you won’t have much time to pursue publishers. So start early. Again, because of Cor’s “nagging”, I began the process of submitting my work for approval even before I had my bound copy. Now, though the entire process took over a year, I don’t regret it. (In fact, I’m really glad I started early).

Step#3: Look out for “good” publishers.

My own process of publishing was to work with the people instrumental in my dissertation. So, in India, my obvious choice was to print my dissertation through SAIACS Press (Bangalore), because I studied here, and also was going to work here. For my western printing, I looked to McGill University’s Press, because I studied at McGill for a while, and felt my work resonated with the concerns of the Religious Studies department. I looked at their author guidelines and submitted all the details I could about my work. Interestedly, they wrote back within a few weeks, but sadly they said “no” to printing my dissertation because they felt my work was “too theological” (while McGill tends to be more “religious studies” focussed), but they politely (very nicely in fact) suggested I look for a Press that prints Theological material.

My next step was to look around and a colleague was printing through Wipf & Stock (US). I looked by Wipf & Stock’s author guidelines and sent them another detailed mail about my work (which included sending them a sample chapter). Surprisingly for me, they accepted the work for published and asked me to begin the process of getting the document ready for printing.

I was delighted and told Cor about it.  He however said that I could have tried for a more “prestigious” Press. Personally I was too grateful/thankful that Wipf & Stock agreed, and I didn’t regret anything. Though if anyone (reading this post) is looking for advice, Cor would suggest that you look for the more established presses and then work downwards.

This could help with greater visibility and recognition. Personally, I liked working with Wipf & Stock, especially since they were mainly theology focussed (like my work), plus they had a good relationship with SAIACS Press and were more than willing to allow SAIACS to have the India South Asian rights. This, I felt, was quite generous of them, and feel that because they were a smaller press probably they were more flexible. I also found Wipf & Stock people very approachable and cordial. So all that worked out well for me.

Step #4: Your contract

Another thing to look out while choosing the publisher is to read the contract carefully, and see if you agree with the stipulations. Personally, and I suspect for most doctoral publishers, we’re so relieved that someone is publishing our work that we don’t care that we’re getting stiffed! J I think that Wipf & Stock offered an ok deal… but here again I appreciated my mentor’s advice.

Wipf & Stock, like many publishers nowadays, expects the author to bear some of the cost of publishing the book. So, I had to pay some money (I forgot how much) to help cover the cost of the book. Since I was in no way to afford paying for my own book, my mentor suggested that I offer to do the layout of the book in lieu of the payment, so that would help mitigate the cost. Wipf & Stock agreed, and so I didn’t have to pay anything.

Step #5: Edit / format your work properly.

This is something I regret. I was so “burned out” after working on my dissertation, that I paid very little attention to editing it. Sure I made several changes in the text, and the more I looked at it, the more I felt like editing it, but probably that’s why I just wanted to stay away. Instead, I hired a copy-editor to read and format the work for my publisher’s requirements. I hardly paid attention to detail, grudgingly clarified when my copy editor asked questions, and basically was relieved to get it out of my hands.

It was only when I had to make the index (and yes, I feel every dissertation needs and index), that I was horrified to find so many errors. I was relieved that I was reading the work myself, finally, but I wished I had more time to edit. I should have joined the initial editing process.

Step #6: Make an index.

Yes, I said it earlier, but I say it again. An index is a lot of work, and no matter what the technology, one cannot escape some level of manual labour. It took me several days of working full time to complete the index. But it was worth it simply because I caught so many errors while looking at the text carefully. Also, the work really looks more profession and is certainly more useful with an index. So don’t shirk on the responsibility: make the index.

Interestingly, my Wipf & Stock editors did not insist that I make the index and felt I didn’t really need it. But for the reasons I said above, I was really glad that I did make it. And now the book looks really good with the index backing-it-up.

Step #7:  Follow up

Here I recommend that we keep following up (gently) with the publishers, asking if there is any clarification needed etc. I didn’t do much follow-up and months went by. Until when I started writing back, the publishers told me that they had let the project slide a bit and promised to speed things up. So a gentle reminder to the publishers may help keep things moving.

Step #8: Marketing / Get contacts

It’s now a known fact that authors need to participate as much as possible in the marketing of their book. As the printing of the book drew nearer, the marketing team talked to me about contacts for recommendations of the book, and also contacts for which libraries, faculties, we should send the book too. Sadly, being in India, I had very few international contacts. And here, I feel, that it would really help if we keep an eye out on which libraries, which teachers/professors, we could send recommendations of the book to. I helped a bit, but this can be done so much better.

Step #9: Free copies / buying more

It’s really great to get your free copies… and I got four. It was really exciting. However, four copies were just not enough. My problem was that paying in dollars was never really possible for me, so I couldn’t order copies. I did hope that the South Asian edition would come soon, so I could have more “affordable” copies. But getting a South Asian edition of my book was tougher than I had anticipated, but that’s another story. (Featured in part 2 of this post)

Step #10: Set up a blog, or something like that, to help publicize your book

While my blog wasn’t really that successful (meaning there were hardly any visitors and google only showed it in the 2nd/3rd page), still it helped to have a place where I could direct friends and interested people to where they could find more information about the book. I intended the blog to be a place to talk about discounts, reviews (so far there have been none). It helped to use Facebook to direct “friends” to the blog. Whether it succeeds or not, I still think it’s a good idea to have something like this. So do it, if you can.

In this US, the Wipf & Stock site has the book listed here: https://wipfandstock.com/store/What_Is_Religion_A_Theological_Answer

ImageI just tried my first ebooks sample through play.google.com (Google’s play store). In India, we finally have the ability to buy PlayStore books. They are expensive (really expensive). But still, they are available, which is great. However, I just found out that the Google Play Books (unless a scanned copy is available), do not have the accurate page numbers for academic references. What is ironic is that the book I was testing, was available to preview on Google Books with its academic page numbers (as we’re used to). But not on the Google Play Store. Now, that’s a downer! Why would I pay Rs. 2000+ for a book I cannot cite in my research?

To see what I mean, check out the two links of the sample pages of the introduction.

First link on Google Books (as we would expect google to show its books).

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=JTAHyyZJM4kC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Second link on Google’s play store.

https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=JTAHyyZJM4kC&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&authuser=0&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA1

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