Summer Fun Project 2018

July 23rd, 2018

It’s nearly summertime when my teaching schedule thins out and I do something extra to stay busy. Previously, I worked on Anthropomotron, my comic, and 3D printing. My outside fun project this summer is again very related to teaching: I’m one of the writers for an Open Education Resource textbook for biological anthropology. I somehow missed the original call for authors, but a colleague connected me with the editorial staff. My chapter is one of my favorites from my lectures: the evolution of modern Homo sapiens. This topic covers our species from their origin in Africa 300 thousand years ago, their expansion around the world, major cultural shifts to the present, and ideas about our future. So, a small topic.

It’s been years since my last big writing project so I am excited to do this type of work again and also practice what I preach to my students about effective writing. My ‘filler’ lecture, which I give to synchronize the lecture schedule across my two colleges, is half about making mind maps and half about writing effectively for science. The lecture sounds boring, but it generates a lot of thoughtful discussion on what clear and effective writing means and how to think about the use of language. To pass the lecture’s message to you, I suggest reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which is inspirational.

As a demonstration on how I research and write, I set up to livestream some of my work on Twitch.tv. (Just some of my work because I also do Starbucks and library work). I streamed a few times but ran into some obstacles with this setup. One was that I worked sporadically between other timely tasks like grading. The closest I got to planning a writing time was to start after I was done grading for the night, which varied. Another issue was that it really slowed me down to set up the stream and then narrate my own work. Other writing streams on Twitch just show the writing process without the author’s explanation, which could be something I could try. I would still have to address the last issue: streaming really fired up my computer, which heated up my little bedroom/office, so I became increasingly uncomfortable. 

Without streaming, I’ve settled on a regular work pattern. For each section of the book, I do some research in the scientific literature to confirm what I want to write and make sure that my interpretation of the evidence is supported. This part is done with the Bookends reference manager on both my Mac and on my iPad. I read and highlight PDFs on the iPad and then sync them to the Mac side. On the computer, I open those PDFs along with my Scrivener chapter and put down what I want to say in writing. I start out just listing the main points, then build structured paragraphs with them by adding details and moving things around to a logical order of presentation. For the sections about hominins sites in different regions, I pick up to five to mention in each part of the world. The earliest in each region make it in, then others that have notable finds, a lot of finds (i.e., many fossils or artifacts) or tie into the discussion of other regions. I average about 200 words a night with this method, which is around what I did during dissertation writing. I started this blog post before the book chapter and I’m now at over 8000 words there.

This project has truly been a fun project and I look forward to the current writing phase and other tasks as well, such as determining the illustrations. I’ve learned a lot about modern Homo sapiens getting caught up with the amazing discoveries made since I was a graduate student and hope that I convey what I now know to future readers in a clear and accurate way.


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