I’m working on a book called Don’t Go Back to School. As a grad school dropout and an adjunct professor at a grad program at NYU, so many people have asked me over the years if I thought they should go back to grad school. In the course of these conversations, I discovered that the majority of people who had a longing for continued school didn’t need school at all. Their real longing was for learning. To explore new ideas, to devote their attention to a new subject, to learn new skills. These are all things that can happen easily—and sometimes better—outside of school. Don’t Go Back to School is a handbook for independent learning to help people figure out if independent learning is a good approach for them, and to show them how to do it. I’m interviewing self-taught people to find out how they do what they do, and sharing the results in the book.
Two major insights stand out for me so far in the research process. First, most people learn better within some form of learning community. Going to school provides automatic access to learning communities in the form of classes and peers. But the people I’ve talked to are finding and making learning communities on their own. For technical skills related to building, making, and technology, the advent of the “hackerspace” as a common community institution represents a radical change in people’s ability to find tools, resources, shared expertise, and communities in which to learn new skills and work on projects. I’ve also talked to people who started study groups with friends and people they discovered online who were interested in studying the same thing. These range in subject area as widely as you can imagine. There’s a serious physics study group in my neighborhood, and I just corresponded with a woman who has a “Faux MBA” reading group of women business owners. The second insight is similarly social. Getting to hear from experts is a wonderful way to learn, and being a student at a formal institution gives you access to, in theory, all the experts associated with that school. In my research, I’ve found that successful independent learners do a lot of reaching out to experts to ask questions on their own, and have great success with this. For the most part, when approached politely and with well-formed questions, people with expertise are happy to share it. They are excited that someone wants to hear what they know, and they’re often excited to be sharing knowledge with a different type of learner than is their norm (if, for example, they’re a professor).
I’m funding the writing of this book and the first print run using a community funding platform called Kickstarter. Backers make pledges and get rewards, in this case, digital or physical copies of the book. Right now this is the only way to get a copy of the book when it’s done, as a backer of the project. I’m investigating ways of doing wider distribution, but this is an experiment for me, so it’s all a work in progress. I’m a published novelist, but I decided to do this outside the traditional publishing system in order to get it into the world faster—institutional publishing timelines are absurdly long. One thing that’s been really wonderful about funding the project this way is that it’s given me a much wider net for finding people to interview, and so much enthusiastic support that’s making the hard work of writing feel like a treat.