Professor Edwards doesn’t live in Southern California; he resides in beautiful Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where he is the head of the Sociology Department at the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit college. I first met Bill in another country, Canada, where he approached me in the vacuous signing room of Bouchercon Toronto and said, "I sold forty of your books." Needless to say, Bill became my new best friend.
Bill had sold these books because he had assigned SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI to his Sociology class that year, along with Tess Gerritsen’s HARVEST and Marcos M. Villatoro’s HOME KILLINGS. He’s used numerous other mysteries in his Introduction to Sociology class.
The academic market is an untapped source of readers for mysteries. Not only will it help spur an author’s back list sales, but it will introduce mysteries to younger readers. Reaching this market is not an easy one, but something certain authors should explore. Can you envision creating a curriculum with mystery books? In Southern California, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI has been used at Pasadena City College and an Asian American literature class in University of California at San Diego. The only way BIG BACHI has ended up on some twentysomethings’ favorite books on myspace, I imagine, is because they were introduced to it in one of these classes.
As Professor Edwards is at the forefront of this movement to integrate mysteries into academia, I thought that it would be interesting to get to know him better and find out his students’ reactions to mysteries.
When did you start reading mysteries? What are some early favorites?
I don’t recall the earliest years in which I started reading mysteries. As a high school student interested in science I read sci-fi. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were my favorites. In mysteries I was fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe. There was a dark side to his imagination that intrigued me. He had lived in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, and I think that added to his appeal. It was not until the nineties that I became seriously interested in crime fiction. Having gone to grad school in Seattle I came across the early novels of Ridley Pearson set in that area and got hooked. Since I was a big jazz fan, I liked Lou Boldt. Donald Westlake was perhaps the next author I discovered. From then, I was in for the long haul.
Can you tell us a little of your academic background? When did you start working at University of San Francisco?
I began my undergraduate education at Virginia Union University in Richmond, where I majored in chemistry. When it became necessary for me to work full time I couldn’t make the labs and had to change majors. That’s when I switched to Sociology. Science was fun, but people were more interesting. For graduate studies I went to the University of Washington and completed my master’s degree in urban planning. After working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in San Francisco and the San Francisco Planning Department I went to UC Berkeley and earned my Ph.D in Sociology.
Currently I am teaching at the University of San Francisco where I began in 1988 after having taught at UC Santa Barbara and the College of Marin.
When did you start to offer sociology classes that featured mysteries? How did you conceive of this concept? What can mysteries teach that textbooks cannot?
I had read Donald Westlake’s book, THE AX and was absolutely captivated by the story line. As a sociologist the book portrayed several dimensions of downward mobility. At the time, issues of downsizing, restructuring, and outsourcing were making national headlines. I was teaching the introductory course in Sociology and thought this book would be a great way for students to understand the whole phenomenon of mobility, both upward and downward, minus the murders. Plus, the topic was timely. In the meantime it occurred to me that other novels might be useful as teaching tools. So, along with Westlake I added Tony Hillerman, Barbara Neely, and S.J Rozan. The idea was to use a cross section of novelists focusing on different ethnic groups as protagonist or subject. Since crime fiction represented inherent conflict situations, I thought they would be a great vehicle to get students to understand what I called, "Sociology in action." In addition, I thought crime fiction would get their attention, pique their imagination, and encourage their reading.
The initial experiment of crime fiction in the classroom met with success. Students were instructed to read the novels from a sociological perspective. Of course they were cautioned that the works were fiction, but that the action and the characters existed in sociological contexts. And, these contexts could be identified with the use of sociological concepts. Over time I expanded the novels to include international writers and settings. International settings get students to think about worlds outside their own and to understand how social worlds are different. What is taken for the norm in our society may be quite different in another context. Since my university require nursing students to take Introduction to Sociology I always include a medical thriller on my reading list.
Crime fiction can only be instructive if students have had the necessary background; that is, learning a range of sociological concepts and theories that explain social interaction. Once they have been introduced to these ideas, the novels provide a context for them to see these ideas being played out in narrative fashion. Crime fiction is especially useful in getting students to see life outside the routine. Unlike the text, the novels mitigate the usual refrain of being "boring."
How has the reading of mysteries been received by your students? Can you give us some concrete examples?
One of the unintended consequences of using crime fiction has been that students have associated my Intro class with the novels and not the subject of Sociology. I’m often asked when I will next teach the class with the novels. It is not uncommon for students to ask me for additional books by a particular author. A few years ago I had used Tess Gerritsen’s book, HARVEST. The nursing students were so thrilled (pun intended) with the book that they recommended my class to their colleagues based upon the book. Similarly, a group of students enjoyed Gerritsen so much they formed a small reading group outside of class. When the school news magazine carried a story about my class I received an inquiry from an area alumni chapter requesting recommendations of crime fiction for their book club. I’ve heard rumors from the campus bookstore that students not enrolled in my class are buying copies of assigned novels resulting in the need to order additional copies.
Do you think that there will be more academicians who will incorporate mysteries in their classes? Why or why not?
In 2003 I conducted a teaching workshop for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Several attendees were very interested in the use of crime fiction in their classes. I subsequently received an inquiry from a colleague in Ontario regarding the use of the novels. In 2004 I organized a panel for the Bouchercon Mystery Conference and several writers were very interested in the idea of crime fiction in the classroom. All four panel members used crime fiction in their university classes. This year I attended the Left Coast Conference in Bristol, England and was engaged in conversation with UK writers who said they couldn’t imagine professors outside literature using crime fiction as a teaching tool.
The idea of capturing students’ attention is a major selling point for using crime fiction. Certainly at the college level students are not generally assigned crime fiction in their classes. Many of my colleagues tell me they think of crime fiction as good entertainment but not as a learning tool. I would concur that not all crime novels are a good fit for the classroom. Care has to be taken in selecting them and most importantly, they should be a supplement and not the main focus of the course (assuming the course is not one in literature). As I have indicated, the novels are a teaching tool. It is a way to get students to learn something and the essential question is what do you want them to learn from reading this genre.
I teach at a Jesuit university and social justice is a mainstay of its mission. Crime fiction is an excellent way to engage students in issues surrounding social justice. Many of the best novels are topical and students can learn about important social issues through reading crime fiction.
Finally, one of the best reasons for using crime fiction in the classroom is that they are darn good fun.
Thank you, Professor Edwards! If you want to meet the esteemed professor, chances are you can find him at a book event at M Is For Mystery in San Mateo if he’s not in class or grading papers. He may be stopping in later today, so please leave comments and questions.
And back to my husband, why is he so enamored with Professor Edwards? Bill is also the academic advisor to the college basketball team. Bill was able to make arrangements for us to visit the Bill Russell Room, a simple yet glorious room full of memorabilia connected with not only Bill Russell and other USF greats like Casey Jones.
Mystery and basketball–what a combination!
WEDNESDAY’S WORD: sensei (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 258)
Actually sensei is officially an American word, as it’s in Webster’s dictionary, as is Issei (first-generation Japanese American) and Nisei (second-generation Japanese American). Anyone who’s taken a Japan-based martial art knows what sensei means, right? Teacher.
SISTERS IN HOLLYWOOD: My, what a great time we all had at the Sisters in Crime Goes to Hollywood Conference. SinC President Rochelle Krich, Mae Woods, Lisa Seidman and SinC/LA chapter leadership are to be commended. I understand it was Lisa who had connections within the Writers Guild of America and all those movie-related agents, producers, and writers (fantastic panels). My main goal was to hang out with out-of-towners and out-of-staters, and that goal was definitely realized. I enjoyed meeting for the first time Patricia Sprinkle, Joyce Yarrow, Mark Zubro, Ron Lovell, and Keith Raffel. Many of these folks will be at Left Coast Crime Seattle, so I look forward in getting to know them even better!
Sujata Massey and I had a wonderful time at the Pacific Asia Museum (I think that Sujata wanted to move into the museum building, a former residence built in the 1920s by a successful female stenographer and curio shop owner, as well as take over a couple of hand-painted Tibetan chests). When we left the darkened building at night, we both felt like we were Rei Shimura snooping around old artifacts. And the conference itself was incredibly informative, even for a native Angeleno like me. In a nutshell, here are three things that I learned:
1) MONEY (most important, course). A typical option for a movie is $5,000 with perhaps a $50,000 payout at the end if the movie is produced. So, in other words, you might be able to afford a nice week-long trip (for one) to Tuscany with your option monies, but you won’t be able to afford a house in Tuscany.
2) LINGO. "Attachments" mean high-profile actors, writers and directors attached to a project. "MOW" is movie-of-the week, which networks obviously aren’t not making as many as before. "Limited series" refers to a six-part series, which USA Network is currently producing. USA is also apparently looking for character-driven series versus police procedurals like CSI, Law & Order, etc. Attention, ITW members–Dreamworks mentioned that they were looking specifically for thrillers, including erotic thrillers (M.J. Rose immediately came to mind).
3) GETTING YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR. The Hollywood agents talked about obtaining a story when it was in manuscript or galley form. In this competitive environment, all kinds of "attachments" are necessary. There was talk about treatments ranging from 75-85 pages, but I was getting lost at this point. The gist of the matter is that it is very, very hard to get a movie or television program made. And even harder to make any money at it.