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Marketing Novels as Case Studies: How Far Out Is That?

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Marketing Novels as Case Studies: How Far Out Is That?

by Stephen Davenport

Not very far, actually. Every novel is a case study of something. Something always happens that causes another happening and another and another. Certain questions can always be asked. What choices did the characters have in their situation? What if the characters had acted differently? English teachers require their students to ponder such questions every day.

As both a leader and a participant in workshops for honing school leaders’ skills, I have long believed in the efficacy of case studies—realistic scenarios featuring challenging problems that participants are asked to solve in an environment that is safe because the scenarios are fictional. So I finally asked myself this question: Since the usual four- or five-page case study provides good practice in making decisions, wouldn’t a full novel that participants read before a workshop be even more effective?

And then I thought of more questions. Couldn’t additional case studies be created around other problems facing the characters in the novel? Wouldn’t the heads of school and their colleagues with high-level management responsibilities who participate in the workshops be more deeply engaged by a novel than by the usual case study, which lacks the novel’s depth, nuance, and layers of context? The answer, I discovered, is yes—at least for the niche my novel is addressed to, the world of independent (aka private) schools.

So far, I have designed and facilitated case study workshops based on my self-published novel, Saving Miss Oliver’s, for school professionals of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, the St. Louis Association of Independent Schools, and the Florida Council of Independent Schools (twice); and by the time you’re reading this, I will have added the Annual Conference of The National Association of Independent Schools to the list.

Of all the workshops I have run in a long career, these have been the most provocative and inspiring, for the participants and for me. Each participant buys the book ahead of time, and although sales are modest because most workshops have no more than 35–45 attendees, I almost always get an honorarium and build word of mouth for the book. Because my priorities are building an ongoing audience for the novel and interacting with professional peers about it, I ask a very modest fee, $500 to $650.

Marketing expenses are modest too. All that is required is a one-page letter to the association executive director describing the workshop.

The workshop at the National Association annual conference may well draw many more than 45 people, and I have not yet explored other potential markets, such as university education departments and various leadership training organizations.

The Story Behind the Story

I had no idea I was writing a case study when I wrote Saving Miss Oliver’s—not even after I added the subtitle, A Novel of Leadership, Loyalty and Change, which essentially announces the fact. I simply wanted to write a realistic story about the highly charged, intensely political world of independent schools in which I have spent my career.

So I created Miss Oliver’s School for Girls, a prestigious New England boarding school, gave it an array of sacred, idiosyncratic rituals and traditions, and put it on the cusp of financial collapse. Then I caused the board to fire Marjorie Boyd, the beloved headmistress for 35 years (even though her educational leadership had made the school worth saving, she didn’t have the financial chops to save it) and bring in a young male head, Fred Kindler, who did have the necessary financial skills.

Although I still didn’t know that I was building a case study, I did know that a true-to-life story would need a champion of tradition, fiercely loyal to Marjorie Boyd, so I created the legendary teacher Francis Plummer, beloved of the alumnae and students, who had also been at the school for 35 years, and gave him one academic year to fight it out with Fred Kindler.

Then I realized that, of course, Francis’s wife (Peggy Plummer, the school’s librarian) would understand exactly why it was necessary to fire Marjorie Boyd and hire Fred Kindler, and that she would step forward to support the new head, usurping her husband’s position at the head’s right hand. The school’s survival, Fred Kindler’s career, and the Plummers’ marriage would all be at risk.

Anybody with even slight experience of organizational leadership would recognize the classically challenging situation a leader faces when immediately following a beloved predecessor—especially in immature or dysfunctional systems where there has been no preparation for the transition. But it finally occurred to me that Saving Miss Oliver’s was an extended case study only when a friend who had suffered through the same situation as the fictional Fred Kindler told me he had put the book down after reading only a few pages because he found it too intense to relive an experience from which he was still recovering.

It requires a novel to create so visceral an experience, I thought. And if Saving Miss Oliver’s had been written in time, my friend would have benefited from that experience vicariously—and thus safely—beforehand. In fact, he might have recognized the position that he naively accepted, and from which he was soon fired, as the setup for failure that it was and refused it in the first place.

From Story to Studies

The idea of actually leading workshops based on Saving Miss Oliver’s for present and aspiring school leaders came to me when school professionals who had read the book told me they were continually thinking of strategies and tactics they would have used if they had been in Fred Kindler’s position.

I wrote a case study in which Fred tells his mentor—an older, more experienced head—everything he has learned on his very first day in office that he should have understood before taking the job, and then asks for advice on how to overcome the community’s mistrust so he can establish his leadership and save the school and his position. Because assigning workshop participants Fred Kindler’s role would have implied that they were as naïve as he was, I assigned them the role of mentor.

I wrote a second case, a sequel to the novel, in which Francis Plummer, whose superb teaching has been a hallmark of the school for 36 years, begins to falter in the classroom immediately after his wife, Peggy, is killed in a car accident. Everybody pretends this isn’t happening until his performance deteriorates so much that the new head, successor to Fred Kindler, must confront the problem.

Then I wrote a third case, also a sequel to the novel, in which a student is involved in a sexual scandal that, at least at first glance, pits the moral integrity of the school head and allegiance to the school’s mission against the need to control damaging publicity.

The Path to Productive Conversations

The workshop design is straightforward. I divide the participants into groups of eight. Each group works together for approximately 40 minutes to “solve” the problem the case study describes. Then one member of each group reports that group’s solution to all attendees. After that, I facilitate a discussion of the issues involved in the case.

In a three-hour session, which I prefer, I do all three cases. For a two-hour session, the association’s executive director and I decide which two I will do, depending on the issues pressing hardest at that time.

In every workshop so far, the conversations have been intense, thoughtful, and provocative, largely, I believe, because the participants come in knowing and caring about the characters in the case studies. I feel their gratitude for a novel that, whatever its failings, is about them, true to the work they do every day. And I’m grateful to them for the many insights into our shared profession that have come to me while I facilitate their discussions. They bring focus to a lifetime of work.

Stephen Davenport started teaching in independent schools in 1957 and rose to became a head of school. Now writing full-time, he has also consulted with independent schools, and he’s had articles published in the New York Times and elsewhere. To reach him: stevdav@comcast.net; 510/531-7901; savingmissolivers.com.



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