An interview with Timo Tossavainen

17 February 2022 An

1. Could you tell us about yourself, your writing and your involvement in your Assocation's work?

Yes, I am Professor of Mathematics Education at the Lulea University of Technology in Sweden. So it is not surprising that, in addition to research articles, I have written mathematics textbooks for learners at upper secondary school (equivalent to high school in the UK) and university. I am currently the President of The Association of Finnish Nonfiction Writers in Finland: Suomen tietokirjailijat ry, or in Finland Swedish facklitterära författare rf. This may sound odd; I live and work in Sweden, but I lead the biggest writers’ association in Finland! But, to make a long story short, this is a good example of how especially international academic writers’ work is nowadays.

2. Could you tell us about history and structure of your Association? Do you have staff members or rely on volunteers? Do you run events mostly in your HQ or around the country too?

The association was founded in 1983, as a joint organisation for nonfiction authors and writers of educational materials. Today, we have 3,300 members and the association is run by an office with seven employees and a Board of ten members. Moreover, we have a group of wonderful volunteers who represent the association in different parts of Finland and organize many kinds of activities for our members throughout the country. From our perspective, Finland is divided into thirteen regions with a representative of us in each region.

3. What are the key aspects of the Association’s work?

Our most important task is to distribute grants and awards to writers of nonfiction and textbooks in Finland. These are funded by a share of the licence fees collected by the Finnish copyright organisation, Kopiosto. We also provide legal advice to our members, and run courses and workshops for our members and for those who are considering becoming a nonfiction writer. Moreover, we participate quite actively in public debates about issues related to our field. In many issues, we collaborate with other national and international author organisations, as for example on matters concerning the national and EU legislation of copyright issues and digitalization, and their effects on writers’ work.

4. What are the main activities, campaigns or events?

In addition to the activities mentioned above, we participate in many book fairs and organise a very popular biannual two-day national festival called which focuses on nonfiction and issues related to school and educational materials. Our volunteers also organise approximately 40 events in their regions for our members and the general public each year.

5. What are the main challenges educational authors experience these days, in your view?

I guess we face quite similar problems in almost every country. In a digitised world, the writing of good educational materials takes more time and requires wider expertise than writing print-only textbooks. Yet many claim that all e-materials should be available freely or at low-cost. This creates tension between authors, publishers, libraries and readers generally, because every serious publisher needs to be able to provide customers with both a print and digital version of a textbook. At the same time, an author should be paid for these different uses, regardless of whether it is in print or digital. In a country with 5.5 million inhabitants, it is not possible to make a huge profit by selling digital learning materials, and what the authors get from that income is painfully insignificant compared to the time and work invested in writing that material. This is a very complicated equation to be solved even for a mathematician...

Another sticking point is that many schools have quite limited resources for providing a new book in each subject for each pupil. Hence many pupils have to re-use books that have already gone through the hands of three or four pupils. We agree that second-hand books have an environmental advantage, but this situation is good neither for pupils’ learning experience, nor for their authors.

6. How much does the curriculum in your subject/government education policy determine what you write?

The curriculum sets the guidelines but, in Finland, the curricula are very flexible and have been written in an indicative way. They leave a lot of freedom for authors to decide how to approach and discuss the essential content to be studied in schools. Another good feature in Finnish culture is that all political parties respect the Finnish school system and the freedoms of teachers and textbook authors to make informed decisions on curricula. Therefore, if the government changes after a general election, it does not usually imply any major changes in education policy. Still, education is one of the most important issues for most members of parliament and the discussion about education policy is always quite impassioned and polyphonic. But somehow, eventually, every revision of the curriculum is accepted with a clear majority. This is good for continuity.

7. What are the most recent success stories from your work?

My three-year period as the President of the association started in January 2021. I am proud of how well we have managed challenges related to COVID-19: the pandemic has not prevented us from distributing our grants and awards, or from taking care of our other duties. We succeeded even in organising our festival online which resulted in reaching new audiences throughout the country. I am also delighted to note that the work of Finnish authors, regardless of their genre, is widely respected in Finnish society and by its leaders. It is extremely rewarding to be able to work with and for people who have thousands of exciting, interesting, and educational stories to tell!