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Choosing a Textbook–A Response

posted: 10.27.10 by Barclay Barrios

Last week Holly Pappas wrote about her decision not to use a textbook. Barclay Barrios responds here.

Last semester I was teaching a graduate seminar in queer theory.  I knew I wanted to cover some key essays but couldn’t find an anthology that would really work as a textbook.  “Easy peasy,” I thought, “I’ll just toss all the PDFs up on Blackboard.”  It didn’t turn out to be quite that easy.  The experience reminded me of why I choose textbooks whenever I can.

For one thing, there was quite a bit of labor involved in tracking down the essays, photocopying them, and then scanning them to PDF.  I couldn’t imagine doing that work semester after semester, and I couldn’t imagine using those same PDFs semester after semester either—fair use has its limits.

I felt fine using a batch of readings for this course since I knew I wouldn’t be teaching it again any time soon, but when I think about the intellectual property implications of my composition courses—which I teach far more often—electronic copies of readings feel less viable to me.

Surprisingly, they’re far less viable to students as well.  The ones in my seminar, at least, urged me to make a course packet instead of placing the readings on Blackboard.  It turns out that a semester’s worth of readings can eat up a lot of toner—and printer toner is really expensive.  

I was on board with a course packet until I tried to make it happen. Apparently most places expect the instructor to pay up front, something I wasn’t willing or able to do.  Given how few students buy course materials (for reasons ranging from financial hardship to lack of interest in the course), I could understand the copy shop’s position, but it did leave me in a bit of a quandary.  I finally found a store that would print all the packets without money upfront.  Fortunately, all my students followed through and bought the packet; otherwise, I would have felt obligated to buy any remaining copies.  This option worked out okay, but I wonder if it would have worked as well with my first-year students.

Ultimately, I managed to put together a set of materials.  Yes, I got exactly the readings I wanted.  Yes, I saved students some money.  But it was a lot more work and a lot more time and, in the end, given IP and toner, we essentially ended up with a textbook anyway.

Directing a writing program makes me even more acutely aware of the value of textbooks.  Each year I have nearly twenty new graduate teaching assistants, each getting used to teaching while also juggling a demanding load of graduate coursework.  Our textbooks not only give students the structure and support we feel they need for the writing classroom, they provide the structure and support our new teachers need, too.

Ideally, there’s a roughly uniform experience in our writing program, such that any given student can register for any given section with any given teacher and learn the same kinds of things using more or less the same kinds of materials.  Textbooks—from our reader to our handbook—provide a baseline for that uniform experience.  In that sense, they’re invaluable.

It’s wonderful to see how our teachers grow and develop as our students do.  Each semester I have teachers sending me links to online essays or articles that somehow relate to the readings in our textbook.  We share these so that others can use them in their own classrooms.

Along the way, I watch as teachers begin to discover how to select, assess, use, and deploy readings in the classroom.  With each supplementary Web article they discover, they further hone a set of skills that will allow them to make their own decision, some day, about choosing a textbook (or not).

For me, facing that choice each semester, the answer is still (for now) choosing a textbook.

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Categories: Campus Issues, Teaching Advice
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3 Responses to “Choosing a Textbook–A Response”

  1. Traci Says:

    Barclay,
    About 2/3 of what you say has to do with the process of the task. I’m thinking that’s likely going to amount to the same thing everywhere. It’s a pain, but you can usually make it work if you want to.

    The last 1/3 you get into issues that get beyond the busy work — how textbooks can provide scaffolding for new teachers and implicitly how they can create some uniformity among sections of the same course. Does that apply to Holly’s situation at the community college however? She’s not got GTAs she needs to scaffold. So I’m not sure that part of your argument is convincing in her situation.

    A textbook may help provide some uniformity — at least the readings are similar. But with a text and a range of readings available, unless there’s a common syllabus, I’m not sure a text really means uniformity everywhere.

    Can you say more about how the textbook creates uniformity at FAU? And how a textbook would be better than a universally-required course packet or collection of links to web readings?

    Sure a collection of readings is more of a nuisance, but I’m not sold on the pedagogical side of things. I’m not anti-textbook. I just want to see more on how a text means uniformity — and how that uniformity is achieved without mandated common syllabi.

  2. Holly Pappas, Bristol Community College Says:

    Thanks, Barclay and Traci, for raising all of those issues. It gets so complicated to try to tease apart all of the issues. Both of you seem to be focusing on text as reader (rather than rhetoric or handbook)–I’m not quite sure what to make of that?

    The practical matters (of instructor time to put readings together and student money to print) are certainly worth thinking about. (I’m not sure how many students are annotating pdfs on-screen, whether that’s the direction we’re going in, whether that’s a direction we should be encouraging…)

    For me, with the sort of general readings I use in comp classes, IP issues are not so relevant. Many authors (Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean, Michael Pollan come to mind) post many of their articles, and there is so much other great stuff available online. It’s my understanding that it’s more acceptable in terms of IP issues to give students links to those articles rather than having them printed up in a course pack.

    Uniformity (or an attempt at uniformity) seems to me a strong argument in favor of textbooks. If I were in a position to set department policy, I would certainly consider that (but since I’m not, and such uniformity has not been adopted at my college, I enjoy the freedom to choose or not choose my own texts). I do like the approach at UMass-Amherst, where from what I can gather a committee of interested instructors collaborate to select readings and then publish their own custom text. That seems to me a workable option and a great opportunity for collegial debate!

    I guess for me the question is one of creative control, how much of that I’m willing to cede and for what gain…but, as I said, it’s always a decision I’m in the process of making.

  3. Barclay Barrios Says:

    Traci and Holly:

    I guess I’m wondering what you mean by a “common syllabus.” I know of programs where common means identical, with each and every person teaching the same essays, assignments, and so on. Here at FAU, we have certain minimum requirements for the course (4-6 papers, 4-6 readings) and we offer a “standard” sequence of assignments that anyone can use but even then I think there’s quite a bit of variety in individual classes. Perhaps on some level we do have a “common syllabus” though I like to think that the uniform experience is generated not by have the same set of expectations across all sections but instead by having the same terms for conversation, which is in part set by the textbook.

    Given this set of readings in this textbook framed by this pedagogy and supported by this apparatus, we tend to promote the same sorts of goals in student writing supported by the same sorts of class activities and the same sorts of assignments. I think the textbook gives us as teachers a basic vocabulary to discuss student writing and what we want out of it. To the extent that there is a uniform experience, I think it starts there.

    On a more practical level, for students section shopping during add/drop, they can walk out of any section and into any other and know that they have the right books and sometimes have even already done the right reading.

    [I have this dream… a cross-section discussion forum, where students from all sections of our FYC courses can talk about the readings. Student A has X to say about Essay J but because Student B’s section read Essay K before Essay J the discussion takes on a whole new direction. That kind of program-wide student conversation wouldn’t be possible without a textbook.]

    You could get much the same result with a course packet or collection of links. But I’ve had more and more problems with course packets (you should see how skittish our library is about IP even) and while Holly is definitely right about the quality of some materials out on the web I find that it’s easier to assemble contemporary and substantial pieces in print.

    Holly’s making some good points too. Given our pedagogy, textbook = reader for us. A rhetoric or handbook would add complications to this conversation. And my perspective is deeply embedded in my role as writing program administrator, which means places me in a unique position regarding policy and which also means I need to consider issues of teacher training.

    Ultimately, of course, your mileage may vary.