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Rethinking textbooks

posted: 7.29.13 by archived

Now that I’ve submitted grades for my summer course, vacation has officially begun and with it, the time to tackle the long-planned project to reorganize my course materials. I’ve been interested to read fellow bloggers who’ve written recently with  suggestions and questions about using textbooks in class. Those posts as well as my own plans have prompted me to reconsider both my use (or non-use) of textbooks in FYC and what I’d like my students to get out of the reading they do for my class.

An aside here: I’m probably influenced by my own experiences as a student. The only books I can remember being assigned to read, through three degrees in English, were works of literature: typically the equivalent of eight or ten novels per class. My writing classes were run almost universally as workshop classes, with the only reading I did being the writing of my classmates. By contrast, in my own department, virtually all instructors require textbooks, though academic freedom allows complete freedom of choice of text (or my option of no text).

I’ve been formulating (if not answering) some questions about my students’ behavior and attitudes when it comes to reading for my first-semester comp class:

  • Do they read the material I assign?
  • Do they need to read that material to pass or to do well in the class?
  • Will reading improve their writing? How so, in terms of both product and process? (Consider the analogy to workout videos. Is the point to learn how to do exercises, to have a sequence to follow, or to improve motivation from the encouraging voice of a supportive coach?)
  • Do students believe that this reading is necessary or beneficial?

I’ve also been examining my own attitudes and how those attitudes should be translated into action.

  • On the simplest level, do I care whether they read or not? (I don’t mean this to be flippant. If it doesn’t help their writing, why should they do it? If it does, shouldn’t this be reflected in their essay grades?)
  • If I think reading is valuable, should I try to “make” them do reading by building it explicitly into assessment?
  • How can I get them to understand value of reading for a writer (i.e., slide their motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic)?

So I’ve started by thinking about the types of reading I typically ask students to do and how I can “encourage” students to do that reading. Though I’ve been considering using quizzes to help students diagnose their own gaps in understanding, for the most part I’d prefer to more closely integrate the reading with students’ writing. Here’s my stab at setting up some categories (always a favorite activity!) along with assessment possibilities:

  • For “how to” information of the type found in a rhetoric, the material most directly applicable to student writing (it seems to me) is invention and revision strategies; such reading could be assessed via reflective writing submitted with rough drafts and revisions that connects the writing to reading done.
  • Students could be required to find grammar information to apply to their own proofreading issues.
  • To assess students’ reading of model essays, which I assign to encourage reading as a writer for both style and writers’ strategies, I could require annotation: crocodoc, which I read about recently, seems like a good possibility here.
  • To help students more effectively read research sources (reading for information), I have started assigning lots of summary practice; I could also ask students practice using material from given sources to write a paragraph developing a reason for a claim or an answer to a counterargument.
  • To assess students’ reading of other students’ essays, I should more diligently comment on and assess peer review.

As I’ve written in the earlier post linked to above, I’ve moved away from textbooks to more open-source materials and online articles, as well as content I’ve written myself, delivered through a course blog. My reasons include cost, flexibility, and the ability to customize and incorporate multimedia. I’m getting to a critical mass of material, though, so that a blog is starting to feel cumbersome. So I’m planning to try a more stable format, which means … returning to something closer to a textbook, but one authored by me!  I’m been scouring around for a platform or software to use, hoping that if nothing else this process will help me see the Big Picture. I’m imagining (or hoping) the move from blog to “textbook” will feel like the shift from PowerPoint to Prezi. In the next few posts I plan to share the process and take you along on the journey.

In the comments below I’d welcome any advice from readers, particularly those who’ve crafted their own custom texts, about platform or process, problems or results.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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One Response to “Rethinking textbooks”

  1. Akilah, Santa Fe College Says:

    You know, I had a similar conversation with a friend today about whether or not I should use a textbook or use online/open source texts. Textbooks aren’t perfect, but I do like that they provide information about how to write specific arguments.