I have almost never assigned a “textbook” for any of my classes. Readers and anthologies of all kinds, of course, some including teaching apparatus of one kind or another (author biographies, glossaries, suggestions for further reading, sometimes discussion questions or a sample paper)–but usually I shy away from books that set out to do a lot of the teaching themselves. I figure that’s my job, for one thing, and I (rightly or wrongly) usually think I will do it better, or in ways better suited to my idiosyncratic goals and interests, than the authors of the textbook. Often I don’t like the exercises or examples provided very much, or I think the commentary is too intrusive, leaving students (and me!) insufficient space to think about and interpret the readings on our own. I also have an instinctive recoil from the textbook atmosphere, which seems to me more suited to high school than university. I don’t like to say to my students things like “For your homework, do exercises 1-5.” I realize that these prejudices are not universal: in other disciplines, textbooks are absolutely standard, and in English many people (including colleagues of mine) happily select textbooks that suit them just fine. But I’ve always felt that for me, all that stuff would just get in the way.
Here I am, though, to my surprise, seriously considering a textbook for adoption next year, and not even for an intro course (where I have always assumed that kind of support would be most appropriate). I’m scheduled to teach our 3000-level course on “Close Reading,” which is one of a suite of three courses on theory and methods of literary criticism, one of which must be completed by all of our majors and honours students. I taught it before, three times running (2003, 2004, 2005) but haven’t come back to it for a while. Of all the courses I’ve ever taught, this is the one that required the most thought and creativity to prepare, and it remains, in its old form, the course of which I am most proud. I framed our work in ways that I think were both interesting and important, I developed lectures but also course materials (handouts, worksheets, tutorial exercises, assignments) that were unlike any I’d used before but many of which I still look back on with pleasure, and I know the course had a big impact on a lot of students. I can (and no doubt will) reuse a lot of that material, but my experience has been that you can’t capture the energy of a course years later if you just recycle your previous approach. Lecture notes, for instance, can look much less coherent and vigorous when you look at them again after even a few months, never mind a few years: all the connections you used to fill in between what is written down have evaporated, the urgency you felt behind certain questions now eludes you, poems you couldn’t stop talking about stare blankly at you from the page. I’ve been open, therefore, to new ideas for the course, and in particular I’ve been looking for a different poetry reader to use.
Browsing around for options, I came across a book at Pearson called Close Reading. Given my bias against textbooks, I doubted I would ultimately adopt it, but it sounded worth a closer look so I requested an exam copy, and darned if I don’t quite like it, for my purposes. For one thing, thanks to some of the Twitter folk I follow, I’ve been thinking a lot about modeling as a pedagogical strategy, and this book models a number of things I want my students to be able to do–not just extended close readings (though it’s good that there are a number of these included, which could serve both as models and as starting points for discussion, because they aren’t 100% what I’ll be asking for) but the preliminary steps as well: noting interesting details, asking patient and attentive questions, using the right specialized vocabulary to talk about literary forms and effects. The questions aren’t always exactly the ones I would ask, the details not necessarily the ones I find most interesting, but again, this can be a way to start discussion, and the author, Elisabeth Howe, does a good job insisting on the importance of that kind of persistent attention by showing how it illuminates both the craft and the meaning of a poem or story. So far (though I haven’t read every word) I find it clear without being simplistic. There are models of poems or passages with key elements circled or annotated; there are model questions, but there’s also the clear expectation built in that eventually the students will make up their own questions; there are sample analyses, and then prompts for doing your own. Yes, this is the kind of thing I do with my students in class (providing or modeling questions, working up ‘readings’ of our texts), but I think it might really reinforce our class efforts to have samples written out for them like this, and to be able to assign readings and questions from the book instead of just telling them how to do that kind of attentive reading as class preparation. My recent experiences with lower-level courses suggest that students now seem to prefer things to be very explicit, and I wonder if using a textbook (or at least this textbook) would actually improve the overall level of engagement, rather than diminish it as I’ve usually feared. It would be nice, too, not to have to generate all the bits and pieces myself, particularly for tutorials (it’s a large class, or may be, with weekly tutorial meetings).
On the other hand…I also wonder if I am giving in to the high-school-ization of higher ed. And I wonder if students in 2nd and 3rd year, as these would be, would respond badly to using a textbook (though I wouldn’t adopt it, in the end, if I don’t conclude after going through it really meticulously that it is at a high enough level for the course). Are my general prejudices against textbooks shared by any of you, from either a student’s or an instructor’s perspective? Is it infantilizing to assign upper-level students “exercises” for their “homework”? Or am I just projecting onto a new generation of students my own intense commitment to university as an adult endeavor? The other day in the main office I ran into a woman who said she was there to drop off a paper for her son. My first thought was not “What a nice mom!” but “What kind of student asks his mom to submit his university assignments?” (My reaction is even more negative when students blithely tell me they always get mom or dad to “proofread” their papers. No offense to my own much-loved mom and dad, but I didn’t want them having anything to do with my university work, and I’m also quite certain they would have been quite surprised to be asked for their input!) Times have changed, and students seem to see themselves as younger and less independent than I was determined to be when I was in their position. They are also used to a fairly different high school experience, I think, and they seem prone to a great deal of anxiety about what exactly they are supposed to do. Should I insist they discover some self-direction and take some initiative, or should I support them in the manner to which they have become accustomed? I think this particular book may actually help me find a middle ground, modeling what to do and then backing off–and I’d still be the teacher, so I can set all kinds of expectations beyond what’s there. Plus I do plan to assign Middlemarch, as I did when I taught the course before. There’s no way any textbook can reduce the challenge (and reward!) of that, but if it made them stronger going into that work, we’d all be happier.
Any thoughts about textbooks, particularly from any of you who teach or take English courses at the college or university level? Pros and cons? A lot depends, I know, on the particular book and the aims of a particular course.