Books vs. Textbooks

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.

10 thoughts on “Books vs. Textbooks

  1. JoVE April 13, 2011 / 1:14 pm

    I share your concern about the infantilization of young adults (and the colonization of learning by schools, dominated by “passing tests”, but that’s a bigger issue). And your horror that not only a student would ask his mom to hand in a paper but that she would agree to do so.

    However, your thoughts (in the context of previous things you’ve written about the importance of close reading and the difficulties students have with it) also give me a sense that you are teaching a rather difficult skill. While stronger students may do well with being thrown in at the deep end, there is no shame in needing to be able to put your feet on the bottom or grab the sides as you learn the skill. It sounds like this book might serve that purpose and thus help more of your students master this skill than might otherwise be the case.

    The key is probably in the role the textbook plays in the course as a whole. You need to use it enough to make it worthwhile for all the students to buy it. And you need to be explicit about where the textbook can help if students are struggling with one of your assignments. (That point might need to be made repeatedly as a reminder to them.)

    You will also need to be clear about what else is required of them. If these are examples and models, how do they move beyond these to their own analyses? What do you expect them to be able to do by the end of the course? And what steps might help them build that competency?

    From what you’ve written here, adopting the textbook might enable you to focus your attention on those higher level skills that aren’t covered. It might be worth adopting just to see how it works. I’m pretty sure it won’t be awful. And if it turns out not to give enough value or to diminishing the results rather than enhancing them, at least you have more than your worries to support your case for not using it again.


  2. Stefanie April 13, 2011 / 4:58 pm

    It sounds like it might be a good book and as long as it fits in with your course objectives it could prove to be useful for the students who are trying to learn a difficult skill and for you too so you don’t have to come up with so many exercises from scratch. As a student long ago, I never minded textbooks as long as they were useful and not used by the teacher as a substitute for teaching, something your students don’t have to worry about 🙂


  3. Karen Selesky April 13, 2011 / 7:04 pm

    thanks for this Rohan. I’ve just started following your blog and what you address here speaks directly to some of my concerns about teaching at the upper levels. I too have been struggling over whether or not to incorporate such textbooks in my classes.


  4. Liz M April 13, 2011 / 9:36 pm

    Funny, I was just complaining to a colleague today that I’m always being sent textbooks I don’t want, and she mentioned she’d gotten an interesting one–this one! Half my load is 1st year Academic Writing (hence all the unsolicited exam copies), for which I’ve used various textbooks. There are some I really like, but course evaluations reveal many students just don’t read them (you can tell the ones who do, because they’re using the principles in their papers). I haven’t figured out how to solve this problem yet, but I wonder if it would be more or less evident in an upper-level course.


  5. Colleen April 13, 2011 / 11:36 pm

    As a student, I loathed textbooks; I studied English because I wanted learning to be something entirely unrelated to study as a passive activity; I wanted action, with self as the primary instigator! In retrospect, I realize this was a somewhat unfair way of characterizing non-literary studies, but maybe not *entirely* unfair either (if the Chemistry, Math, Psych courses I took were any indication). Were I to go back to school now, I don’t think a more subtle view of different disciplines would, in practice, make much difference for me – indeed, I think I would be even less amenable to textbook-based courses now that I really know what I like.

    As a teacher, I was willing to use some exercises in class to achieve particular pedagogical goals, but I was never willing to assign the whole textbook; rather, I used it as a resource of mine, to be used when appropriate in building up lectures or groups of lectures. Personally, I would hate to feel constrained to use such a thing, and I would feel constrained if I’d made my students buy it. But that’s about *my* personal discomfort; if that wouldn’t make you uncomfortable and it would useful, why not try it? It’s not like you’d be tied to using such a text forever if the results didn’t entirely please you. And I think at least as important as the content of a class is the prof’s commitment to making it work – and you’ve got that in spades.


  6. Rohan Maitzen April 14, 2011 / 7:03 pm

    Thanks to all of you for these thoughtful responses! I think it’s true that the success of the experiment would depend a lot on how I used the textbook. My own temperament is much like Colleen’s (I love the way you put it, “action, with self as primary instigator”) but if, after I read through the whole thing again more slowly, I think it might assist in that instigation rather than interfering with it, I’ll try it. And it’s worth my keeping in mind that there is a significant constituency in the class that probably does not find their selves sufficient instigators. I take Liz’s point that many students might not read a textbook, but if I integrate it persistently into our ongoing work as a group (and into their assignments), I’ve done what I can about that, and that same group probably won’t be reading the primary texts closely either. This way maybe I’ll catch some of the middling group that has good intentions but isn’t quite clear on how to get where they want to go.


  7. JoVE April 14, 2011 / 9:12 pm

    In relation to Colleen’s point, I think it is worth keeping in mind that we who have gone on the graduate school and become academics were NOT typical undergraduates. We were a minority.

    I think that “middling group that has good intentions but isn’t quite clear on how to get where they want to go” is a good group to design the course for. I don’t foresee any problems providing challenge to the folks like us who need and want it. And if the textbook provides enough support to enable more students to engage with the material…


  8. Colleen April 14, 2011 / 11:29 pm

    I take your point, JoVE, but also wonder how students get better if we play to where they are instead of where they might be…? I suppose I am part of the minority, but I also know that the profs who kicked my ass all over the place to be better, much better, than I was, rather than allowing me to coast, were my best friends. When I was still teaching, I tried to be that kind of ass-kicker and some students struggled but some, maybe even many, came alive before my eyes and became a different class of student than they had been when they began.


  9. Grad April 15, 2011 / 10:56 am

    I went to college when Christ was still a child, so my experience with upper level English courses may be quite different. We did have textbooks and – believe it or not – being the pack rat I am, I still have some of them all these decades later. As I remember it, however, they were never used as substitutes for wonderful professors – which I had. Every now and then I will still pull down own of the textbooks as a sort of guide and find them very interesting still. Your students are lucky enough, as I was, to have a teacher who will never turn the course over to a text book, and I would have faith in your judgment in that regard whatever you decide to use in class.


  10. Rohan Maitzen April 16, 2011 / 1:58 pm

    @Grad, thanks for the feedback. And thanks to everyone who expressed such confidence that my students will be OK no matter what I decide about this. I do know that I will give them all I’ve got. I don’t know if I have quite the ass-kicking style Colleen enjoys, but I think I do make it clear that I have both high hopes and high expectations for all students in my classes.

    This particular course isn’t until next winter, so I don’t have to make a decision really soon. I’ll report back, and if I do adopt the textbook, I’m sure my experience of it in practice will come up often in my regular reports on ‘this week in my classes.’


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