Conversations: On Which I Do Not Bash Textbooks

classroom management, teaching, textbooks

This is not a post bashing textbooks.

It could have been. I, like every teacher I’ve spoken to, have my textbook frustrations. I worry about the places where they deviate from my own philosophies, the times when they seem to talk down to my students, the times when they seem to talk over my students’ heads, and–perhaps most of all–making sure that I use them enough to justify the (often astronomical) cost my students incur by purchasing them.

But I’m not going to bash textbooks.

Stack of Books
I am, however, going to start this post with someone who does bash textbooks. In The Electronic Word, Richard Lanham has this to say:

People who study and create literature in universities seldom read the elementary and secondary textbooks their students have used to prepare for university study, but they would be horrified if they did. These volumes–physically ugly, worn out if distributed in public schools, bound in vile peanut-butter-sandwich-proof pryozylin covers, written in a prose style intentionally dumbed down by readability formulas that filter out all the pleasure of prose, written to offend no one–these volumes do a terrific job of teaching students to hate reading.

That book was published in 1993, and it was sparked by some professional hand-wringing over what the fast-rising ubiquity of electronic texts would mean for books, which have undergone a lot of changes.

Textbooks, too, have tried their best to keep up with an ever-changing techno-literary landscape. Most of the major publishers offer e-book versions of their texts, and even more offer supplemental online materials. Still, even with all of these fancy features and attempts to keep up with the exponential growth of technology, people love to hate on textbooks.

Rob Weir had this to say in an Inside Higher Ed piece:

Here’s the dirty secret that you’ll never see printed in a publisher’s glossy promo material: Every textbook on the market is a crashing bore to read. All the publishers will assure you that they’ve added special features designed to attract today’s young people and that the prose is lively and engaging. Yeah, right. The colorful maps, pop-out documents, intra-textual questions to contemplate, vibrant graphics, etc. serve only to drive up production costs and students won’t use them.

As Weir points out, those fancy features are now a sticking point. It costs a lot of money to make a pretty, eye-popping, full-color textbook full of pizazz. Sometimes this simply means sticker shock at the register for students, but sometimes it means students who are unable to take classes because of the prohibitively high costs. When we have computer labs and plenty of online material we could share for free, justifying those costs can sometimes feel like a challenge.

But it’s not the textbook writers’ fault. They are being pushed and pulled in conflicting directions and the attempts to please everyone often please no one.

Teaching is such a fundamentally personal act. We bring ourselves to our classroom and leave part of that behind with our students. Walking into a classroom and using a textbook that someone else wrote and assembled can feel a little like going into a job interview in a borrowed and ill-fitting suit. There’s nothing wrong with the suit, but it’s a little generic for our tastes and it doesn’t quite fit. As a result, we’re going to be a little less at ease, a little more fidgety, a little less ourselves.

I love pieces of every textbook I have ever used.

Sodra Perl’s Writing True is an immense inspiration, and the section on revision is unsurpassed in any other text I’ve read. Bruce Ballenger’s The Curious Writer captures the play and exploration of writing with grace and creativity. Susan Fawcett’s Grassroots lays out grammatical rules in easy-to-follow lesson plans with clear practice sets. Susan Anker’s Real Writing breaks down the writing process early and clearly and continues to build on that momentum with various purposes for writing all broken down into their multiple stages.

But I have never found a textbook that fits my needs in their entirety. I never end up using the textbook as much as I would like in order to justify my students’ costs, and I always end up seeking out supplemental material.

I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I should do away with the textbook.

It’s certainly not unprecedented. With studies showing 75% of students don’t even buy the texts because of the cost and that they’re dissatisfied with “clumsy” e-books, many teachers have found that learning increases when they throw out the text.

Weir suspects that his class improved without a text because he was able to assign more challenging reading to his students in its place. Geoff Ruth, a science teacher, says that teaching without a text forces him to come up with real-life examples to illustrate scientific principles, making them more pertinent to students’ lives.

I’m sure that these things are all true, but both of them rely on pointing to a fault within the textbook itself. I’m not sure that’s fair. The reason that I’m both interested in and afraid of teaching without a text is for the reason summed up in this post: “No Textbooks, No Lectures: Teaching Without a Safety Net.”

safety net

If I’m being honest with myself (and you, since you’re reading this), that’s really how I tend to use textbooks: as a safety net. They’re what I fall back on when I don’t have an innovative lesson plan. They’re what I call upon when I haven’t figured out what else to do.

I feel like, then, that I’m not being fair to the textbook to expect the act to go well when I’m using it this way. If I see it as a fallback option, then of course I’m going to feel less satisfied with the lesson plans and activities centered on it. Just like a high-wire act that requires the actual use of the safety net is going to be less impressive, my class performance is going to feel stale when I call upon my reserves.

I’m sure that this isn’t how the writers of those textbooks intended them to be used. For the most part, the textbooks I’ve read show evidence of caring writers who are trying their best to get their pedagogical insights to match the needs of a diverse and demanding market.

I’m not here to bash textbooks, but I am here to question the way I’ve been using them. If I’m using them ineffectively, I see two possibilities. I can either throw myself into the text whole-heartily and use it as its writer intended (losing something of my own teaching identity in the process) or maybe I should begin the process of moving away from textbooks all together, working toward teaching without a safety net in a way that forces me to climb the high-wire on my own.

What do you think? Are textbooks a safety net or have you found a way to use them without losing your sense of a teaching identity? What do you think your textbooks do that you couldn’t do without them? What are your favorite textbooks? Have you tried teaching without them?

Photo: Kristin Nador, Rob Gunby
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