Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Thowing Away My Textbooks

One of my biggest teaching accomplishments is throwing away my textbook. Not really. I still have stacks of textbooks in my office. The ones I've kept are valued tools, full of highlighted passages, festooned with sticky pads. It's clear I use them.  By "throw away", I mean I stop requiring students to buy standard textbooks for my composition classes. You know, the books that are 80 to 90 dollars a pop and 700 hundred pages long. They are packed with important concepts, sequenced in logical fashion, and full of exercises and suggestions to help teachers implement the lessons. Indeed, I could schedule my whole semester around the organizational pattern and logic set up by the textbook.

I loved textbooks when I first started teaching. I needed them. 

But I never finished any of the textbooks I required. At best, I got through half the book. Worse, within two weeks of every semester, I'd veer away from the calendar that I carefully crafted to match the textbook's table of contents. Every time I did so, I wondered if I was using the book incorrectly or if I had simply used the wrong one. Maybe I was just a bad teacher.  So I would vainly try again or pick another book. 

One day a teacher I respected told me that  if an instructor needed a textbook to teach a class, that instructor is not qualified to teach. Not qualified? I defended my use, but I had to admit he had a point. My mentor explained that textbooks should not drive my classroom design; textbooks should supplement and support the sequence and flow of my classes, not dictate it. Over the course of our heated discussion, I realized that I was guilty of depending on textbook to organize my class. I had relinquished my professional responsibility to design meaningful learning experiences to the textbook publishers. 

That's not to to say that I don't use textbooks when I teach. They are rich resources. The textbooks are a collection of extended definitions and illustrations of key composition concepts. They are the collected wisdom of composition teachers. But basically, textbooks are a huge glorified glossary, a dictionary with exercises. So instead of making students buy a particular textbook-glossary, I refer to them as needed, just as I would a dictionary or reference. 

With so many textbooks on my shelves, I pick and choose the best sections to teach various topics. I use two pages from one book to launch a discussion on audience, four pages from another to conclude a unit on appeals, and I'll discuss an extended set of paragraphs from another book to model coherent support. I'd pick those sections based on my expertise - what I thought would work when I needed them for the schedule I devised (and revised!) for a particular class. I stopped using the textbooks as a template for teaching. 

This move has several benefits. The first, students don't spend the better part of 100 dollars on a text that WE NEVER FINISH. I design the classes around what I believe the particular students in my particular classes need. I get to meet them where they are at. Because I am not bound to a single textbook, I am free to use the resources I find work best. It don't even use a textbook. There are so many websites with extended definitions and examples of writing concepts - that are free. I now spend more time helping students find and evaluate free online references, sites like the Purdue Online Writing Lab  and the  ones curated by the Writing Centers of other colleges. Letting go of my dependency on a single textbook, I began to see the difference between coverage, attempting to get through every chapter, regardless of order, and depth, the substantial learning that sticks with learners. 

This move from using the textbook as my teaching template to using the textbook to supplement my educational design provoked a bit of anxiety.  I hadn't realized how relying on textbooks kept me from actually thinking about how students learn - how my students learn. Taking on that responsibility was heavier than I had realized. But doing so makes me own my discipline in ways that depending on a textbook precludes. I can now explicitly say and demonstrate that I intentionally design learning experiences for students. Moving from my unconscious dependency on textooks (addiction?) was major shift - a scary one, to be sure. But I know, even as I suspected when my mentor first confronted me, I owe it to my students and my profession to do so.