28 June 2014
The Tombstones of Education
Many instructors (including me) get frustrated that students don't buy the assigned textbook, anyway. Banning textbooks is not capitulation to their misguided frugality. It's recognition that students don't view their textbooks the way we expect them to--and they may have a point. Students don't buy the required textbook because:
1. The information it contains is available more cheaply elsewhere (this is particularly true of textbook anthologies). Students in my "Intro to Fiction" course routinely come to class with printouts of the assigned short stories rather than the textbook I painstakingly selected.
2. The textbook is superfluous. Many lecture-heavy courses involve Powerpoint presentations that contain all the required material and that the instructor makes available. Additional study guides further predigest the material in advance of exams. The supplementary power of the textbook simply isn't worth the hefty price.
3. The textbook costs a lot. Students who otherwise no longer recognize the existence of library print holdings can be motivated to discover the library course reserve desk when it saves them several hundreds of dollars per semester.
4. The textbook is not as crucial as the instructor thinks it is. Students limp along without some of the required readings, simply because life is short, there are a lot of demands on their time, and they can.
When they do buy the textbook, they use it poorly. Many forces in their K - 12 education have taught them to view learning as information processing. Those who aren't trying to preserve the sell-back value of the textbook read with highlighter in hand, so as to sift out the information that doesn't matter from the information that does. Rather than taking on board whole concepts and ideas, they search for the keywords that lock on the learning goals or questions that they've been given to guide their reading.
I realize that things may be different in STEM disciplines that involve a lot of problem solving. Textbooks save instructors from having to devise problem sets, and they often give students several different channels for learning problem-solving strategies, practicing solving problems, and trouble-shooting their failures.
But these are precisely the kinds of skills that textbooks fail to encourage in other disciplines. More and more, we need to teach students to learn. Textbooks, which repackage reality into easily assimilated clumps of information, too often prevent us from doing that. Students want to adroitly navigate the world of information--hence their zeal for finding workarounds. By abandoning textbooks, we can better work with that grain rather than against it.
Of course, since I'm not actually the Queen of anything, I don't have to abide by my own edicts, even as I'm formulating them. But I have not ordered a textbook for the course I'm teaching in the Fall (a 100-level intro to poetry), and I am thinking about how to make my 1600 - 1800 global literature survey and Intro to Fiction classes textbook-free as well.