teaching without textbooks.

According to the Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs, the cost of textbooks is rising at four times the rate of inflation. The average student spends $900 a year on textbooks, about a forth of the cost of tuition and fees at a public community college or a fifth of the cost of a public 4-year program.

For a private school like mine, the fraction is much smaller, but given our steeper tuition it adds to the burden that frustrates parents and students alike.

As a department head, I have encouraged my faculty to explore cheaper alternatives. We have just moved to a simple speech handbook for our general education offering, and we are looking at online texts, open texts and other models for reducing costs and saving trees.

But my concern is mostly a pedagogical one.

Frankly, textbooks often represent the poorer choice when it comes to learning, regardless of how much easier they may make teaching. Textbooks, particularly survey texts, are usually politically safe and aesthetically bland. If you bring together everything scholars agree on, you run the danger of collecting nothing anyone cares about.

I’m thinking primarily of big expensive survey texts, bundled with CDs and software, pointing to websites with exercises and quizzes and revised every other year. But any book that comes with packaged questions should be questioned. Faculty members should at least make up their own questions.

And if it was designed for obsolescence by one of the five major publishing houses that dominate the market, political and economic interests surely make it suspect.

Here are the questions I think about:

• If we should know our subject well enough to teach a course without a textbook, why don’t we?

• If students never engage passionate and authentic voices in our discipline, why do we wonder why they are so apathetic?

• If practically everything is a text, why do we depend so heavily on one format?

• In a world where 10,000 new blogs or websites are created every hour, how can a textbook be either current or relevant?

The tension suggested by these questions has spawned both innovation and deceit. Text book piracy is rampant, forcing some publishers to explore open source models. Bloomsbury Academic, for example, a British publisher hopes to have 50 titles online by the end of next year—downloadable and free, or available by print on demand.

A professor of marketing at Columbia Business School makes his latest text available online for free, but you get an email six months later asking you to pay what you thought it was worth.

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has installed a machine in its library that can print out and bind any off-copyright book in its collection in no more than seven minutes, for $10.

Such innovation is encouraging, but not an end in its self. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against books at all. Like any other teacher, I have encountered authors whose voice and insight have shifted my own, transforming my understanding and imagination.

But hardy ever have these books been textbooks, and depending too heavily on the safety and structure of textbooks has left us poorer teachers and our students poorer souls.

There is a reason our students seldom keep their books or begin to build a library of their own. They are largely untouched by the fodder they are fed. For teachers, it is easy to choose convenience over conviction and packaged solutions over passionate engagement.

Avoiding text books requires us to explore the tension between the canon and currency, between the book and the blog. The solution does not depend solely on web-based knowledge stored in disaggregated bits, although the means and ways of knowing are shifting rapidly. Instead the solution requires finding the best tool and the best technique, which rarely comes to us in one convenient package.

This sort of Resource Based Learning occurs at the intersection of time, theory and trade, where trade describes the market place or professional uses of our expertise. By referencing artifacts, applications and authority in this way, textbooks can be displaced as the primary source of learning in higher education.

Resource Based Learning (© 2008, Wally Metts)
Resource Based Learning (© 2008, Wally Metts)

I seldom use textbooks anymore. This semester my senior seminar read Henry Jenkins’ new book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I used two trade books in my journalism classes, a collection of essays entitled Journalism: The Democratic Craft and a “best stories” collection providing samples in the different forms, such as beat reporting, editorial writing, etc.

I’ve supplemented this by pointing students toward News University, an online training resource for working journalists sponsored by the Poynter Institute and Newsroom 101, a website with practice exercises in AP style and issues of grammar and usage.

This is my second year using this approach, and next year I expect I will drop the best stories anthology, allowing them to find their own examples and having them spend the money on a subscription to the Columbia Journalism Review instead.

But my project this semester was a miserable failure. I decided to teach my advertising class using no book at all, depending solely on online resources, of which there are many. I made this decision before my mom came to visit us this summer. That’s when we found out a cancer she had removed two years ago had metasized, and she went into renal failure. The doctors gave her three to five days to live, so we brought her home with hospice and she lived another six weeks.

Now I can talk all day about advertising, so my students may not be the worse for it. But there were days I wished I had a textbook to fall back on. And while I have a few web based resources I’ve been able to point them to, the planning and integration I’ve achieved doesn’t come any where near my vision for the course.

Life happens. And so does death. Developing a class without a textbook, however, is a lot of work, and the weeks just keep coming. I had a syllabus, but never finished the schedule of readings, instead making it up as I went along.

The students noticed, and given the circumstances were gracious and understanding, especially since it often meant less reading or no reading at all. Their projects are coming along nicely, however, and may redeem this experience yet. Their ideas seem current, and they are using new tools and models, so maybe they have been reading without me knowing about it or requiring it.

Now that’s change we can believe in.

When I teach it again in two years I will be ready, but I will include at least one trade book that probably hasn’t been published yet.

In the meantime, exhausted but undeterred, I’m developing a new course next semester on web content and management, where we will read a couple of best-selling books from the popular press. And build a website, of course.

I can provide the expert commentary myself.

That’s my job, after all.

4 thoughts on “teaching without textbooks.

  1. Anna says:

    I agree that textbooks are increasingly a dying industry, and maybe for the better. In my experience, while some students have access to their parents’ wallet for learning content materials, many students work their way through college, paying out of their own pockets for material. For these students, the sting of expensive textbooks is especially harsh.

    To what degree are email, internet reading materials, and online courseware contributing to the stagnation of the pulp and paper industry? We can imagine the impact to small degrees. With online news, newspaper companies are forced to adapt. With online courseware, textbooks. And so on.

    For those of us who like to imagine a world that consumes fewer natural resources, the “greenness” of email and online courseware is exciting. However, though we’re less dependent on paper for reading materials, we still use an exorbitant amount of paper–especially in product packaging.

    I know that many pulp and paper companies are finding it harder to stay alive. In states like Maine, a significant number of people depend on the industry’s prosperity, and the paper-pulp industry is a dying one. Maybe it’s time.

  2. Reuben Rubio says:

    We have been teaching a class w/o a textbook for the past 5 years. The class is the School of Ed’s educational technology course, w/ a course in basic computing as a prereq.

    What facilitates teaching w/o a textbook:
    – instructors that really know the field well, and are up-to-date (this is the most crucial, I’d hate to try this in an area where I wasn’t on top of things; thankfully all 5 of the instructors fit this description well in this area)
    – field that has lots of changes in the background knowledge and skill set (very true in this case), so that textbooks become obsolete fairly quickly and the “textbook economy” does not favor used books
    – lots of information is available on the web (e.g. standards documents, tutorials are available online; many who research and write about technology are also committed to online publishing and free access to their work, which is a hallmark of this field and also helps)
    – very well developed Blackboard site
    – course fills a very specific niche in the curriculum

  3. wally metts says:

    I like the conditions you’ve outlined here. Very helpful. I ues my point is that we should be on top of things. 🙂 I do think you could do this in a field without a lot of changes by depending more on seminal works.

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