Teaching Without Textbooks

March 6, 2007

Here’s a statement with which everyone can agree: College instructors cannot assume that students come to their classes in possession of basic knowledge. Now here’s one sure to generate some controversy: In many cases textbooks deter the pursuit of knowledge more than they help it. The sciences may be different, but at least in the case of the humanities, most of us would be better off not assigning a textbook.

Alas, there are still some dinosaurs lumbering about who only assign a text and subject their students to drill-and-kill (the spirit) exercises straight out the McGuffey’s Reader era. There’s really not much to say about such instructors except to wish them a speedy retirement. If one assumes the ability to read as the rock-bottom criterion for college entry, there’s really no point to rehashing text material with students other than to clarify what confuses them, a matter that should be approached on a case-by-case basis. Any institution still devoted to text-and-test could usefully place said courses online.

Most of us assign textbooks for what we always assumed were good pedagogical reasons: We wanted students to be able to fill in gaps we don’t get to, engage in fact-checking, hear other perspectives, have easy access to data, find a framework for some of our more esoteric departures, and provide students with a specialized reference guide rather than having them reach for a general topics encyclopedia. Great ideas -- except that it doesn’t work that way anymore!

Today’s texts are too expensive, too long, and too dense to be of practical use. I freely admit that it was the first of these sins that first led me to eschew a text in my introductory U.S. history classes. Houghton Mifflin’s People and a Nation retails for $97; Longman’s America, Past and Present goes for $95.20 and The Pursuit of Liberty for $99; McGraw Hill’s American History checks out at a whopping $125.75; with Norton’s Give Me Liberty! and Wadworth’s American Past relative bargains at $77.75 and $79.95 respectively. All of the aforementioned prices are Barnes and Noble online quotes; chances are good that a college bookstore near you will inflate each of these. There are only a handful of U.S. texts under $40 and only one, Howard Zinn’s ideologically loaded A People’s History of the United States that’s less than $20.

I decided to stop using a text when the $35 paperback I was using shot up to $75 and I simply couldn’t justify the price, given how little I teach from a text. (Very little generates more student complaints than a professor assigning a book that’s not used.)

Now comes the weird part -- if anything, student achievement was better after I stopped assigning a text. Part of the reason for this is that textbooks are too long. Many colleges¬† have a proverbial “‘gentlemen’s agreement”’ that more than 100 pages per week of reading per course is excessive. Even those of us who teach in highly competitive institutions know that there’s an upper limit. Even if you can get away with 200 per week, in an average semester your students will read about 2,500 pages. Do you really want one-third or more of that devoted to a textbook? My initial trade was easy; dumping the text meant I could assign an extra three monographs and probe topics in depth that would otherwise have been glossed. Students consistently tell me they were happy to have read a biography on Betty Friedan or a study of the civil rights movement rather than a textbook. I’m sure that they’ll retain much more from such studies.

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. Note to profs: Got an image or a chart you really want students to use? Put it on a PowerPoint and project it in class.

Texts are not boring because of the people who write them. I know many of the folks whose names are on texts and know that they’re dynamic teachers and writers. The problem is density. Put simply, most texts try to do way too much. I’m a proponent of multiculturalism and the last thing in the world we need is a return to “dead white men” history, but the more any text tries to do, the less coherent it will be. What would make more sense is for publishers to knock out some specialized texts. I’m a social and cultural historian and there’s little that I teach doesn’t reference race, class, and gender; hence, I don’t need a text that parrots me in print. What I could use is a really short political/economic history; just as those whose specialty is political history would probably appreciate a nice cultural survey, or perhaps one that discusses multiculturalism.

But what about all those good reasons we assigned texts? Sorry, folks, but that’s old thinking and old learning style. Students tell me that if they need a fact, it’s a mouse click away. They also know about data bases the likes of which no textbook can touch, can locate images to illustrate their papers through a simple Google search, and have access to every one of their library’s specialized reference guides from their laptop. Heck, quite a few of them get so excited by thoughts stimulated by lectures and monographs that they kick off their bunny slippers and get actual books off the library shelf.

Are there some students who can benefit from a text? Yes, but why make them shell out $100? History has several online texts they can read for free, as well as outlines that are much more coherent than most texts. One can also, as I do, simply place a text -- any old one will do -- on library reserve. Not surprisingly, students don’t seem to resent texts nearly as much when they can consult them when needed and for free.

My advice is trash the text. Assign monographs. Fill in the needed blanks and don’t worry about covering every topic. Your students will thank you.

Bio

Rob Weir is the author or editor of five books. He recently gave up a senior faculty position to pursue part-time teaching, involvement with professional organizations, and freelance journalism. He now teaches at Smith College and in the honors college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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