Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bidding adieu to the textbook

Image from ProfHacker Blog post by Amy Cavender

Getting rid of my textbooks. I have been thinking about it for a while now, but keep making excuses for why I can't do it yet - students will be lost without a textbook, it will take too much time and effort to overhaul my course, how am I going to find (or find time to find) alternative readings...the list goes on. But I am starting to realize that the list of reasons why I should finally give up on textbooks is much longer.

(1) Textbooks are expensive. The textbooks in my human development classes run students upwards of $120 each - I can only imagine what they cost in the physical sciences. Budget cuts in higher education continue, and the way we often make up the difference is by raising tuition. My students are already working full time and attending school - how can I expect them to be able to afford these ridiculous costs? (Not to mention that publishing companies continue to send out unsolicited exam copies, which in turn drive up the price for students even higher. I already have an unspoken rule that I won't adopt a textbook if I receive a free, unsolicited, desk copy.)

(2) Students don't read the textbook. I would argue that the majority of my students use the textbook as a reference book. Sure, there are the students who obediently read everything I have assigned, but even many of those students don't take notes in their books, because that would make it impossible to sell back at the end of the semester. Then there are students on the other end of the spectrum who either never buy the book, or if they do, never crack the cover. I'm not sure how I can help them. But there's a good chunk of folks right in the middle who read the textbook when they are unclear about something from class or are interested in a particular topic, but the rest of the time textbook reading is a rather dry and dull way of filling up time that could be otherwise spent working, socializing, or (if I'm dong my job) actively engaging with course material through completing assignments, providing service in the community, or participating in online class discussions.

(3) Textbooks place restrictions on the structure of my class. Textbooks are inflexible - they provide a particular structure and perspective to the material that I have to work with as I plan my lessons. I work to identify the best written texts I can find, that use a structure I am comfortable with, and I've never felt the need to "cover" or even assign everything in the textbook, but nevertheless, I sometimes feel constrained. Publishers have suggested I take advantage of their "customizable" options, but really, if I were to put the time and effort into selecting just the sections I want, I really could have just identified primary source readings and filled in the gaps with lecture and other learning activities. Realistically, I end up doing that anyway!

(4) I want to foster critical thinking. One of my goals as an educator is to teach students how to think for themselves. I try to run my classes such that I am providing structure and guidance, and students are expected to evaluate evidence, construct arguments, and make decisions. Textbooks seem to reify the notion that knowledge is objective and immutable, and that students can rely on an authority to provide them with the correct answers. Instructors are almost painfully aware, on the other hand, that the information in textbooks is typically 5-10 years behind the research in the field. Furthermore, with advancing technologies, students have access to incomprehensible amounts of information in the blink of an eye, some of which aligns with their textbook, and much of which (for better or worse) does not. Rigidly demanding that they ignore this information and stick to the text is, well, ludicrous.

So this Fall, I have decided to say goodbye to the textbook in my Infancy & Child Development class. It's going to take some time to decide exactly how to do this (e.g., use only primary source readings? suggest publicly available non-academic sources? have the students write a textbook?), which is why I'll still be using textbooks in my classes this Summer semester. Once I have a plan and have tested it out and assessed the results, it won't be long before I make the switch in all of my classes. 

It's the end of an era.

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