Friday, August 23, 2013

Blogging to my PhD: How Much Should Textbooks Matter?

In several of the books that I've been reading for my PhD exam (most recently Crowley's Methodical Memory), textbooks have served an important role. Many of the researchers use textbooks as primary data to understand the rhetorical frameworks and pedagogical philosophies of the past.

When we're looking at contemporary classrooms, we would judge these things based on graded assignments, teachers' lecture notes, and--perhaps most helpful of all--actual recordings (audio and video) of what goes on in the classroom. Of course these artifacts are difficult or impossible to get for many of the classrooms of 50, 100, 150 years ago.

So the researchers do what they can. They look at the textbooks that were the most popular and use them to check the pulse of the times. It is largely through this kind of data that many researchers have built their case against current-traditional rhetoric, damning the writing classrooms of the past as stilted, overly focused on correctness, and ineffective.

Using textbooks to understand how someone teaches writing is a little like using building codes to see how someone lives in a house or using health clinic pamphlets about STDs to understand sex.

Well. It's true. It's not a flower.
I'm totally extrapolating from my own practices here, but I shudder to think of someone judging my teaching philosophy or actual classroom practices by the textbook that I use. While I think that some textbooks are better than others, and some are fantastic, I just don't think that any of them are that important to the writing classroom.

The textbook that I am using this semester, for instance, is much more "current-traditional" than my own teaching practices. It teaches students to use outlines in a very proscriptive way. It gives some lip service to the writing process being "recursive," but then goes ahead and lays it all out in a nice linear fashion anyway. In many ways, I feel like it suggests (if not downright insists) that there are steps that must be taken in order if you want to write successfully.

But that's not how I teach writing. I teach writing as an all-encompassing act that has to be felt through, not planned in advance. I teach my students to embrace the mess and figure out what works for them. I model outlines and brainstorming techniques, but I never suggest that these are the way to outline or brainstorm, and I actively encourage students to break the rules.

Also, my textbook is filled with grammar rules. They're everywhere. There are entire chapters dedicated to just the comma. In fact, this is the main reason I use a textbook at all. I take a lot of readings from contemporary news articles and creative pieces I find online. They allow me more flexibility and the chance to adapt to the needs of an individual class. The grammar rules, though, I want my students to be able to find in one easy place, so the textbook remains.

Grammar Is Tricky

If someone used my textbook to judge my class, I don't think they'd have a very full picture of what I do or why I do it. They'd think that I teach a lot of grammar, when I actually hardly teach any at all. I spend three or four days out of the semester going over the most common "errors" and give a small percentage of each major paper grade for lower order concerns. All in-class writings and reading responses are content-only grades. I don't even evaluate the grammar.

All of this has left me wondering how different our current writing classroom really is from the writing classroom of the past. I don't doubt that there have been changes. I don't even doubt that there have been substantial or even radical changes. But I've read a lot of books that paint with a broad brush, condemning the teachers of the past for their narrow-minded and stifling view.

I'm sure that some teachers were narrow-minded and stifling (a problem I don't think we've eliminated with time), but I know a lot of amazing teachers, enough that I think there's something in their blood, their spirit, their soul that makes them innovative and invested in their students' success.

I can't believe that's all that new. Perhaps it's an evolutionary trait that has made its way down through the ages. There have always been teachers who inspire and impact lives, and I bet they weren't usually going by the book.

What do you think? Are textbooks a good way to judge a classroom? If not, what does that mean about textbooks? Should they be changed, or are they always just supplements to the real teaching that comes from the teachers themselves?

Photo: , Jocelyn Saurini, Matt Chan


  1. Michelle,
    I completely agree with you that if you judge a class and how I teach by a text book, I am for one am going to seem very boring. Most criminal justice texts at the undergraduate level are more of divided into sections that would seem to go together with a lot of facts but not very much interaction (case studies, other interesting concepts or any personal relations with those in the field). They have gotten significantly better I believe but I recently reviewed a criminology text for a Ph.D. student. She wrote a comic book!!!!!!!! I was so excited. I am purchasing it. It was truly amazing and I know it will appeal. If I can get my coworkers to agree I would like to adapt it. It makes sense to use texts more intriguing to students when they are surrounded by all these types of technologies that keep their attention way longer than a text. I have been also trying to do more group work. We had some training this week on employers and common core standards that the U.S. will be adopting within the next few years. I am looking forward to this school year. PS I know you teach more than the text book. =)
    Jessica Noble

  2. Textbook are just one of the many resources in teaching. I guess it depends on how the readers and teachers will use it. Great to read such a very informative royal essays post.