Behind the Textbook: The Goldilocks Principle

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The classes I teach are more about critical thinking than writing, so I am always looking for readings with ideas that students can work with, synthesize, connect to other ideas, extend, complicate, or challenge. But finding those types of readings is easier said than done. When I start looking for readings, I operate with something of a “Goldilocks Principle” in mind:
  • Not too long, not too short.Readings that are too long can overwhelm students, but if readings are too short they don’t provide students with enough material for writing the kinds of papers we ask them to write in our courses.
  • Not too dense, not too easy.If the prose is so dense as to be impenetrable, students won’t be able to get to the ideas of the piece—and that’s the stuff I want them working with. But if the style of writing is too easy, the selection as a whole may not have enough weight—it might not fit in with the kind of academic writing we ask of our students.
  • Not too narrative, not too theoretical.Students love an engaging story, but if the piece is too narrative then it’s more difficult for students to find ideas to work with. At the same time, if a piece is too theoretical (too jammed with ideas), students can get lost.
  • Not too controversial, not too boring.Controversy is a great way to spark class discussion, but I find that with hot-button topics students quickly default to a black-or-white, pro-or-con position.  I’d much rather have them explore the gray. At the same time, if a selection is boring I won’t want to teach it, and if I can’t get excited about it then I can’t get students excited about it.
Of course, all of these factors are multiplied given that I am working on a textbook.  That means I can’t think about just my students; I have to think about your students too. And that’s not easy, to be sure. What principles do you keep in mind when looking for materials to use in your class?
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.