Choosing a Textbook--A Response

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Last week Holly Pappas wrote about her decision not to use a textbook. Barclay Barrios responds here. Last semester I was teaching a graduate seminar in queer theory.  I knew I wanted to cover some key essays but couldn’t find an anthology that would really work as a textbook.  “Easy peasy,” I thought, “I’ll just toss all the PDFs up on Blackboard.”  It didn’t turn out to be quite that easy.  The experience reminded me of why I choose textbooks whenever I can. For one thing, there was quite a bit of labor involved in tracking down the essays, photocopying them, and then scanning them to PDF.  I couldn’t imagine doing that work semester after semester, and I couldn’t imagine using those same PDFs semester after semester either—fair use has its limits. I felt fine using a batch of readings for this course since I knew I wouldn’t be teaching it again any time soon, but when I think about the intellectual property implications of my composition courses—which I teach far more often—electronic copies of readings feel less viable to me. Surprisingly, they’re far less viable to students as well.  The ones in my seminar, at least, urged me to make a course packet instead of placing the readings on Blackboard.  It turns out that a semester’s worth of readings can eat up a lot of toner—and printer toner is really expensive.   I was on board with a course packet until I tried to make it happen. Apparently most places expect the instructor to pay up front, something I wasn’t willing or able to do.  Given how few students buy course materials (for reasons ranging from financial hardship to lack of interest in the course), I could understand the copy shop’s position, but it did leave me in a bit of a quandary.  I finally found a store that would print all the packets without money upfront.  Fortunately, all my students followed through and bought the packet; otherwise, I would have felt obligated to buy any remaining copies.  This option worked out okay, but I wonder if it would have worked as well with my first-year students. Ultimately, I managed to put together a set of materials.  Yes, I got exactly the readings I wanted.  Yes, I saved students some money.  But it was a lot more work and a lot more time and, in the end, given IP and toner, we essentially ended up with a textbook anyway. Directing a writing program makes me even more acutely aware of the value of textbooks.  Each year I have nearly twenty new graduate teaching assistants, each getting used to teaching while also juggling a demanding load of graduate coursework.  Our textbooks not only give students the structure and support we feel they need for the writing classroom, they provide the structure and support our new teachers need, too. Ideally, there’s a roughly uniform experience in our writing program, such that any given student can register for any given section with any given teacher and learn the same kinds of things using more or less the same kinds of materials.  Textbooks—from our reader to our handbook—provide a baseline for that uniform experience.  In that sense, they’re invaluable. It’s wonderful to see how our teachers grow and develop as our students do.  Each semester I have teachers sending me links to online essays or articles that somehow relate to the readings in our textbook.  We share these so that others can use them in their own classrooms. Along the way, I watch as teachers begin to discover how to select, assess, use, and deploy readings in the classroom.  With each supplementary Web article they discover, they further hone a set of skills that will allow them to make their own decision, some day, about choosing a textbook (or not). For me, facing that choice each semester, the answer is still (for now) choosing a textbook.
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.