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Singin’ The Textbook Blues

As I get nearer to the end of the semester (hard to believe) by necessity I am setting my sights on Spring, 2015. I am bringing a group of students to South Africa during the January Interim and so I must get my syllabi completed early (not my typical modus operandi) before I travel. And that leaves me to face one of my pedagogical demons on what to do about a textbook.

There was a time when I loved textbooks and enjoyed reading them along with my classes. They provided the overview and covered topics so that I could be free to go in depth on one topic and ignore another, content with the blissful and naïve notion that my students were backfilling when necessary.

Something has happened in the past five years that has led to the “textbook blues.” I still believe that textbooks have value for the reasons outlined above. But I have watched them increase in price to the point where it is cheaper to take a Caribbean cruise. So in order to keep down the costs for my students, I tend to require older editions, which is heresy in the social sciences. I then take the responsibility of providing the cutting edge findings, which sometimes means that I have to pronounce the printed word as wrong.


There are other problems that feed my textbook blues. A major source of student discontent is that I do not incorporate much of the textbook in my slides or my lecture/discussions. I guess I have always felt that the students can get the information from the book—a lot of it is not rocket science and the parts that are difficult are the topics that I enjoy elaborating upon in class. Although I do not repeat the textbook in my lectures, now more than ever before my students want me to do so. If not, they falsely assume that it is not important. And when I tell my students that is not the case, I fear they don’t believe me. When the material appears on an exam, some students are a tad unhappy with me and a tad unhappy with the course.

Sigh–more textbook blues.

But perhaps the biggest source of my blues comes from the textbooks themselves. With all due respect to my colleagues who are textbook authors (I have written them myself)—I honestly find them to be BORING!!! I am sure it is a combination of my spending too many years reading the same material written by different authors and the way in which the texts themselves are written. It seems as if they are no longer innovative or written for interest.

Cookie Star Cutters

Most follow a cookie-cutter pattern that gives them a corporate feel. Textbook by editorial committee. The author (s)’ soul no longer appears in the writing. More importantly, the books don’t seem to stimulate student thinking. What does matter are the photo programs, the boxed inserts, the simplistic distillation of complex information, and the appeal to current topics — not current if you use older editions. What sells are the ancillaries—the PowerPoint slides, the test bank, and the teacher’s guide. Believe me—I love those ancillaries as much as the next professor—but a good solid textbook they do not make.

 What to do about those blues???

I have been mulling over going textbookless for several semesters, but haven’t had the nerve. It is almost as scary as having your technology fail, or facing an entire class period unprepared. So, I have been a coward and semester after semester I spend a good amount of time searching for a textbook I like, not finding one, settling for the tried-and-true old model, and singing the textbook blues for the semester.

 Was the answer in the recent CATL workshop on teaching without a textbook?

Dr. Carol Cirka from Ursinus College gave a lively presentation of what she now does in her 3 management classes. Her presentation was interesting, informative, and delivered a step-by-step process whereby she has “flipped” her classroom by requiring a set group of readings (approximately one per week). Class time is spent working on activities related to the readings. She no longer feels compelled to cover all of that content. She claims positive learning outcomes, a happier and more learned class, and no experience of the textbook blues. Most importantly, Dr. Cirka claims that the students have taken the material and worked with it in creative and analytic ways—the kind of stuff that we all want our students to do.

I was impressed. And yet—my own textbook blues did not dissipate. “Works great for her small private school—not a UW-Green Bay thing.” “My students will not get all the information they need.” “I’ll bet this can only work for business classes—certainly not Dying, Death & Loss!” And thus, when Sherry Lanceski asked me what books I wanted to use for the spring semester—well you know what I did!


 The epiphanous moment happened…

Several days ago at a conference in Omaha Nebraska, I was honored to deliver the keynote address, and then attended a number of breakout sessions. One was about teaching my type of class without a textbook!! Somehow having the idea related to my own content made the process seem doable and desirable. And thus, I think I am going to take the plunge, and when I work on my syllabi once finals are done, I am going to select a weekly reading, backfill the general lay of the topic with my own lectures, and have the students work in groups relating the readings to my lectures.

No textbook!!!

And hopefully no textbook blues!!! I will let you know in future blogs how this is faring. This is big stuff for someone who has been teaching “the old way” for decades. I guess you can teach old profs new tricks. Here is to a rosy (not blue) spring semester!

P.S. Dr. Cirka’s slides can be found on the CATL website in the archived workshops.


Illene CupitIllene Cupit,
Professor, Human Development
Faculty Consultant

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