Textbook balancing act

No, I’m not talking about improving your posture by putting it on your head. Rather, I am once again examining the possibility of using textbooks (both open and closed) as I contemplate writing another online class (this one Early American).

I have been looking at open textbooks.  Last semester, for my modern US History class, I used OpenStax. When I printed it out, though, it filled a large binder, logging in at 579 pages (yes, of course I printed double-sided). Then I discovered something much more succinct – the textbook at the US Department of State’s website  (don’t panic – it doesn’t get overtly political until the last three chapters, so I can use that for teaching).

I decided to use the State Department text for my Honors section, but as I worked with it, I decided it was good for my regular sections too. So I spent some weeks writing test questions, and am using it this semester.

But when I looked at it for Early American, it seemed sparse – only 7 chapters for 16 weeks. I realize that the historian who most recently revised it fully (Alonzo L. Hamby) is an expert in modern American history, so I understand why. So I went back to look at OpenStax, and others. But they’re so huge! The one I really liked, a good textbook written by profs at the U of North Georgia came out at 852 pages!

Then I realized the issue wasn’t the textbook, but my lectures. I have no online lectures for Early American history. But I have good, long, multimedia lectures for Modern American. So it makes sense for the modern class to have a small textbook (State Department) and the new course to have a more complete text (OpenStax, perhaps).

The lesson I recalled: when you adopt a textbook, really adopt a textbook, you have to acknowledge the reality of student reading. Many students today have trouble reading, both in terms of practical literacy and concentration. They have challenges of structure, vocabulary and content. We can’t do what was done when I was in college – assign a standard text, expect that they’ve read it, give a quiz or two, and ignore it in lecture. They won’t read it, or even buy it.

Current publishers have understood this, and now provide guided reading tools as part of course packages. Pearson’s REVEL is the most interesting, because it literally guides students through each page of the text, reading it aloud to them and highlighting pertinent passages. I call this Ethel the Aarvark pedagogy (from the Monty Python skit where the bookshop owner has to read the book to the customer).

So even if I don’t want to use the pablum packages (and I did consider this for my failed Jekyll and Hyde experiment), I must face reality about student reading abilities. If I adopt a textbook, I have to get into it, help them through it, work with it. It has to become central to the class, and all other aspects must be built around it. That will only work in a class format where I do not have my own lectures, but rather comment on the unit and the textbook. Otherwise, if I want to keep the lab aspects of my class, there’d be too much for community college students to manage.

Nevertheless, I confess that the pre-digested history in a textbook is not very palatable…