Teaching With/From/Against Textbooks?

Sitting down to prep for my class tomorrow afternoon, I realized something that I found intriguing: It’s been a long time since I last taught out of a textbook. In fact, I think the last time I did so was as a grad student … and I can think of no instance when I actually chose to teach from a textbook in a undergraduate class (with the exception of an anthology). In general, I find textbooks to be more of a pain than they’re worth. They tend to be very expensive (though that’s not always the case) and I feel like they limit my options in more ways than I’m generally comfortable.

So why did I choose one this semester? Partly out of desperation. Partly out of the desire to simplify things on the tenure clock. And partly because I know that my options (which in the case of this social movements class meant turning primarily to journal articles) wouldn’t really be appropriate for my audience … especially in the introductory weeks. Whether that was the right choice on my part, however, is neither here nor there. The choice has been made, the semester has started, and now I’ve got to deal with it.

As someone used to teaching out of journal articles, though — someone used to unpacking the thick academic prose and distilling the material for the students — I’m at a bit of a loss. The textbook (in this case, Stewart, Smith, and Denton’s Persuasion and Social Movements) is … well … pretty straight forward and already distilled. Perhaps I’m overestimating my students’ retention and comprehension abilities, but it seems to me that if one reads the textbook in an active manner (i.e., underlining, making margin notes, maybe even taking some notes) there wouldn’t be much need for clarification in class. If that’s the case (and perhaps my assumption is fundamentally flawed in the first place), what is a professor to do?

So this professor has decided to do a little crowd-sourcing:

  • When teaching with the aid of a textbook, how much do you repeat what’s in the text already? Rather than repeating it yourself, do you walk the students through doing the work of reframing/recalling the textbook?
  • Do you spend a good deal of time problematizing the textbook?
  • Do you make a habit of bringing in other scholarly sources/idea to supplement what’s in the textbook?
  • Do you tend to do more application or use touchstones/examples to animate the concepts?
  • Is your answer “yes”? 🙂

I’ve got a lot of ideas on how I might proceed, but I thought some of my much smarter friends might be willing to join in the discussion to help me and help each other. So what say you, smart friends and possible strangers — got any great ideas you want to share?

2 thoughts on “Teaching With/From/Against Textbooks?”

  1. So it’s been a while since I’ve taught undergrads, but for Intro to Sociology I do recall using a rather conventional textbook. In lectures, I would try to first highlight what I saw as the core concepts that the book had covered (e.g., here’s what this concept is, or the basics about this theory, etc.). But then I wouldn’t spend much time on the examples that were in the textbook–rather I’d bring in additional examples from other scholarly work to reinforce/expand upon what had been in the text. I think my logic was that coming to class needed to be some “value-added” beyond just what they should’ve read in the book.

  2. Thanks, Hannah! That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking, too — organizing class around the key concepts, bringing in other/better examples, mucking up some of the ideas presented in the book, and (since it’s a small class) getting the students involved in trying to apply it to things they know (e.g., more contemporary movements that aren’t covered in the textbook).

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