Rob Weir: Teaching Without Textbooks

Roundup: Talking About History

[Rob Weir is the author or editor of five books. He recently gave up a senior faculty position to pursue part-time teaching, involvement with professional organizations, and freelance journalism. He now teaches at Smith College and in the honors college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.]

Here’s a statement with which everyone can agree: College instructors cannot assume that students come to their classes in possession of basic knowledge. Now here’s one sure to generate some controversy: In many cases textbooks deter the pursuit of knowledge more than they help it. The sciences may be different, but at least in the case of the humanities, most of us would be better off not assigning a textbook.

Alas, there are still some dinosaurs lumbering about who only assign a text and subject their students to drill-and-kill (the spirit) exercises straight out the McGuffey’s Reader era. There’s really not much to say about such instructors except to wish them a speedy retirement. If one assumes the ability to read as the rock-bottom criterion for college entry, there’s really no point to rehashing text material with students other than to clarify what confuses them, a matter that should be approached on a case-by-case basis. Any institution still devoted to text-and-test could usefully place said courses online.

Most of us assign textbooks for what we always assumed were good pedagogical reasons: We wanted students to be able to fill in gaps we don’t get to, engage in fact-checking, hear other perspectives, have easy access to data, find a framework for some of our more esoteric departures, and provide students with a specialized reference guide rather than having them reach for a general topics encyclopedia. Great ideas — except that it doesn’t work that way anymore!

Today’s texts are too expensive, too long, and too dense to be of practical use. I freely admit that it was the first of these sins that first led me to eschew a text in my introductory U.S. history classes. Houghton Mifflin’s People and a Nation retails for $97; Longman’s America, Past and Present goes for $95.20 and The Pursuit of Liberty for $99; McGraw Hill’s American History checks out at a whopping $125.75; with Norton’s Give Me Liberty! and Wadworth’s American Past relative bargains at $77.75 and $79.95 respectively. All of the aforementioned prices are Barnes and Noble online quotes; chances are good that a college bookstore near you will inflate each of these. There are only a handful of U.S. texts under $40 and only one, Howard Zinn’s ideologically loaded A People’s History of the United States that’s less than $20.

I decided to stop using a text when the $35 paperback I was using shot up to $75 and I simply couldn’t justify the price, given how little I teach from a text. (Very little generates more student complaints than a professor assigning a book that’s not used.)

Now comes the weird part — if anything, student achievement was better after I stopped assigning a text. Part of the reason for this is that textbooks are too long. Many colleges have a proverbial “‘gentlemen’s agreement”’ that more than 100 pages per week of reading per course is excessive. Even those of us who teach in highly competitive institutions know that there’s an upper limit. Even if you can get away with 200 per week, in an average semester your students will read about 2,500 pages. Do you really want one-third or more of that devoted to a textbook? ...

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