Friday, January 21, 2011

Booooring.

A secret vice of mine? I go once or twice a year to the university bookstore, and browse the English course books section. I want to see the books my colleagues are teaching from, what their courses are about. Very often, I leave the bookstore two or three books the heavier: I particularly love textbooks from areas I'm not really well versed in. They're such a dense, rewarding, and relatively fast way to broaden my range. Yeah, sometimes I slog through the introductory linguistics book two pages by confusing two pages, or the primer on discourse analysis one methodology overview at a time, but my brain shoots sparks as soon as I put the book down, and I can't shut up about the links I'm making between what I've just read and what I already know in the world. I have a whole shelf in my office of textbooks I've never taught from: most of them, I actually bought, just to read them. I just really love textbooks.

So I'm always surprised me when I get my course evaluations: a lot of students, every term, complain that the textbook was boring. In fact, every year, a significant proportion of students make similar comments about the texts I assign, usually textbooks on media theory, or digital media studies, or historical media studies.

They don't find the class boring ('Love the topic! There should be a part two to this course.') and they don't find me boring ('Professor Morrison bringz the LOLs!')--except when I engage the class in close examination of the assigned readings ... from the textbook ('We should spend more time looking at examples on YouTube and less time talking about the textbook').

So. In every class, every term, every level of study. A good chunk of people find the textbook 'boring'.

I'm not sure what to think about this.

It's possible they mean the writing quality. I know (and decry) that certain tendency in academic writing to render passive and dry what might be active and zesty: if a book is boring because it is wordy or pompous or unclear, it's fine to say so, and I'll say it with you. Sometimes, after actually using a book in a course, we all think it's not working. I try something different the next year. That happens. It's possible, too, that a book might be deemed boring because you already know the material. Well, I'm sorry for that: unless you change courses, you're stuck at the pace of everyone else who's never done a history of the English language yet. I've been there.

However, what some of my students (over the years) seem to dislike about these books is more fundamental, and more worrisome. They seem to dislike that textbooks are difficult to read, and difficult to understand, that they are too detailed and too minute in their treatment of their subjects.

I know exactly what I think of this.

The kind of reading that leads to academic learning reading is supposed to be difficult in this way. You are supposed to be pushed intellectually and conceptually by the material. The writing is complex and the chapters dense because the ideas and theories they explain and model are sophisticated and rich. Textbooks are supposed to be full of stuff you don't know or understand: that's where the value is. I read all the same textbooks as my students, but I find them, usually, fascinating--truth be told, every time I assign a new textbook, I learn something new from it.

Academic reading is hard. And hard is not boring when the effort leads to an accomplishment. "Dry" means someone is leaving their synthetic imagination in sleep mode. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, boring is as boring does. Approach your textbook as a readerly text, instead of deriding its failings as a writerly one (and if you don't get the Barthes joke, I have a good textbook for you ...) I guess it's part of my job to make this distinction clear in class, but I'm a little bummed out by the volume and consistency of this opinion, frankly.

What about you? Do you find textbooks boring? Or do you, like me, grab textbooks off the freebie table in the department mail room and bring them to bed with you? How about your students?* What to do? Is this a problem? Am I the problem?** Are textbooks the problem? Students? Should we all just make pedagogical videos on Xtranormal and do away with print?

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* I mean, do your students find textbooks boring. Not do you bring them to bed with you. Yikes! 
** Do you know any really good textbooks I can read next? What's your favourite? I know, I know ... I just really love textbooks.

7 comments:

  1. Many years ago I came across the concept of "academic literacies". We assume that our students are literate. And on one level they are. They can read. They may even read a lot.

    But can they read the type of material that you require them to read? Has anyone ever taught them how to read a theory textbook (or even just a theoretical text)?

    And there is no reason they should have been taught to read in this way. This is a skill only needed in university. And yet most of us are more interested in teaching the content than the skills needed to access the content. (Because teaching people to read is "boring"?)

    Also, in my experience, when you do try to teach some of these skills, the students think you are being patronizing. They don't know that there are different kinds of reading. And they think they know how to read.

    But it is a risk worth taking.

    I note in a math text I am using with my daughter, that there is something in the introduction about how to read a textbook. It's a pretty interesting textbook. Maybe you can add it to your collection: Heart of Mathematics by Burger and Starbird.

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  2. Jo makes a good point. Only recently has it come to my attention that many students in my classes do not know that the asterisks in the Oxford editions of 19thC novels that I assign lead them to notes in the back, for instance. I used to have a handout called 'Reading for this Course': maybe I should resurrect it.

    Layout and design, and even page size, make a lot of different to how well students interact with an actual textbook or reader. One year I was perplexed by a string of student comments about not understanding the material in the textbook. It was a volume of the Norton anthology, and the assigned readings ranged from sonnets to long sections of stuff like Culture and Anarchy: the only thing I could figure out that they had in common was, literally, being in the Norton, which does have very small print, thin paper, and a lot of peripheral information--none of which are typical features of the reading students do on their own. To some extent, I agree that they just have to buckle down and get it done, but I do try to consider the physical features of books I'm considering assigning. A series of slimmer volumes boxed up (like the 3-vol edition of Skippy Dies, if anyone else read that recent novel!) might just seem much more accessible, and would also provide more portable options, than the massive omnibus volumes most publishers offer.

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  3. JoVE and Rohan -- Good points, both. I do actually teach "How to Read A Book" and the resource I use is a short piece by Paul N. Edwards (it's very easy to Google). What's great about that is that is very accessible, very direct, and very short. I usually assign it to first and second year students.

    I do look at visual design of the books (and I am sensitive as well to how much they weigh, how much of them we will actually read, and what they cost.) Those onion skin anthologies flunk on all three grounds, and in what I teach I don't have much cause to use them.

    Thanks for your feedback!

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  4. A relatively well-known essay by Mark Edmundson http://www.student.virginia.edu/~decweb/lite/ touches on some of the same ground as this post and might make in interesting footnote.

    Perhaps new modes of e-text will allow the "onion skin anthologies" (this is a brilliant phrase and worthy of being a post-title of its own) to be used more effectively by students.

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  5. Michael, thank you SO MUCH for that link. What a great essay. I encourage everyone go read it, too.

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  6. What do I want? Textbooks that you can put on an e-reader, textbooks that we get to design. Why? Because most Canadian universities are fighting with CanCopy right now, and so it's illegal for us to even copy articles and book chapters and make them available to our students--that's so they don't have to buy incredibly expensive (and heavy) textbooks. I like essay collections and buy them all the time. But textbooks? Not so much. Maybe it's too Humanities of me, but I like having my students read the "real stuff" and not just a textbook version of popular culture, unless it's a collection of readings. But collections of readings are (with the shining exception of celebrity studies) usually not all that great for what I do.

    My students do not report that they are bored with the textbook. Maybe this is because I teach critical theory a lot, and so I do what Jove says...I spend a lot of time with students teaching them about hermeneutics because the material is hard.

    Boredom as an idea was invented in the 18th century, and it coincides with the alienation of labour and the beginning of industrial capitalism. If students are alienated from their labour in a system where they are supposed to go to school to get a job (and not to learn), perhaps boredom is the inevitable result. The answer then would not be more entertainment, but more pedagogy which puts the power of interpretation in the hands of our students.

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  7. As a recently former student I can say, that I love most text books. Then again, I kind of just like learning. The only exceptions are my art history text books, but they still get a pass because they have pictures in them. LOL. But no, I actually have started buying other text books that are about things that are interesting to me...and i sometimes find myself looking through my computability and logic course book to see if I can find a more solid way to argue...
    Then again, I do think that people who find parts of school boring are the people that want school to be easier, and whatnot. Its university, it should be a challenge. Your prof isn't going to hand you your A on a platter, you actually have to work for it...then again maybe my total love of critical theory did give me a leg up in my art theory course last term...I found that course super easy...and apparently no one else did.

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