Wednesday, February 15, 2012

They still hate the textbook

So, have you heard? Apple is going to revolutionize higher education with iBooks Author, a free app that lets anyone--university instructors, implicitly--create interactive iPad-based digital textbooks! The textbooks! Will have movies in them! And little multiple choice quizzes, and Keynote presentations, and image galleries, and digital highlighting! It's learning for the 21st century!

Phooey, I say.

It's learner centred for the digital age, for the digital natives who multitask and have different learning styles, and who have sore backs from all that book lugging they're doing! It respects the student and their screen-based interests! It is more engaging! It creates study notes on the fly! It's on an iPad, and students like iPads!

Double phooey.

I wrote about textbooks last year, around this time. Go back, refresh your mind, or if you want the capsule  summary: students complain about the textbook, sometimes with reason, but usually because textbooks require sustained, iterative attention to material that is puzzling, new, and just beyond the student's cognitive reach. You know, because it's meant to help them learn something they don't already know.

I got this year's course evaluations back, and I have an amazing textbook in my first year class. It's awesome: it's very clearly and directly written while introducing students to the specialized language of new media studies. It has lots of call-outs with contemporary, real-world examples. It has chapter summaries, and questions for study. It is short. It is lightweight. And yet, again with the sustained complaining about the 'boring,' 'dry,' 'difficult' textbook. Triple phooey.

They love me. Me, sometimes I wear pyjamas to class, light scented candles, and teach them to curse out peer reviewers. I put together slideshows with hilarious "text message speak" from the telegraph age. We watch Rick Mercer rants about how uncool Blackberry is. I dress up like Steve Jobs and pretend to do an Apple keynote from my little stage in the classroom. We do debates. We do group work. We do in-class writing. We listen to Public Enemy and look online for a list of all the samples. My evaluations are pretty close to statistically equivalent to perfect.

And let me be clear: I am so awesome and fun and knowledgeable and picspam and viral and pyjamaed and have the answers to all the questions BECAUSE I HAVE READ AN AWFUL LOT OF TEXTBOOKS.

There's really no getting around it. All my silliness is built around a core of pounds and pounds of books, reams of photocopies. You cannot ride the unicycle unless you learn how to walk.

Now, obviously, I'm very attuned to the need to engage students, to make the material interesting and relevant. My evaluations seem to indicate that I do that in spades. I read current research on best teaching methods, and believe me, I am doing everything in my power to make the study of new media in the discipline of English a well-marked, interesting path for my students to follow. But once I get you hooked on the topic? If you want university-level understanding and knowledge, you are, no bones about it, going to have to read some long-format, academic prose. There will be citations and reference lists. Some of it you will have to read three pages at a time, over a week. Most of it you will have to reread. You will need to take notes, and then maybe notes from your notes. You will have to write about it, and you will likely get some things wrong, and need to rethink what you think you understand.

My husband said the best feedback any professor ever gave him during his degree was this: "It's supposed to be hard," meaning, the material is supposed to discomfit you, confuse you, even bore you. It's supposed to be hard because you are learning. Be humble, be open, work hard, figure it out.

All the animated slideshows in the world are never going to substitute for that insight. It's supposed to be hard.

So, yeah, Apple, a blinkenlights textbook might have its uses. But I'm still aiming my sights squarely at my students, and to them I say: it's not that the textbook is boring. It's that it's supposed to be hard, and you need to step up to the challenge, and get to reading.


  1. Hear! Hear!

    This also further illustrates that student evaluations may be based on criteria that we (and the university) ought to disagree with. Like whether the course is easy or not.

  2. Haha, I love the "digital natives" theory, which turns out to be so so wrong, in my limited experience, in which students have trouble with email, let alone Moodle or other online platforms. There's actually an article about it in the Globe and Mail today:
    Thank you, Aimée for such a well articulated (as usual) post on the subject.

  3. Reading thoughtfully for not just content but approaches, ideas, praxis? It's hard. That's one of the big issues with reading-intensive classes. I am loving having daily presentations by students on discussion questions that are attuned to the readings. I do get better involvement from more students but a lot still pull out the same old "textbooks are dumb and evil" complaint (even when we're reading from award-winning and publicly beloved awesome cool books).

  4. Thanks for writing on this topic. I think there are a couple of really important problems you’re gesturing towards here, particularly with regard to textbook publishing and the consuming of those books. But also with regard to student learning. There’s a reason that textbooks are written by professors, experts in the field in which they are writing. What we’re seeing in the digital age—and I think that textbook publishers are moving more and more towards this model—is a kind of “create your own textbook” model. So we have what Apple is doing. We have the “custom” text. With this model, there is no sense of the whole: each chapter leading to the next and referring back to the previous in an evolving system. Instead, we can choose to include only the chapters we want in a kind of mix match. To my mind, this undermines the expertise of the authors and contributes to an anti-intellectual mindset: the mistaken idea that we can decide for ourselves what is important in this field; or, we’ll just choose what we like. Some of my favourite textbooks in my field are Smaro Kamboureli’s Making a Difference (on Multiculturalism and Canadian Literature) and Laura Moss and Cynthia Sugars’ Canadian Literature:Texts and Contexts. I like them because the authors’ expertise and unique visions on the subject of Canadian Literature come across so strongly. Those visions are important. What happens to a discipline when teaching within it becomes a kind of free for all?

    The second important problem that you seem to address is the notion that students want to be entertained. I agree that learning should be fun. What you do, Aimee, sounds brilliant—grabbing students’ attention and interest in order to get them to learn. But the real joy and importance of learning for me is what happens when I do that hard work: discovering or understanding a new concept, perceiving an idea/ culture/ object/ text from a new angle, opening my eyes for the first time. This is something that we can guide students towards and point them to, but ultimately they need to do that hard work to get that experience, result, and knowledge… which is, I guess, the point of your post. Thanks again Aimee.


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