08 January 2010

On textbooks

As you know, I am about to start teaching a module which I last taught (conforming--or not--to a different set of guidelines/requirements/regulations/standards, but we can ignore them) ...I last taught two years ago.

But I have actually been planning this run of the module, partly because I do suppose I have to pretend to pay some attention to the new standards (which, although still meaningless, are actually less restrictive than the old ones). In fact the specified outcomes for the module are so woolly that the only guidance is contained in the shibboleth of "inclusivity".

(My unregenerate dark side still thinks that this is a euphemism for "dumbing down to meet unrealistic and arbitrary government targets", but really I do know better. Honest!)

One practical manifestation of this exercise is that I have been obliged actually to open the textbooks which we recommend to the students. (Only if you recommend them do you get to keep the inspection copies of the latest editions which the publishers so obligingly send at fairly regular intervals. It's quite an ingenious Catch-22. The students and/or the library will buy the latest edition anyway [although not necessarily of this particular textbook which is one of many very similar offerings]. Either, we can recommend it so as to get a free copy, or we have to buy it in order to understand what the students are referring to.

...Or of course ignore the textbooks altogether apart from commenting adversely on scatter-gun arbitrary quotations from them which add nothing to assessed work other than demonstrating that the student has ritually bowed before the Supposed Authority sufficiently to extract a few irrelevant words...

Sorry for the splenetic rant. (I'm jealous, really. I want to be invited to write the definitive textbook. As if.) There is a more serious point to this post:

It is about what "textbooks" do to their subject-matter. Probably under pressure from editors and publishers, authors have to contort and distort their topics to fit published syllabi or standards, and the effects of doing so are wholly pernicious;
  • they "send a message" that reading and expressing an interest in this material for its own sake is improbable or even impossible--it has to be packaged as stuff to be "covered" in the interests of getting a qualification. In other words, it positively encourages surface learning, while at the same time doubtless inveighing against it. I am a devotee of popular science books. Granted, they don't (always) go into the (technically) difficult stuff and steer clear of maths (apparently someone told Stephen Hawking that each equation in his book would halve its readership) They start from the assumption that their subject is inherently fascinating, and they (authors, agents, publishers...) will be happy if they manage to ...er, make money. But in this market, for once, making money is a good proxy for a good product. Not so in the textbook market which is artificially created by examination boards and accreditation bodies...
  • they regurgitate mainstream and conventional wisdom, with little report of dissenting voices and debate; simply because anodyne regurgitation (is that an oxymoron?) gets people through assessments. Evidence? Follow the treatment of a controversial topic (say, learning styles) through several editions of a textbook and see how it shifts to accommodate the conventional wisdom... 
  • they package ideas within the discourse of their avowed subject matter; I remember "Psychology for Teachers" and "Psychology for Social Workers". The selection of topics is not so much the problem--it is the stipulative rhetoric with which the material is pushed out.
Or am I just too much of an idealistic academic? Is it not simply trivial in the overall scheme of things?


    At 12:03 PM , Anonymous Roz said...

    This is a very helpful website, Im doing my masters and reflective pedagogy has been the down side of it! Im getting to grips with it although I just dont understand the point of throwing up an essay for this module. Should reflection not be something we do to self help as educators as opposed to something that should be stated then backed up with an academic reference. I know Brookfield (my lecturers favourite) thinks that educators should get a reward for reflecting but I think at this stage as a novice educator and learner it is only a regurgitation of texts and theorists and not a reflection on reflection for reflection sake!!

    At 1:02 AM , Blogger Marc Sheffner said...

    Dr. Robinson, a scientist (he worked with physicist Linus Pauling) created a self-study course, originally for his own 6 children but now commercially available. He has this to say about reading original documents rather than mediated texts: "As the student grows older, the actual documents of government should be studied—the documents themselves and not textbooks telling about the documents. There is no substitute for studying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in their entirety. But what about explaining them to the student? Again, the original is better. The student should read the Federalist Papers and other writings in which the founding fathers themselves debated the issues underlying their creation of our government... Petr Beckmann, an outstanding American scientist who was a refugee from Communist Czechoslovakia, wrote often about the "trust and parrot" method by which too many Americans form their opinions—especially about science. He wrote many articles in which he urged his readers to not believe him. Instead, he gave them the primary scientific references and asked them to read those documents and compare their conclusions with his own.

    In learning about government (or anything else, for that matter), our children should not be taught to "trust and parrot." They should not be taught to form their principles and opinions by reading overviews, or watching news programs, in which the writer or anchorman leads them to interpret facts in accordance with his own agenda. History textbooks—especially modern politically-correct texts, and even those written by people in whom we have confidence—usually contribute to trust-and-parrot thinking. Students should be taught to learn about history and government by unabridged complete writings of those who made history and created government—and then forming their own opinions of the events."
    Further on he writes about what kind of book to offer a child interested in ants: "If the child is interested in ants, provide him with books about ants and the means to experiment with them, but do not feel you must now incorporate ants into your regular curriculum. If his interest persists, get him the most complicated and complete text on ants you can find. Only part of this text will be understandable to him, but it will show him the limits of his present knowledge. This does not say, "This subject is too difficult." It says instead, "This is your subject presented in the way that it is discussed by those who love it best and have made it their life's work. Study hard, so that one day you will be able to fully communicate with them.""

    For a longer rant, read Robinson's article Books vs. 'Books'


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