Both books are full of obtrusive directions, comments, questions and pictures that would hinder even the attentive readers from becoming absorbed in the readings. Both also “are not reader-friendly. There is no narrative coherence that a student can follow and get excited about. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says T.C. Williams reading specialist Chris Gutierrez, who teaches a course in reading strategies at Shenandoah University in Virginia. For kids who get books and reading opportunities only at school, these types of textbooks will drive them away from reading – perhaps for life.
Such texts bastardize literature and history, reducing authors and their works to historical facts to be memorized – what Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve, calls “the bunch o’ facts” theory of learning. Students are jerked from one excerpt of literature to another, given no chance for the kind of sustained reading that stimulates the imagination. —Patrick Welsh —How schools are destroying the joy of reading (USA Today/Yahoo (will expire))
Where is depth?
I treasure the hefty, intellectually weighty Norton Anthologies that I ploughed through as an undergrad, during a rigorous two-semester 300-level survey on British Lit — conducted as a stand-up lecture by a superstar professor twice a week, and smaller discussion groups once or twice a week, led by graduate students.
I had the luxury of taking that survey course with hundreds of other committed English majors who actually cared about the subject matter. No matter how engaged our majors are, and how diverse and well-informed the students from other majors, I simply cannot imagine that the instructional methods that my professors used to teach me will help me do my own teaching. If I had teaching assistants to handle all my grading, and taught only two classes a term, then of course I’d have more time to write craft wonderful lectures.
Now that our American Lit courses have been re-envisioned as writing intensive, and the class sizes are much smaller (capped at 18 as opposed to 35 last year), I’m looking forward to going into greater depth. But I understand the temptation to cram more, more, more into each term and each class. I am teaching more short stories and one-act plays than I myself studied, in part because I find starting the semester out with shorter works gives students time to absorb the fact that filling a page with plot summary or writing down the list of symbols Spark Notes provides rarely leads to the kind of critical thinking expected of a college student.
In college, I had a few blue-collar friends who were students at the nearby community college. I remember having a conversation with them about textbooks, and recall that they had a bit of difficulty understanding that, for one of my literature classes, there wasn’t a big textbook with study questions and answers in the back of the book. For a course on modern drama, we read stand-alone paperback editions of each of the plays. For a course on novels, we simply read the novels. I remember changing the subject so it wouldn’t look like I was being an intellectual snob, but the conversation stayed with me.
I feel like I have to work hard at the beginning of each semester to get across the idea that I’m not here to teach the one “correct” interpretation of literature… nor am I trying to teach “my” interpretation of literature. And because students need practice going into more depth than “Here’s what I was feeling when I read this passage,” or “Here’s what this word makes me think of.”
I’m not using any of these mega-anthologies in my classes. I do have a mid-sized anthology in my drama class, and I will probably put together one of those do-it-yourself readers for Am Lit 1915-present next term, but since all the texts in Am Lit 1800-1915 are out of copyright, I’m letting the students make do with online editions. (The only exception is the Riverside edition of Huckleberry Finn, which has critical notes and contextual materials, and also the “Child of Calamity” chapter that’s not in all the cheap paperbacks).