The Case Against Textbooks

Here’s what you can do with a text book: read it. You can also lose it, rip the pages out, deface the cover, and generally abuse it until it has to be replaced. But as far as a delivery vehicle for content goes, you can basically only consume it by reading it.

Here’s what you can’t do with a textbook:

  • You can’t annotate it. How strange is it that students can’t add their own reflections or thoughts or reactions, that they have to do that in a different space?
  • You can’t search it.
  • You can’t link it to other relevant ideas or concepts in any organized way.
  • You can’t access it if it’s not in your posession.
  • You can’t copy out important information and paste it with other important information.
  • You can’t share it in any meaningful way.
  • You can’t have the most up to date information about the topic.
  • You can’t edit it.

    Think of how much more interactivity we have with digital content, how much more power we have to make meaning of that content through connecting ideas and people with it.

    The Case Against Textbooks (Weblogg-ed)

  • If students own copies of the book, then of course they can annotate it.

    They can search a book if someone else has prepared a concordance, and they can link to the contents of the book by referring to a page number.

    And there are all sorts of things that you can’t do with a digital text — such as read it without access to a computer, or add its weight to the milk crate in which you plan to present your tenure review package. Of course, the former concern comes with the territory, and the latter is no flaw in digital text itself.

    But I’m picking nits, because I’m mostly in agreement. I use printed collections of essays in my teaching, and of course I use printed literary works, but rarely do I use traditional textbooks.

    Since I think of myself mostly as a writing teacher, I tend to think of content as a means to an end. So I’m more interested in getting students to be critical thinkers and researchers, rather than have them absorb the contents of a book and remember it long enough to take a quiz.

    I’ll use a textbook in my “Newswriting” course this fall, but in my upper-level courses, I’m more likely to use web pages, supplemented with journal articles. Textbooks that cover digital culture go out of date so quickly that Wikipedia is often a better resource.