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Goosebumps and textbooks…

I do love my job. Almost all the time, but sometimes, I can say I LOVE my job. This last weekend, I LOVED my job. I spent a good amount of time around a lot of writing instructors who teach basic writing (one of the loves of my life that never seems to get old). Most were unhappy with textbooks in general. They did their own instructional thing with students, creating work that moved and transformed their students from struggling with sentences to composing essays. (This will come up again…)

We talked a lot about the future of textbook publishing and found that while we all loved books, we all believed to some extent, that the future would be full of e-books, many of them free and easily obtained by students on various e-devices from phones to readers to pads to _______. We also discussed the fact that we knew what worked with our students and it often wasn’t or couldn’t be put into one book.  If  we used a book, we never used all of it, and if we only used 30-60% of a $75 book, why were we using it again? Some of us are forced to use books by a program that dictates book use (I’m in one of those, and I’m the dictator–long story–won’t always be that, but it is now); some of us have to use books by certain publishers because that’s the campus system; some of us get to teach with our own materials. And there was not one among our group that wasn’t willing to give away every bit of their stuff.  Not one.

Point one: I would like to be textbook free. I’d love to have a handbook to teach from and with and some readings online that students could get and read anytime on anything. Oh wait. I already have that: Writing Spaces. But for such a move, I need to not be accountable for 40 other teachers and what they do. I need to know that everyone, no matter what they are doing, are moving toward common outcomes. I don’t know that yet. So I’m trying to staunch the flow of blood, congeal what we do, (and I say that deliberately though it sounds really raw) at the site of a wound left by the past. One day I want no textbooks and no handbooks. I want to be among student writers who can, like ninjas, move from their own text to many books and back, with me or without me, f2f or otherwise. And I’m not alone.

Point two: no teacher I’ve ever met, who really loves to teach, is selfish. A lot of scholars are, however, reluctant to share. There is a lot riding on tenure and promotion: all one’s life, it may seem (or may be). So making a model of how one can share and get T&P credit for it is important. Charlie Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, editors of Writing Spaces, are making this model all the way live. A peer-reviewed collection of essays on writing, on the practice of writing, on the theories of writing… wait for it… for students. Why did all these teachers create materials for their own students? Because it matters. Why does a book like Writing Spaces exist? Because it does the same thing–it matters. It has the potential to re-create everything about a writing class–just like an individual teacher can.

Point 3: Lucky me. I get to be a small part of this. It feeds the part of me that was desperate to skip college and join the Peace Corps. It feeds the part of me who was a basic writer in college with no hope of graduating because I never learned anything about writing in school (though I read a lot–that ultimately was my salvation–and the writing center at Boise State Univ.). It feeds the part of me who is now a writing program administrator who is also the only tenure-track comp/rhet professor and the department Victorianist and often spread thin like too little butter over a huge piece of toast (no need to raise your eyebrows, I know it’s a crazy job)–because I want writing to be the subject of the writing classes at my university, in the writing program I’m supposed to be directing. Writing is a worthy subject, not just writing to learn or learning to write, but learning about writing. THIS project fixes what was wrong for me: lack of access to materials about writing written by writing instructors for writing students… and free. (The Subject is Writing (4th ed.) by Wendy Bishop and James Strickland is nice, but it’s not free.)

Point 4: I take back the handbook thing. I want no heavy, thin-paged, over-tabbed, overpriced books of any kind in my classroom. I want writing happening all the time with access to texts as needed, however needed, when needed and in various forms: audio, video, plain ol’ unburnished text. I won’t ever be anti-physical-book because I’m in love with books, but teaching with them–not necessary.

Point 5: I’m well aware that my colleagues may only value my publishing as it appears in book form, in traditional academic journals, etc. But what I know is that I can work successfully in a range of fields and have. I have no fear. In fact, it was that which moved me back to the academy. I was told once that I was a change agent. I was being insulted, but I took it as a compliment (and a complement)–and hold that accusation dear to my heart. I may be of the 20th century, I may value work in archives and the recovery of history (and do that work with great joy), I may be a Victorianist, I may be a director of composition, I may teach a billion things and nothing at all, but I am also of the 21st century and embracing all the time all that can be. Perhaps it was Gene Roddenberry who turned me to the future or Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein… maybe even the art of Chesley Bonestell. I’m not sure and don’t care because what I know is that being deep in the history of ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t invent a future different from our past. And if I need to, I’ll go back to publishing if I need food, clothing, and shelter because I’m an editor. Words will always matter in my lifetime. And I can play with them and make them shiny. The world needs me (and I know this will sound awful), the academy needs me, but I don’t have to need the academy (I mean, I need it desperately, in an emotional way–not financially). (More clarification, as if this will help: I want to teach, so that’s why I’m where I am–my friend, Maria, says I’m a ninja editor, and being such can suck unless you educate the next generation–in fact, I think you can lose your ninja card if you don’t teach.)

Point 6: The future must be free to everyone–all books all the time all to everyone (go Google Books and copyleftists everywhere now that I know you exist.) Remember public libraries–all books all the time all to everyone? This is the same thing, but easier. And writing teachers who share and give and give and create and give some more–they all know this. And that is exactly why I got goosebumps this weekend talking about the future of textbooks. The word “textbook” itself is terribly powerful to me and scary: not just book, but text, too, and that includes the connotation of megalomaniac control-freak massive textbook publishers taking over the world. A compound word that meant one thing in the last two centuries and yet can mean another thing now and as we move along to the 22nd century.

Point 7: Writing Spaces is a new kind of textbook–it’s an text-unbook. An un-textbook. It’s not the only open educational resource around, but it’s peer-reviewed and still free, and that may make the difference for those who work on it and publish in it. It’s also supported by a good press (Parlor Press)–a good press run by good people. Writing teachers can keep on creating and giving–but now they might get institutional credit for it. I’m emailing everyone I met this weekend with the link to WS. They’ll love it and be as surprised and pleased as I was when I was introduced to this project. I scoured the web site for the strings, the catch… no strings, no catch. This book already belongs to everyone.  Welcome to this century… maybe the next one.

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