No Textbooks

It’s that time of the year when I begin to think about teaching again. I’m on vacation this week, and one of the things I have to do is revise my writing seminar syllabus for the upcoming semester to reflect the change from “Liberal / Conservative” to “Liberalism and Its Critics.” (Less conservatism and more communitarianism, republicanism, feminism, etc.)

It might interest some librarians to know just how much I rely on the library to supply my course texts. The answer is, almost completely, since I don’t require the students to purchase any outside texts. I know a lot of teachers still put together course packets, but I think these are unnecessary if your academic library supplies the right services.

My course has no book-length sources, because I like to pack as many different viewpoints into 12 weeks as I can (we have only 12 weeks of class for a semester), and a single book of political philosophy could take up half a semester, especially with freshman. We usually get through about 10-12 essays over the course of the semester, many of which can be found on JSTOR, which has a strong political philosophy collection. Anything not available on JSTOR or another of our many databases can be scanned and made available through our electronic reserves. Thus, all the primary readings are available electronically to the students at all times via Blackboard.

For the writing resources, I rely mostly upon websites: Silva Rhetoricae, Nuts & Bolts of College Writing, and Research and Documentation Online. The Purdue OWL is good as well, but I don’t use it. Most of the material I want I create or recreate in my own handouts, also available electronically. I have a whole set of handouts on classical rhetoric and writing techniques, some of which I’ve made myself, and some of which I’ve borrowed (with attribution) from others. A lot of the writing instruction is embedded in discussions of course assignments and student essays, anyway.

When I started teaching 15 years ago, none of this was available. The WWW was still pretty new, and if there was much content on it about academic writing, I didn’t know about it, because I’ve never been an early adopter. (I’m embarrassed to say when I first used email, but let’s just say I avoided it as long as possible.) Reserves consisted of paper in folders at one specific physical location that could be accessed by only one student at a time, unless one wanted to duplicate the material in multiple folders. Thus, course packets were the best choice for those who didn’t like commercially available textbooks (and I’ve never been particularly impressed with the general run of writing textbooks).

And now, with some work by the library supplemented by a few good websites, everything my students need is online and easily accessible. The students don’t have to pay anything or go anywhere to get the material. They also can’t complain that the textbooks are sold out or that they’ve lost their course packets. I have the ability through Blackboard to control the presentaton and organization of the materials and make sure they really are available. I can repackage the same materials for different course emphases with ease. This is just one minor example of the way emerging technology and a library’s commitment to academic services can significantly improve the life of both teachers and students.