by Dr. Hillary Rodrigues
I will be sixty when this article sees the light of day, and although I feel young at heart, my daughters and colleagues assure me that that feeling does not translate to my appearance. So it should not surprise anyone if I cherish some old-fashioned ideas, and I most certainly do. I have a Facebook profile but almost never use the site, because I like privacy. I do not use Twitter or a host of other communication methods, because I am somewhat quiet by temperament, and do not feel the need to share my thoughts constantly. Now that I am confessing, I must admit that I do not like the telephone much, either, because I often find it intrusive. I am fond of face-to-face encounters when discussing professional matters of consequence, but prefer if these too are kept to a minimum. Honestly, my favoured method of professional communication, most of the time, is through e-mail. Sadly, this is now also my most common mode of personal written communication, and I regret my reluctance to take pen to paper to scrawl out my thoughts and feelings to my loved ones in my distinctive and progressively more illegible handwriting. Others also seem to prefer e-mail, because it has been a long time since I received a handwritten letter in an envelope sealed with a lipstick kiss – although that too may have something to do with my age.
I wouldn’t call myself a Luddite, because I do enjoy and embrace technological advances that I am capable of using to my advantage. I own a smartphone, and I text. Text messaging, of course, is what the word “texting” means to most of us today, and it seems to be, by far, the most common way in which my children distance-communicate with their peers. Actually, I too use it more frequently than the telephone to communicate with my children and my partner, although the issue of communication through texting can instantaneously elicit a (gentle?) rant from her about its many shortcomings. We don’t really disagree on this, although I do like playing devil’s advocate, suggesting that texting has certain merits, just as e-mail does over the handwritten letter. Mind you, I definitely do not always text the way younger generations do, as a rapid-fire staccato of near-immediate back-and-forth messaging. I mostly use it as a sort of Twitterish e-mail, that is, for short communiqués, and responses to messages that I don’t allow to sit unanswered for too long. In many ways, for me a cardinal value of texting is that it allows me to communicate with my daughters in a manner in which they are accustomed. This is a key point in this article, which is not at all about texting with one’s smartphone, but about the writing of textbooks – that old-fashioned informational aid – in new styles and media, to better serve the changing needs and learning styles of our students.
How useful are textbooks, anyway? As a student, I used textbooks through much of my education, particularly in elementary and high school, and as an undergraduate, and have found them to be of varying usefulness. Some were well written, helpful aids, while others were utterly without value. For instance, in my high school I happened to be in the advanced Canadian history class along with about 20 other students. The textbook that our instructor had chosen (or was assigned) was undoubtedly wonderful, but its prose was clearly pitched at those far more erudite than me with my Grade 10 reading abilities. Moreover, it assumed a sensibility to social, political, and historical processes that far exceeded our understanding, and analyzed Canada’s history from that perspective. Not far into the year we all complained about the text (it turns out that none of us was able to read and understand at that level), but it was too late to get a different book for the course. Our anxiety was heightened because our instructor, while extremely knowledgeable, was inexperienced at teaching, and assumed we would fill in the many gaps in our information base through our readings. While my classmates limped along with the advanced text with which we were saddled, I accepted the humiliation of “downgrading” on bragging rights. With my own pocket money, I bought the textbook that was being used by the majority of the other history teachers and my friends in the many “lower level” history classes in the school and studied from it as well. That book was enormously helpful. The result: greater success than my advanced cohort in the provincial exams (which, incidentally, counted for 100% of the course grade). I thought to myself, “If ever you teach, choose texts that your students can actually read and understand.” I also learned to appreciate the value of a well-written comprehensive informational aid, a trustworthy resource to which one could turn to find, where collated in a single source were reliable answers to most of the pertinent questions in a particular area of study.
I still have on my bookshelves some texts from my undergraduate university courses. An introductory text on quantum mechanics comes to mind. If the truth be told I certainly did not read it from cover to cover, but still consider it a useful reference. I painfully admit that during my undergraduate years I bought several science textbooks (at great expense) that were designated as required for various courses, but which I hardly used at all. Mind you, I attended classes quite regularly and took good notes. My professors generally discussed the material that I was expected to understand, certainly as well as if not mostly better than the text, which generally served as a sort of a fallback in case one needed another source of information and explanation. It did disturb me that we were sometimes directed to buy expensive books that we did not really need at all to succeed in the course that we were taking. I still wince when I read (in other professors’ teaching evaluations, of course, never in mine!) felicitously worded student comments, such as “Didn’t need to use the *$@%%# textbook!” Had I continued to pursue a career in the sciences, I suppose some of those texts might have continued to be useful references, although the shelf life of most textbooks in science and technology is very short. How useful are your old manuals on computer programming? When texts cost between $50-150 a pop, it is crucial that we think long and hard before making them course requirements rather than recommendations.
Once I began to teach, my attitude to textbooks shifted accordingly. Some of my early teaching experiences were in schools where the books were selected and assigned by school boards. The texts were either student friendly or were flawed aids. Teaching thus included the added factor of understanding how to use a friendly text advantageously, or overcoming a flawed one’s shortcomings. For instance, poorly edited mathematics texts might contain simple mechanical errors, such as a misplaced decimal, a dropped negative sign, or an incorrect numerical answer to a problem. In such cases, it is evident how both students and teachers need to accommodate themselves, with some duress, to the realities of the textbook. Of course, we need to accommodate and adapt in order to effectively use any textbook, no matter how well written it is.
Issues concerning textbooks were amplified when I began to teach at the post-secondary level because I was finally empowered to make my own decisions concerning them. No longer did I have to adapt to the books that were thrust upon me by well-meaning school boards. I could choose my own poisons. Having taught in alternate education milieux, and having had the opportunity to reflect on issues of pedagogy, the post-secondary setting allowed (and still allows) me not only the discretion to choose my own textbooks, but to choose none at all. Unfortunately, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben had noted, and Voltaire before him, with greater power comes greater responsibility, and the dilemma of texting or not-texting in the old-fashioned way plagued me as it still troubles most university instructors. The pros and cons of using textbooks at all, and the contexts in which they might work best, is a topic worth exploring – but not here, now. Suffice to say that if texts are used, professors should take some time to explain to their students the role each text could play in their learning experience, and how to get the most out of it. In contrast to high-school models of instruction, most professors do not teach “from the text,” since it serves as a supplement to our lectures and an additional informational resource for students. That is why students sometime “never need the &%$#@ book” to pass the course. If the book is a new and untried selection, it makes good sense for the instructor to get some feedback on how students are relating to it, and take appropriate actions to overcome any of the book’s limitations. i
I found myself faced with yet another challenge in my teaching career when the textbooks that I had selected proved to come up short. Although educators seem to routinely produce textbooks for elementary and secondary school courses, I found a dearth of adequate textbooks produced for university-level courses of the type that I was teaching. For instance, while undergraduate introductory courses in world religions are not uncommon, the vast majority of available textbooks were written for courses that are taught over two semesters rather than one. Every couple of years, publisher representatives would leave the newest editions of the same handful of existing books for us to thumb through in the hopes that we might select one for our world religions course. These newest editions would contain a few more glossy photographs, some colour-highlighted text boxes, a few study questions, and so on, in order to appear sufficiently different from the previous edition. This is still the norm. To me, the listed prices for these books seemed excessive (they still are), and the actual costs for students through the university bookstore were typically even higher than that (they still are). Most unfortunately, these books did not ideally serve the needs of my students (they still don’t). If anything, they provided too much information than could be taught or absorbed in a semester-long course. Of course, I would have liked my students to have been interested in everything, and to read the relevant chapters in these books in their entirety, but my students were often ill-equipped to distill just what they were supposed to absorb and remember for test purposes. The textbooks delivered equal doses of information and anxiety. Within a few years, my colleagues and I had tried virtually all the major freshman texts on the market, and found ourselves disappointed with their shortcomings. The main problem was that what was needed was a proper fit, which, like a comfortable pair of shoes, needed to be “just right.”
“Like frying pans and scissors, tried and true textual tools continue to be effective.”
It wasn’t long before our frustration and need reached a tipping point, and one of my colleagues and I decided to write a book of our own, specifically tailored to the needs of students in single semester world religions courses such as ours. While we surmised there might be other professors who would benefit from something similar to what we envisioned, our primary motivation was to put together a learning instrument that would be of genuine aid to our students. Realistically, we hoped it would at least be of greater benefit to and induce less grief in our students than the existing offerings. The outcome of that project was a text on world religions, which is about to be contracted for a second edition (after about eight years). Although old-fashioned – in the sense that it was still a textbook, with pages and print – it was new because it broke with tradition in many respects. It did so, in part, by making use of the technologies then available to us. Rather than construct a pricey, glossy, colorfully illustrated text, we produced a relatively inexpensive black and white textbook devoid of photographs. But while the most expensive introductory texts contain a hundred or so color photographs, our text contained an accompanying CD-ROM (remember that digital storage medium?) that held over 400 color photographs. It contained sound files, and computer software for reviewing material and self-testing. There was nothing comparable in the field like this book. It is still being used, although it is in need of an overhaul. Several iterations of the work were field tested on our students before the text reached its final form. Needless to say, producing such pedagogic work is extremely time-consuming, and outside of education faculties mostly not given the recognition it deserves. Writing textbooks falls betwixt and between the typically acknowledged categories of research and teaching. Perhaps this is another reason why university-level textbooks that are suitably varied to accommodate diverse courses and teaching styles are in short supply. Few professors want to take the time to write them. And despite myths that circulate to the contrary, writing university textbooks does not garner princely royalty rewards for the authors. If a book does meet with success through wide course adoptions, the lion’s share of the profits go to the publishers. Writing university textbooks for profit can be something of a fool’s errand. It should primarily be undertaken as an act of service to students and the discipline.
To return to my narrative, at about the same time as I was co-writing the world religions text, over dinner with some colleagues at a scholarly conference I was probably griping about the absence of a suitable comprehensive introductory textbook on Hinduism for a sophomore-level course. Among my dinner companions was a publisher who challenged me to pitch a vision for a volume that I would write if given the opportunity. I did so successfully, but discovered that the book I would produce, should I choose to accept the contract, would be a digital one – an e-book! These publishers were the editors of one of the first religious studies journals to be published exclusively digitally, a medium that was then (back in 1994) still viewed with enough suspicion to cast a shadow upon the content of material disseminated that way. Most of us implicitly, and quite absurdly, held the notion that if ideas were not transmitted and preserved in print, they were somehow of lesser quality. I do know how in certain religious circles, written scriptures, such as the Hindu Vedas, are sometimes viewed with greater suspicion and hold less sanctity than versions that are memorized and transmitted orally. Perhaps Gutenberg’s printed Bibles were also initially viewed with some disdain in comparison to hand transcribed, illuminated editions.1
1A century later, in an alarming reversal, pages from handwritten, illustrated texts were sometimes being used as dust-covers for printed versions.
I must admit that the prospect of producing an e-book disturbed me. At that point I was less concerned with the quality of its content, a challenge I would eventually have to confront when actually writing it! But who would read it, I wondered? How would my students relate to the prospect of reading a book on their computer screens? This was 2004 and e-readers did not exist. It was not long before ruminating on the varied possibilities and potential of the electronic medium overcame my resistance to the drawbacks. I imagined the book having hundreds of digital colour images, and web links, easy upgrades and modifications, and a low price point. In truth, while I am proud of the Hinduism e-book, it lives up to only a fraction of its envisioned potential. In great measure this shortcoming has more to do with the technical limitations and constraints facing the publishers than the potential of the digital medium. For instance, they thought that a file size of six megabytes was about as large as such a book should be in order to facilitate downloading speeds and computer capabilities. How silly that seems in retrospect, when we now think of data in terms of gigabytes, with terabytes on the horizon! In the eight years since its debut, students are far more comfortable with purchasing a digital book through a website, and reading one on a computer screen. From the 70% who said they preferred a proper printed book eight years ago, now only about 10-15% voice that preference in the informal surveys I routinely conduct. Almost all students like the search features, the portability, the capacity to expand photographs, the web links embedded into the text, and a host of other positives found in the e-book. ii
Besides taking the plunge into the e-book medium relatively early, my efforts to reinvigorate the textbook format also extended to some degree to style and content. Scattered through the text, I inserted about half a dozen short narrative segments that run for a page or two, and begin with the phrase, “Imagine, if you will, this scenario.” I then proceeded to recount a story that invites the student reader to enter into a scene drawn from my experience. For instance, “You have been horseback riding in the countryside of the state of Rajasthan and return late to your lodge on the outskirts of the city of Udaipur.... ” Despite the innocuous nature of such narrative interludes, they actually dramatically deviate from most traditional textbook formats. In the old-fashioned textbook, there is rarely any indication of the personality of the author, much less the inclusion of semi-personal narratives whose fictive status is ambiguous at best. Postmodern sensibilities that we are each situated and bounded by our culture and framework, as well as literary tropes within certain genres of Hindu literature that include the author within the poem or narrative, played parts in my decision to experiment with such an innovation. I wanted students to get a peek behind the curtain and realize that textbooks are constructed by real persons, and all that that may entail. Moreover, I wanted them to identify imaginatively with the scholar-researcher. My students seemed to like those features, but would others find them appealing, I wondered? Shortly after the e-book was released, I was fortunate enough to have the manuscript picked up and published in the old-fashioned printed form. Sales and reviews have been uniformly positive, alleviating my concerns about the quality of the content, and both digital and printed versions are now contracted for second editions. In anonymous reviews, almost all of the professors who used the text commented on how much their students enjoyed those narrative components, and the new editions will definitely contain a few more.
The successes in these efforts fuelled my interest in other projects to revamp the old-fashioned textbook. I currently edit an innovative series of books in which scholars contribute pieces written specifically for novice undergraduates. It is quite a challenge. Their articles need to deviate in several ways from the traditional academic articles that they are accustomed to constructing. Each chapter should begin with a richly descriptive first-person narrative of some feature of the researchers’ experiences derived from memory, notes, and so on, as they actually engaged in their study of a particular religious phenomenon. What, for example, did they see, smell, hear, and think when seeing someone enter into a trance to perform a spiritual healing? The intent is first to motivate students to read the text, thereby drawing them into the story in such a manner that they identify with the scholar-researcher. This person is not some remote authority, but a figure much like themselves, who is engaged in the process of experiencing something unusual and partially unknown. Only then do the articles proceed to explication, demonstrating how a deeper understanding of experience may derive from the application of methods mastered through years of formal training. Early reviews indicate that these pedagogic materials are being recognized as valuable and effective learning aids for student and specialist.
I am not by any means suggesting that textbooks are optimal teaching aids in all types of courses and at all levels of post-secondary education. I do know that I found my instructional introductory textbook in Sanskrit language and grammar indispensable when I first undertook undergraduate studies in that language. In many other such contexts textbooks work, and work well. They are traditional tools that have been with us for centuries, and although old-fashioned, should not simply be abandoned for that reason alone. Like frying pans and scissors, tried and true textual tools continue to be effective. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to try to improve upon old favourites, to make them resonate with our students’ current learning styles and skills. For instance, my colleagues and I see enormous potential in the construction of engaging interactive texts through new software technologies, and would like to experiment in that direction. We sense the possibility of surpassing the limitations we encountered with our world religion text’s CD-ROM, or in the somewhat attenuated incarnation of the Hinduism e-book. With the assistance of the Teaching Centre and Information Technology at the University of Lethbridge, I have also created a website that is something like a virtual textbook. It consists of encyclopedia-styled articles on aspects of the Hindu tradition written entirely by students. By seeing what their classmates in previous years have been able to produce, students are inspired to construct their own researched pieces and contribute to this virtual text, which is a work in continuous process.
Just where the world of information presentation and access will go in the years ahead is difficult to predict with certainty. Micro-tutorial YouTube lectures and massive open online courses (MOOCs) are examples of new options that provide students with a variety of alternate methods of accessing information and acquiring learning. In some of these cases, the video-lecture functions as text, with equally questionable efficacy. The textbook too is not immune to the changes that the future might bring. However, for as long as it is still regarded as a worthwhile instrument in an educator’s toolkit, it is essential to understand a textbook’s value and purpose, and how best to utilize it. Moreover, it makes good sense to keep innovating and refining old-fashioned items, until, like matchboxes and pencils, our indispensable need for them disappears entirely.
i On this topic, see: Berry, T., Cook, L., Hill, N., & Stevens, K. (2011). An Exploratory Analysis of Textbook Usage and Study Habits: Misperceptions and Barriers to Success. College Teaching, 59(1), 31-39.
ii Some recent studies of student reactions to e-texts are found in: Stone, R., & Baker-Eveleth, L. (2013). Students’ intentions to purchase electronic textbooks. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 25(1), 27-47, and Daniel, D. B., & Woody, W. (2013). E-textbooks at what cost? Performance and use of electronic v. print texts. Computers & Education, 18-23.