A secret vice of mine? I go once or twice a year to the university bookstore, and browse the English course books section. I want to see the books my colleagues are teaching from, what their courses are about. Very often, I leave the bookstore two or three books the heavier: I particularly love textbooks from areas I’m not really well versed in. They’re such a dense, rewarding, and relatively fast way to broaden my range. Yeah, sometimes I slog through the introductory linguistics book two pages by confusing two pages, or the primer on discourse analysis one methodology overview at a time, but my brain shoots sparks as soon as I put the book down, and I can’t shut up about the links I’m making between what I’ve just read and what I already know in the world. I have a whole shelf in my office of textbooks I’ve never taught from: most of them, I actually bought, just to read them. I just really love textbooks.
So I’m always surprised me when I get my course evaluations: a lot of students, every term, complain that the textbook was boring. In fact, every year, a significant proportion of students make similar comments about the texts I assign, usually textbooks on media theory, or digital media studies, or historical media studies.
They don’t find the class boring (‘Love the topic! There should be a part two to this course.’) and they don’t find me boring (‘Professor Morrison bringz the LOLs!’)–except when I engage the class in close examination of the assigned readings … from the textbook (‘We should spend more time looking at examples on YouTube and less time talking about the textbook’).
So. In every class, every term, every level of study. A good chunk of people find the textbook ‘boring’.
I’m not sure what to think about this.
It’s possible they mean the writing quality. I know (and decry) that certain tendency in academic writing to render passive and dry what might be active and zesty: if a book is boring because it is wordy or pompous or unclear, it’s fine to say so, and I’ll say it with you. Sometimes, after actually using a book in a course, we all think it’s not working. I try something different the next year. That happens. It’s possible, too, that a book might be deemed boring because you already know the material. Well, I’m sorry for that: unless you change courses, you’re stuck at the pace of everyone else who’s never done a history of the English language yet. I’ve been there.
However, what some of my students (over the years) seem to dislike about these books is more fundamental, and more worrisome. They seem to dislike that textbooks are difficult to read, and difficult to understand, that they are too detailed and too minute in their treatment of their subjects.
I know exactly what I think of this.
The kind of reading that leads to academic learning reading is supposed to be difficult in this way. You are supposed to be pushed intellectually and conceptually by the material. The writing is complex and the chapters dense because the ideas and theories they explain and model are sophisticated and rich. Textbooks are supposed to be full of stuff you don’t know or understand: that’s where the value is. I read all the same textbooks as my students, but I find them, usually, fascinating–truth be told, every time I assign a new textbook, I learn something new from it.
Academic reading is hard. And hard is not boring when the effort leads to an accomplishment. “Dry” means someone is leaving their synthetic imagination in sleep mode. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, boring is as boring does. Approach your textbook as a readerly text, instead of deriding its failings as a writerly one (and if you don’t get the Barthes joke, I have a good textbook for you …) I guess it’s part of my job to make this distinction clear in class, but I’m a little bummed out by the volume and consistency of this opinion, frankly.
What about you? Do you find textbooks boring? Or do you, like me, grab textbooks off the freebie table in the department mail room and bring them to bed with you? How about your students?* What to do? Is this a problem? Am I the problem?** Are textbooks the problem? Students? Should we all just make pedagogical videos on Xtranormal and do away with print?
* I mean, do your students find textbooks boring. Not do you bring them to bed with you. Yikes!
** Do you know any really good textbooks I can read next? What’s your favourite? I know, I know … I just really love textbooks.