Five Ways to Think Differently About Textbooks

The Higher Education Division of UTP is quickly approaching its fifth anniversary, and in advance of this hallmark, we will be contributing monthly blog postings on the purpose and various functions of our division. Our first five years have been set amidst a background of rapidly changing technologies and shifts in the needs of teachers and scholars, and we would like to contribute our voices to the wider conversation. Our Executive Editor, Anne Brackenbury, continues the conversation with her list of five ways to think differently about textbooks.

Textbooks have a bad name these days, but not all textbook publishers are the same. The Higher Education Division at UTP is relatively new, having come into being just five years ago in the midst of an emerging open access movement, a backlash against textbook prices, and massive technological change. We tend to take nothing for granted, and since we don’t have deep pockets to invest in expensive technological solutions, we have to think creatively about what we do.

As an acquisitions editor whose job it is to inspire people to write textbooks, I’m continually surprised by the lack of imagination shown in this sphere. Even as the sage-on-the-stage model of lecturing in the classroom has been thrown into question, and more creative approaches to teaching and learning are emerging daily, many people cling to their limited ideas of what a textbook should look and sound like. To be sure there are changes happening, but most of it so far seems to be focused on pricing, and most of it is coming from those who support open access or low-cost digital alternatives.

But what about the form itself? What can the latest research in teaching and learning tell us about how we can change textbooks to be stronger pedagogical supports? Here in the Higher Education Division we are happy to produce straight-up textbooks that meet high scholarly standards, and deliver them at reasonable prices, but we also believe there is plenty of room to push at the edges of the form. What if a textbook looked and sounded different? What if it were more than just a reference tool? What if the text was actually enjoyable to read and could translate sophisticated scholarly ideas effectively?

Below is our list of five ways to think differently about textbooks. It is by no means exhaustive, and these forms are not particularly new. They are, however, rare to find in most textbooks. We welcome your additions or comments. Either log in below or catch us on Twitter (#UTPHE5).

1. Textbooks with (Smart) Voices

The comprehensive textbook is still very much alive and well these days. Many instructors, even those who employ innovative pedagogy in their classes, still rely on these texts as both a reference and security blanket of sorts for students. There is a difference though between a textbook written in a dry, third-person voice, and one told as a masterful story. The first invokes yawns and drooping eyelids; the second aims to engage the reader from the get-go. There’s also a difference between a textbook that provides standardized, lowest-common denominator information and one that integrates cutting-edge scholarship. The latter, if written in an engaging narrative style, not only encourages reading, but influences the direction of research and teaching practices.

2. Textbooks that Establish Relevancy

One way to engage students in reading a textbook is to ensure that they actually care about why they are doing so (beyond trying to get good marks). An effective textbook—the kind the student might actually read, not just skim—takes the time to establish why the subject matter is important. Whether it’s beginning with an invitation that acknowledges and validates where the student reader is coming from before challenging them, or using contemporary controversies from their everyday worlds to talk about key concepts, this breed of textbook starts from one basic question: why should the reader care? Once relevance is established, reading follows more easily.

3. Textbooks that Ask Questions

Some instructors, often those who avoid using textbooks altogether, prefer to assign course materials that foster critical thinking. In this instance, they are looking for pedagogical tools, not information vessels. A textbook serving this purpose is brief, covers a broad scope, and employs techniques like debates, case studies, thought-provoking scenarios, or creative assignments. The textbook that supports this kind of pedagogy is likely to look friendly, and is written in a highly accessible style, but it asks questions that require sophisticated decoding skills. It may be easy to read, but it is far from easy.

4. Textbooks that Employ Humour

When all else fails, the dedicated instructor looks to humour to keep students awake. So why is humour so rare in textbooks? Imagine a text that shows rather than tells about key concepts by using funny anecdotes to illustrate not just the right answer, but the wrong answer as well. Don’t we learn from making mistakes? Aren’t we more relaxed about learning if we’re laughing and nodding our heads in agreement at the same time? These texts are approachable and well written and they use humour and storytelling to translate sophisticated concepts and ideas for a less-sophisticated audience. To be sure, they are funny and light-hearted in tone, but readers can’t help but come away with a deeper respect and understanding of the need for rigorous analytical thinking and research.

5. Mixed Media Textbooks

Lest you think this list is a little light on technology, we do think textbooks should use a mixed media approach where appropriate. We know that technology has become a powerful way to engage students—whether it’s using PowerPoint, YouTube videos, Twitter, or Wikis in the classroom. Most comprehensive textbooks now also come fully loaded with companion websites that provide interactive digital support. These include instructor support materials, PowerPoint slides, student self-study guides, online links and references, image banks, etc. But do students and instructors really use this material to their full advantage? Do students use them to avoiding having to read the book altogether?

What if digital technology could be used not only to engage students but also to help lure them into a more immersive form of reading? What if a newer digital technology could be used to support analogue technology (i.e. the book) rather than replace it?

In this, we have a good example from our own publishing program: Andrew Walsh’s new ethnography, Made in Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism, and the Global Bazaar. Walsh’s book is a straight up ethnography in many ways, though written for introductory-level students with a highly accessible style and a tone that establishes both relevancy and personality. What’s different is the way he uses his blog as support for the book. The introductory chapter of the book is available in a hyperlinked version, providing a fun and interactive way for students to immerse themselves in context with visuals and text. An added benefit is the way this experience is used to illustrate the limits of internet searches. Walsh could have written the entire book in this format, but he ultimately wanted to encourage students to learn the value of ethnographic writing as a form to present original research. With student interest already established, Walsh then begins to tell his story. What results is an enhanced learning experience that draws on the unique strengths of each media format.

-Anne Brackenbury, Executive Editor

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