As an adjunct professor, I don’t always have the “privilege” of being able to choose my own textbook. If one is assigned for a course — whether that’s by me or by the college — I feel obligated to use it as much as possible. I don’t care for professors who list “required textbooks” in their syllabi, expensive tomes with online content and not-sold-separately course software, that the students dutifully purchase, only for the trusting scholars to discover, at the end of the semester, that the professor hasn’t referenced the books (let alone the online fare) at all.
To be clear: for most classes, I do still like having at least one “old-school” textbook, one common reader we can use a starting point, to be supplemented, of course, by more up-to-the-minute online articles, videos, and so forth, that I keep in a personal archive of materials and/or that students recommend.
This past spring, I taught a section of face-to-face Creative Writing II; as always, I did assign a textbook, one which had been recommended by a friend and which she had used in previous semesters, so there were used copies available in the bookstore. Halfway through the semester, however, I found the book to be more of a burden than a genuine asset — a black-and-white albatross tied about my constricted gullet. I was using it, at times, just so that the students would feel they’d gotten their money’s worth out of it. It’s the “cost per wear” theory of intelligent consumerism; my mom often quotes this doctrine, though I know she was not its originator. If she buys a pair of $10 shoes, she reasons, but wears them only once, it really isn’t such a great deal. If she buys a pair of $100 shoes and wears them everyday, however, the price per wear will eventually be better than the bargain shoes. I think it’s the same for textbooks. A $70 textbook for creative writing should be used often throughout the course of the semester so “we” feel we’ve gotten our money’s worth. (Disclaimer: I did not pay for the textbook myself, of course; the company eagerly sent me not one but two desk copies, which is ironic considering I don’t even have my own desk at school; so one copy was given away to a needy student.)
This fall I’ll be teaching Creative Writing II again, but this time online. When my Department Chair asked what book I’d like to request from the bookstore, I politely declined to make a recommendation, telling her, “I’m not going to require a textbook! I think I’ll just assign essays, stories, and poems that can be found for free online!” (At the time, the exclamation marks were implied.) This decision felt so progressive, almost provocative a few months ago; take that, fat cat publishers! I remember being at my first Conference on College Composition and Communication in Louisville, KY, two years ago — and being wined and dined for free by several of the textbook companies — and thinking, “This is why my students have to pay so much for their books — because I’m in Millionaires’ Row at Churchill Downs, chowing down on shrimp skewers!” It was all so unnerving: I had to pull two complimentary mint juleps off a passing tray just to steady myself.
Of course, this decision to “fly without a text” isn’t novel (ha-ha); other colleges have started experimenting with using online, open source materials. It still feels a bit daring, though. Students have already been e-mailing me, perhaps thinking I had forgotten to place my order with the bookstore. “No,” I assure them, “this class doesn’t have a textbook.”
Next time: “Kindles, Nooks, And Why I Don’t Have An eReader (At Least Not Yet).”
About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.