A Classroom Experiment: Ditching a Textbook

no textbooksLet me start this post with a disclaimer: I’m not doing away entirely with textbooks for my courses, so the image in this post is somewhat misleading. There are some really worthwhile texts out there, and some of them work well for what I want to do with my students.

But back in May, I indicated that I’d be dropping a textbook from my Political Issues course this fall. My primary reason is that the two books I’ve alternated between in the past (You Decide! Current Debates in American Politics and Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Political Issues) present issues in a more binary fashion than I’d like. I want my students to realize that there are seldom only two sides where important political issues are concerned.

In the two sections of the course that I’ll be teaching, I’ll still be using two traditional textbooks: Glenn Tinder’s Political Thinking and (for the writing-intensive section only) Harris’ Prentice Hall Reference Guide. The former helps students understand some of the moral and philosophical assumptions underlying various policy positions. The latter provides students in the writing-intensive section with good direction on the writing process and citation styles.

I’ll be replacing the traditional “conflicting viewpoints” textbook, though, with materials gathered from a variety of resources: the web, the news media, the popular press, and more traditional scholarly venues. As the semester progresses, the students will take on some responsibility for determining course content.

Why on earth would I do this?

There are three primary reasons:

  • Going this route enables me to take up much more recent controversies than I could if I relied on a textbook. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that issues such as schools disciplining students for their Facebook pages, schools monitoring students using the webcams on laptops issued to them, or Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law have yet found their way into traditional textbooks.
  • I want students to develop skills in locating and evaluating resources that help them think intelligently about topics that interest them. Allowing students to help determine the direction and content of the course will provide them with an opportunity to learn and practice these skills. (I’ll be setting the first few toipcs and explaining how and why I chose the resources I did, and I’ll be working closely with students as they suggest resources for later in the semester.)
  • Finally, of course, there’s the practical issue of cost. Though I always try to find paperback editions, it’s still the case that textbooks aren’t cheap. If a book is needed, it’s needed, but it makes sense to go with low or no-cost alternatives to textbooks when those alternatives make pedagogical sense.

I’m also thinking about dropping the textbook in the Political Thought course I teach each spring, though for different reasons. I’ve long used Morgan’s Classics of Moral and Political Theory. It’s an excellent and reasonably-priced anthology, but all of the texts I teach from it are freely avaialable at or Project Gutenberg. Allowing students to use electronic texts (they could still purchase paper copies of the anthology or individual works, if they wished) would save students money and might start some good conversations about the differences between various editions and translations, and why they matter.

I’ll plan to report back in January about how the experiment with the Political Issues sections worked.

What are your thoughts on eliminating some of the textbooks from courses? If you’ve already taken this step, what has your experience been? Comments, as always, are welcome.

[Image by Flickr user cavenderamy / Creative Commons licensed]

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