Time to curl up with a good textbook…

Textbooks4The issue of textbooks is an interesting one. I know by just mentioning the term, I risk glazed eyes and a brief but effective mental shutdown before you click away, but bear with me. I’ve been preparing my online world music class for the fall and the question of textbooks always comes up. To use a textbook or not to use a textbook, that is the question…Well, actually that’s the first question. Many other questions follow: if I use a textbook, which one do I use? If I don’t use one, how do I find consistent readings? If I do use a textbook, do I use the full or shortened editions (if any are available)? Do I make supplemental CDs for the areas the textbook doesn’t cover? Do I make CDs for every student or do I put a few copies on reserve at the library? Is it ok for students to use an older edition? Are there any electronic copies available for students? I can’t fit the entire textbook into one semester, so which chapters do I pick? Do I go in order of the book or skip around? Why are questions about textbooks consuming my life?

I haven’t taught for very long, only for about five years or so, but I’ve used several different textbooks and not-textbooks for my classes over those years. So for this post and for the next few weeks, I thought I’d share some of my ideas and thoughts about textbooks, their use and lack thereof. This is also a partially (read: totally) selfish maneuver on my part. It’s an excellent exercise (read: excuse) to lay out the pros and cons of different textbooks and to figure out why I use the ones I do.

Today, I’ll start with that first question: to use a textbook or not to use a textbook. Obviously, if the university or community college you teach at tells you to use a certain textbook, the question is pointless. If you have the choice however, especially as a young teacher, I’d suggest thinking carefully about your choice. You don’t have to use a textbook just because the school always has. And if you’d like to use a textbook, you don’t have to use the one utilized by the previous instructor. Knowing whether or not to use a textbook means having to know ahead of time exactly what and how you want to approach the subject matter. Textbooks can be confining; many of them don’t include chapters on Polynesia, for example. But they can also give you a good foundation from which to venture out into the wider world.

Not using a textbook is incredibly liberating. It also means doing a bunch of research to discover which chapters/articles/websites to use for the various culture areas you want to cover. This is tons of fun but takes tons of time. It means copying and scanning and uploading a bunch of documents, but I’ve found it also means being more familiar with the nuances of the material. It also means that for me, as a teacher, every semester I can try something new. My husband once described my approach to preparing for classes I’m teaching as “reinventing the wheel.” I prefer to think of it as variations on a theme. I tend to cover the same culture areas every semester, but I try to find new and/or updated readings for the students (and me). The challenge is to present ideas and materials in a way that’s as stable and reliable as a textbook while at the same time making up for any omissions the textbooks might have. It’s not easy. But it’s really fun.

I think my bias is showing. I really like to teach without a textbook, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that I generally pick and choose chapters from different textbooks. This way, I can use these chapters as a jumping off point and my students can benefit from many different authors, points of view, and approaches to writing about music. Perhaps, at the end of my teaching career, I will have created a giant über textbook, one so huge it can’t physically exist…hmmmm an intriguing project…

– Heather

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