To Textbook or Not to Textbook

It’s been a while since I reviewed a textbook. But as I reached for the next one on my shelf this week, something gave me pause. It’s actually been quite a while since I used a textbook for the classes that I teach. The question of whether to use a textbook or not is one that has come up several times in talking with some of my colleagues who are in the same general situation as me (ABD, or very close, and teaching part-time at universities and colleges). Most of my colleagues choose the textbook route, but for several years (and particularly for my online classes) I have chosen not to textbook. So I thought I’d talk through some of my reasons and some of the challenges and freedoms of not using a textbook.

Freedom #1: You can teach about anything you want! This is a little hyperbolic, I admit. You’re obviously bound by time and subject (if you’re teaching a class on the music of Indonesia, for example, you can’t really in good conscience wax lyrical for five weeks on Ghanaian drumming). But you can cover a lot more areas than are offered by most textbooks. For example, general world music textbooks very often don’t cover Oceania. This overlooks huge swaths of the globe, hundreds of island musical cultures, as well as Australia and New Zealand. If I’m not using a textbook, I can pick and choose articles/chapters/websites/other readings that cover much more of the globe than my students would normally get.

Challenge #1: Finding appropriate articles/chapters/websites/other readings that effectively cover the areas I want without overwhelming my students or myself. Textbooks are generally written with the student reader in mind, and while some of them may be a bit dry, they tend to present the material in straightforward ways with listening examples and highlighted vocabulary words. Nowadays, textbooks come with online support that also offers things like study guides, quizzes, listening guides, and glossaries. Journal articles and/or regular book chapters can often be just as informative, but they also require me to find appropriate listening examples and to make my own vocabulary lists and quizzes so my students understand important terms and concepts. Also, a regular book chapter might have a ton of great information, but if it makes too many references to the rest of the book (which the students aren’t going to read), it could get frustrating for the student reader.

Freedom #2: Getting to tell my students they don’t have to buy a textbook. At a time when students go to the campus bookstore and easily pay $400 EVERY SEMESTER for textbooks, it’s really nice to be able to alleviate just a tiny bit of their financial burden.

Challenge #2: Not breaking any copyright laws. If I don’t use a textbook, that means not only do I need to put together readings for my students, I also need to pull together a semester’s worth of listening examples. Several community colleges and small universities I’ve worked for had a “less than 20%” policy. I could make copies of chapters from books to distribute in my class as long as the total was less than 20% of the book itself. This could also apply to using tracks from different CDs. Of course it’s all for educational purposes, but many times I’ve been forced to find alternate examples on YouTube or other online sources to avoid any complications. This in and of itself isn’t generally a bad thing, but it’s something that you can avoid by having the students purchase a textbook with the accompanying CDs or, as a colleague informs me is more common, have students purchase online access to the music that goes with their textbook (I am really out of the loop). By doing this, I know all my students are listening to exactly what I want them to for any given lesson, and I don’t have to worry about my favorite YouTube video being taken down or disappearing. I know some people download YouTube videos to avoid this problem as well, but that comes with tricky legal issues. While it MAY be POTENTIALLY ok for me as the instructor to download videos in this way FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY (and I’m not saying it is because the jury is, quite literally, still out on this one), it becomes tricky when students are giving presentations in a face-to-face class or uploading songs to an online course shell to share with their classmates.

Freedom #3: Changing things up every semester. In a previous textbook post, I mentioned how my husband refers to my prep process as “reinventing the wheel.” I don’t completely start from scratch every semester, but I do try to include new videos, websites, articles, books, and blogs that have been posted or published since the previous semester. This adds to the foundational things I always teach and gives me a wide variety of sources to pull from. I might not use a particular website one semester, but if a student has a question or evidences interest in something that can be found on that website, I can point them to it, post the link for the whole class and start a discussion, or encourage the student to explore the website and report back on it. I’ve found that this approach also encourages students to do their own outside research and bring back videos, songs, and clips that they find relevant (and that are probably new to me too).

Challenge #3: Monitoring all that content. The internet is a cruel mistress, and it’s not without some trepidation that I send my students out into it. I try to use certain websites (Wikipedia in particular) as “teaching moments” to encourage my students to understand how the internet is a tool that’s only as good as the user. But running my own new searches every semester and then analyzing, on the fly, all the new content that my students bring in makes for a lot of days just reading through websites and articles my students have posted to make sure they are proper, collegiate-level materials. Again, a lot of what they post is great, but it takes a lot of time for me to go through. And then, what happens when a student posts something that has faulty information, questionable sources, or just treats a subject with more ethnocentrism than an ethnomusicologist will tolerate but that seems to be ok for the general public (Exhibit A)? Do I just take it down? Do I draw attention to it? Do I ignore it until another student brings it up? This can become problematic if focusing too much on this takes away from the rest of the lesson.

This isn’t to say that all freedom comes with not using a textbook or that all challenges are avoided by using one. One of my colleagues commented that even when using a textbook, he tends to supplement the accompanying musical examples with many of his own. He has toyed with the idea of having the students only purchase the textbook but not the accompanying music, preferring instead to supply his own track lists. Another colleague is starting out on his first not textbooking experience this semester but is still using certain chapters from various textbooks as jumping off points. While different universities have different policies when it comes to fulfilling accreditation requirements through the offering of world music classes, I wonder if my generation of ethno students might start a trend that moves away from strict textbook use. And if so, how this will affect the perpetuation of world music class traditions.

– Heather


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