Quicksand or something you shake off your shoe?

It’s true – I am considering adopting a textbook for my spring on-site class in Western Civ, History 103 (that’s origins to 1648).

I do not do this lightly. The fact that it bothers me so much to do it at all is the subject of this post.

I don’t like textbooks, and have been moving away from them. Only one of my online classes has a book, and it’s an atlas.

But going back to a real, commercial textbook? Doing this ignores my own concerns about primary sources and the mid-level student. I’ve said I’m ending the half-assed textbook adoption, yet here I am doing it.

Why? Well, as the character Michael says in the Big Chill, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations.” So here are some.

1. I loved my other textbook that I wrote myself , but it was troublesome in some ways.
And that class, the first to use it, was full of eager, smart students. That can’t be guaranteed for next time, especially after…

2. This semester’s class was awful.
Usually, I teach the first half of Western Civ (103) in fall, and the second half (104) in spring in the same classroom, same timeslot. For spring, though, I’m having to repeat the first half instead. This semester’s students would not engage, the entire semester (only two students seemed interested at all). They would listen attentively to lecture, but refused to work together in groups or help each other. Many were right out of high school, and thought attending meant they didn’t have to do much work to pass. Pop quizzes led to total failure – they seemed to retain nothing at all. About half of the original students worked at below a C level. They were all very polite, but it was like teaching into a great void. This puts an affective load onto doing it again so soon.

3. Their complete lack of historical knowledge was encouraged by a book I never should have adopted.
It was short, it was cheap, I spent many hours writing in-depth homeworks for it that encouraged them to argue with the author by checking the facts themselves (there were actual questions called “look it up”). No one did. On a yes or no question (“Were the Wars of the Roses called that at the time?”), they didn’t even bother to get it right – half the class just wrote “yes”.

4. The Wikipedia book experiment failed.
I worked many, many hours trying to adapt Wikipedia text into chapters, planning to use it as introductory material for my primary sources. Again, my own book. It proved impossible. Text on some areas of history was fine, a good length with good granularity of detail. Others (Rome, oh my god, Rome) was not, and there was no way to pare it down. In Wikipedia, detailed historical subjects (the history of the fulling mill) are written by scholars, but overviews (Rome!) are written by buffs. I could not edit it properly.

5. The writing of my own book is failing.
I keep telling myself that I have time to do it if I hurry. I stay up late writing a brilliant online lecture, because it’s more fun, then believing I’ll adapt it into that magic 10-paragraph summary. It’s not gonna happen. Unlike History 104, I haven’t taught 103 online – there is no Lisa-written pool of cool text. And the amount of engagement I’d have to encourage to make it work could end up in another black hole.

6. These students need a textbook.
These particular students, at this campus, seem to need the text in their hands. This is despite the fact that many are more privileged than my online students, and have both computers and cars more expensive than my own. They see going online to do anything but talk to friends as an imposition, like being told to go to the library. I’ve had on-site students at this campus simply skip the online portion of the class (all writing is due in online forums), even after being conferenced and reminded.

So here it is, the textbook! I know the content is OK because I’ve used the more expensive version of this book before. I’ll order the “Advantage” edition with less color and images, to save money.  But I haven’t even adopted yet and already it’s pretty scary. Two things stand out so far:

The horror of the publisher’s website.

My inbox will give you an idea
It forces me to reset my password every time I log in. I’ve called tech support 3 times. Three is the magic number. Three attempts to get in, three password resets a week, three different browsers to keep trying. I finally downloaded everything I might need this morning.

And what did I find?

Ancillaries like it’s 1992

The PowerPoints for each chapter are made up of slides full of text and a few slides (with no text) of some images in the textbook. The “learning objectives” for each chapter are still at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. The “lecture” ideas look like filler written by graduate students. The “clicker” slides have the answers embedded in them for easy cheating.

The student web resources are impossible.

If I actually wanted students to use the online tools for this class (which are now sold rather than provided free), they’d have more trouble with the website than I did. They sent me an “access key” that doesn’t work, and these instructions:

To help your students access CourseMate and enroll in your course, point them to http://poweron.cengage.com/magellan/TechSupport/ProductHelp.aspx?prodrowid=1-SXF0LJ. Once there, students should click the “Downloads” tab, should then click the “Student Registration and Enrollment Clickpath” tab, and, finally, should click the “Download File” link.

Oh sure, for students who wouldn’t look up whether the Wars of the Roses were called that at the time? I don’t think so.

So, my questions are:

Will this be a one-off thing, as I write my own text? Can I shake it off when I’m done?

Or is it like quicksand, and I’ll become reliant on publisher’s materials? It this text a gateway drug, or just to tide me over?