Instant Pedagogy

The ad was in my in-box this morning: Now you can teach American History with a global perspective! A new textbook has come out with this perspective, so now I can teach this way!

keurigtIt reminded me of the new instant coffee pods: Now you can have mocha! In your own home!

Couldn’t I have made mocha myself, by adding some cocoa to my coffee? Surely I could teach American history from a global perspective, or any other way, before? The coffee machine determines which pods I can use. Is the way I teach similarly dependent on the textbook?

At many colleges, and in other departments at my college, faculty cannot choose their own textbook. It is given to them. For some, this is a challenge to creativity – they continually “fight” their textbook to provide a more meaningful experience for students. For others, it’s “teach to the text” time.

The difference isn’t in the choice or lack of choice – I also know professors who choose their own text so that they can indeed teach to it. We needn’t divide the pedagogy problem into those who are forced to use a text and those who are not. It’s really between those who want to control their own pedagogy and those who don’t.

I could bring out the old saw that few of us were trained in pedagogy; instead we are just experts in our field. But after a few years of teaching “in the raw”, designing our own lessons, we all develop a pedagogical method. Those who “can’t find a good textbook” or who don’t like the mandated textbook have two choices. They can get creative, or they can allow the text to determine their pedagogy.

Because, make no mistake, all textbooks bring their own pedagogy. The vignettes, the study questions, the biases inherent in the content — all impose a pedagogy. For most of my career I’ve tried to ignore the textbook’s pedagogy, using it more like an encyclopedia. In doing so, I’ve missed some of the good pedagogy embedded in the books, but there was no coherent way to mix what they were trying to do with what I was trying to do.

Many of us now find textbooks unnecessary, as the open web (and our library’s databases) provide ample factual material, tutorials, and visual supplements. I can make my own coffee without having to pick the beans, and I don’t need a coffee machine. I have just finished editing my third text for my students, using open sources for the factual information and primary sources I have selected. My students in Western Civ I, Western Civ II, and US II now have a textbook that is not only free to read (and at cost to print, about $24) but based on my pedagogy.

As a result, I no longer have to deal with the problems of history textbooks: dealing with the author’s perspective, assigning only certain chapters, putting up with the women and minorities “in boxes” instead of as part of the flow of history, explaining the parts the authors got wrong. Now if it’s wrong it’s my fault, and I can change it. And I can choose from unlimited flavors instead of 20.

No, I am not suggesting custom, home-made texts as a solution for everyone. It’s really only for those who are frustrated by their textbooks’ pedagogy, and have a choice, and want to take the huge amount of time involved. Perhaps it’s part and parcel for those of us creating “artisan” courses, where we choose the ingredients, the method, and the products. It’s also for those who have the confidence to know they’re choosing the right ingredients for the rigors of their discipline.

(And it’s a matter of personality, of course. I use the Keurig machine in hotel rooms to make hot water for tea.)

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