I Can’t Get No Satisfaction: The Search for a College Composition Textbook

I have to admit it’s true.  I can’t get no satisfaction.  Me and Mick Jagger.  Or is it “Mick Jagger and me”?

Hours and hours of searching … and I haven’t found what I’m looking for.  So I feel a little like Mick Jagger and maybe a lot like Bono.

The vital question is: In all the years I’ve taught transfer-level composition, how often have I been content with my course materials?  Ah, there’s the rub … and the source of whips and scorn…. I’m like the Hamlet of composition teachers.  Or maybe a modern Prufrock.  Have I ever been happy with a composition textbook?  Do I dare?

Is a composition textbook like a person you’ve dated for a few months, knowing full well that he’s not “the One”?  After the initial attraction and a few good times, are you ready to move on?  How experimental are you?  Maybe you’re settling on what’s comfortable and convenient.  There’s a lot of fish in the sea and you’re fine with the proverbial sea bass on your hook.

Well, I’m restless.  And I’m on the hunt, inspired by Ezra Pound’s motto “Make it New.”  I’m pretty sure, however, that Pound meant something vastly different than how I’m appropriating his phrase.

I’m not sure the dating analogy works, but I am sure that I haven’t found “the One.”  Needless to say, I haven’t even found the second or third runner-up.  If selecting a college composition textbook is like dating, then I’m at home on Friday night knitting a sweater.  If it’s like fishing, then I’m out of luck.  If it’s like a sports contest, then there’s clearly no winner in my arena.

Of course, the ideal composition textbook might not exist which, returning to the dating analogy, would put a sizable dent in the “one person” soulmate theory.  Fine, but why settle on the next best thing?

Sure, the path of least resistance.  I get it.  Again, why must choosing a composition textbook be a choice between lesser evils?  I know it’s unlikely that we can “have it all,” like it’s unlikely that each of us has a “perfect mate.”  But why must our choices be so … how do I say it?  Weak?  Slim pickings?  On the other hand, you may think that there are so many choices!

Maybe the dating analogy is totally wrong.  Maybe selecting a textbook is more like finding the right pair of running shoes or a palatable breakfast cereal.  What can I eat in the morning while half-asleep, sipping coffee, that won’t destroy me or give me a sugar high?  OK, now among those choices which cereal is not food for barnyard animals, hippies, or those of us in need of gluten-free alternatives?  This is why the caffeine high is necessary.  A small price to pay.

As we know, composition instructors tend to be a bit “guarded” (I was also thinking about other adjectives: ‘contentious,’ ‘protective,’ ‘apologetic,’ ‘defensive’) when it comes to teaching methods, pedagogical views, and classroom habits.   Naturally, we tend to  individualize, personalize, and rubber stamp the form and content of our classes.  We make decisions based on what has or has not worked, personal preferences, and have had debates with ourselves and colleagues.  Yes, yes, WPA outcomes, I know.

Typically, our decisions are constrained by department and bookstore policies, course outlines and requirements, SLO’s, schedules, calendars, and contracts.   I am not alone when I say that at the end of each academic term I find myself swearing off previous textbooks and thereby am forced to choose new ones.  How aggravating!  It’s not unlike an existential crisis, because you’re making a life decision, you’re choosing a partner for the next academic term.  Picking the right textbook is YOUR choice–it’s not like you can defer responsibility (maybe you can if your department already has made a choice… but then your destiny might be predetermined, fated, you could be like Sisyphus, not Prufrock!)

Textbook selection is crucial to student learning outcomes, retention rates, success rates, evaluation procedures, and dynamic class sessions involving critical thinking, reading, and writing.  Right, so why must our selecting composition textbooks be so hard?  Why can’t there be an easy solution?  Do we have too many choices or not enough?

Publishers, listen up!  Do you hear me, editors and marketing reps?  I know who you are because I’ve met you at book stalls schlepping your goods, usually the newest edition, latest handbook, or an “expert’s” pedagogically informed writing manual.  I’ve listened to your sales pitches and have been your guinea pig over and again–willingly, smilingly, quite eagerly–why?  Because I’ve been searching for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow–the “ideal” composition textbook.  Does it exist?

Like Prufrock teaspooning weary days, I have known them all–I HAVE SPIED AND GAWKED AND KNOWN THEM ALL!  ALL THE COMPOSITION TEXTBOOKS!!  And to what end, dare I say?  Certainly, not to disturb the universe, of course not.  Rather, I part my hair and roll my trousers in quiet frustration (fine, maybe not so quiet).

I have yet to find a composition textbook that works for me.  Of course, you can say, “Write your own.”  I’d be glad to but until that happens what should I do about a textbook?  Another response is: “Don’t use any textbooks.”  I’ve tried that with less than satisfactory results. Try not using a textbook in a term that you’re being evaluated, see how that goes over with the higher ups.  Besides, it’s likely true that students take their work more seriously when they feel “invested” in class material, like being college students, adults who walk around with school books.  Yet another response is: “Publishers profit from poor students by selling overpriced textbooks.”  Yes, that bothers me.  But my brilliant argument against the laissez faire marketplace doesn’t adequately counter the fact that I need a composition textbook.

How do you choose the right textbook?  I’ll address that question in my next blog entry.

To textbook or not to textbook?  That is the question…

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