OCCUPY COLLEGE COMPOSITION: In Search of an Ideal Textbook

I’ve recently talked about how I can’t get no satisfaction.  Such a statement might have many variables, but let’s focus on college composition textbooks.  Why?  Because we’re at the end of another spring academic term and hundreds (thousands? … I’m thinking clone armies now) of composition instructors all over the country are trying out textbooks, ordering desk copies, and placing bookstore orders for the fall term.  Marketing reps are busy at securing business.  Let’s face it–college English teachers pay the rent for publishing companies like W.W. Norton and Bedford St. Martin’s.  Millions in profit dollars are at stake, but rarely do we consider the business end of our textbook choices. Rather, composition instructors tend to think about selecting materials that will advance classroom objectives–student learning outcomes, rentention rates, student success.

Of course, we’re not totally neglectful of textbook costs.  We know that we’re asking students to “make an investment.”  Many of us want the most bang for the buck–we want more flexibility–we want more information–we want classroom practicality–at lesser cost.

Sure, the college composition textbook market is a racket.  Big business.  In my mind, a composition instructor’s textbook selection is not unlike a person deciding on telecommunications service. Should I choose Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or a lesser known service provider?  What about Internet? A similar predicament.

Now, let’s choose a textbook.  Which publishers do I choose from? Norton, Bedford, Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Longman?  See what I mean?   So much for academic freedom.  When I select textbooks it’s hard for me not to conclude that I am complicit with Power.

But, for the moment, let’s set aside that concern.  Why?  Because we make choices. Publishers know this.  For all our discussions on Power (and “will to Power”) publishers know that we’ll eventually make choices and they’ll serve our obeisance.  Until we revolt against corporations (and who are “we” to revolt?  Most of us do not think of ourselves as a clone army) or organize an OCCUPY TEXTBOOKS movement, then we’ll likely proceed as usual per the status quo.

Then what textbooks do we choose?  There are as many composition textbooks as there are breakfast cereals, maybe more so.  Raisin Bran or Wheaties?  Rice Crispies or Cheerios?  How do we choose?  What criteria do we use?

Must we perform a rhetorical analysis of each textbook option?  Do we choose our textbooks like we watch viral kitten videos?  Mr. Whiskers plays with string.  Sleek Minky sleeps all day with a toothy smile.

Do we look at Amazon reviews?  Perhaps we simply bandwagon.  Why not?  I’ll select what’s popular with students and other teachers.  If there were Yelp reviews for college composition textbooks, I’m sure many of us would be looking at them right now.  Do we look for popular “brands”?  Do I really want to toe-the-line with the Abercrombie & Fitch of textbooks?

Do I ask veteran composition instructors what they use?  Maybe I’ll check out which textbooks top-notch writing programs assign or “approve” for their students.  “I Wanna Be Like X.”  If a textbook is successful for them, maybe it’ll be successful for me.  Really?  Can we say “the problem of induction”?

Perhaps we should customize.  But isn’t that time-consuming?  More choices to make.  What to add?  What to substract?  What do I really, really want?

OK, fine, so we study WPA outcomes and the like.  We perform formidable soul-searching.  What will work for ME and for STUDENTS?  Maybe we select textbooks like we vote for political candidates or like we purchase bargains at Wal-Mart–we simply haul off and make a choice without much thought.  We err on the side of habit and unexamined personal preferences.  You know we do this once and awhile.  The compulsive purchase.

I’ll admit that I’ve used all these methods.  I’ve often cross-referenced textbooks with Amazon reviews.  Needless to say, unhelpful reviews are annoying.  Much of the general public writes reviews about not receiving a book on time, the speed of service, or the quality of service, as if the rhetorical purpose of Amazon reviews were to critique customer service not the product.  Maybe Amazon should be our composition textbook. To the student:  You will write an effective review of a product (not a service) on Amazon.

I’m not sure why exactly, but when I select composition textbooks my mind always returns to the Peter Elbow-David Bartholomae debate on the content of a college composition class.  Should we teach college students to overcome their fears of writing by allowing them to discover what it’s like to become writers?  Do we emphasize personal writing over reading assignments?  Do we teach academic writing, thereby showing students that they’ll inevitably “invent the university“?  How do we define academic writing?  Can we synthesize these two perspectives?  What’s the end of writing?

For now, I’ll proceed with one side of the debate.  For the record, I love the writing process folks.  I was a college student in the heyday of the writing process movement.  Back then, I got a lot of current-traditional rhetoric, rhetorical modes, and writing process strategies.  I found the latter to be incredibly helpful.  I’m a fan of Macrorie and Elbow.  They were my gurus.

Also, my students love them.  They love freewriting and “expressing” themselves.  They love the personal tone of Elbow’s Writing With Power and read it on their own.  They love Elbow’s essays on his struggles with academic writing.  I’ve tried teaching Macrorie’s Telling Writing.  There’s a lot to recommend it, such as the first chapter on Engfish.  Mainly, students “freewrite” about personal interests, places, persons, make observations, and discover shimmering realities.  They learn a little bit about revision and editing their sentences, but they don’t necessarily learn how to write an academic essay.

Telling Writing seems a bit outdated now.  It doesn’t mention thesis statements, topic sentences, analyzing other people’s ideas, or synthesizing perspectives.  I’ll read student writing and invariably ask myself: Where’s the thesis statement?  Do topic sentences support a main idea?

Of course, I’m not saying that writing process advocates never teach thesis statements and topic sentences.  Elbow often stresses the importance of “sticking your neck out.” However, is that the same thing as asserting a thesis and offering a position?

As indebted as I am to writing process strategies, I need my students to think about having ideas about other people’s ideas.  It’s important that students fall in love with their own ideas, surely, but the writing process doesn’t always require or invite writers to “enter a conversation.”  Perhaps we need to closely examine “post-process” approaches that emphasize “product,” coverage of socio-historical concerns, such language and literacy issues, and engages with clashing perspectives and “contact zones.”

That is to say, an emphasis on the writing process, as much as it may need to be stressed in writing aassignments, does not consistently orient writers to the “conversations” and the kinds of writing they’ll perform in the academic community.  As we know, students need to learn how to engage with an “argument culture.”

That’s one criteria.  Another is that I dislike composition textbooks that look and feel like textbooks.  So many textbooks are “preachy” or follow standard textbook formulas: “YOU DO THIS…YOU DON’T DO THAT….”   I dislike the condescending aspects of textbooks that make students feel like anything other than writers.  I want students to feel like they are not students per se but writing colleagues–equals–even though they might not be equals in terms of skills or competence.  Of course, there’s a difference between “novice” and “expert” writers.  But students don’t need to feel infantalized or “less than” by a textbook’s presentation and format.

Lastly, I dislike the actual dimensions of most textbooks.  Why can’t a composition textbook be shaped like a regular sized book?  I want the look and feel of a regular book–more like 8 x 6 x 1.1 inches rather than 9 x 7.2 x 1 inches.  It’s a book, not a layered sheet cake!  

More next time …







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