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Ditching a Textbook: An Update

Back in July, I wrote about an experiment I was planning in my two Political Issues sections. I’d opted to try this for a number of reasons: (1) I was dissatisfied with the standard readers available, as they tend to present issues in binary fashion, and real-world issues are seldom that simple. (2) I wanted to be able to take up much more recent issues than I could if I relied on textbooks (it takes too long for things to get into print). (3) I wanted students to help determine the topics for the course, and to develop their skills in locating good sources to help them develop their thinking on issues of interest to them. (4) I wanted to reduce costs for students.

So, last semester, I used only one primary textbook: Glenn Tinder’s Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions (the writing-intensive section also made use of Muriel G. Harris’ Prentice Hall Reference Guide). I’ve yet to find a good substitute for that particular book; it frames the underlying questions of politics nicely, and I wanted my students to have that background as they thought about contemporary issues.

For the contemporary issues themselves, though, I started off by selecting a few myself (e.g., technology and privacy, technology and civic discourse, immigration), and showing students the kinds of resources they might be able to find. Then, for the latter part of the course, they chose the issues, found sources, and shared them in the class Zotero library. Working in teams or as individuals (depending on which section they were in), they were then responsible for running a class session and assigning readings for that session.

So, how did it work out? Well, I’ve got some tweaking to do. In the future, I need to provide more guidance on evaluating and using sources (bearing in mind that the overwhelming majority of students in Political Issues are first-years). To accomplish that I may need to drop some of my own topic selections and make space for some additional workshop/consultation days, but it will be worth it.

That said, overall, the experiment was a great success. Students did indeed develop some skill in finding and using sources, and they put great effort into learning about their chosen topics. They also did a wonderful job of running class discussions focused around those topics.

With the above-mentioned tweaks, I’ll definitely be repeating this experiment when I teach Political Issues again next fall.

Have you tried ditching a textbook and/or having students contribute to determining both course content and materials? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user cavenderamy / Creative Commons licensed]

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