Teaching Local Means Smashing the Corporate Textbook Conundrum

By Dr. JAMES CURIEL

Dr. James Curiel holds a Masters in Ethnic Studies from San Francisco State University, and a Masters and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California at Davis. He has written and presented internationally on transformative action learning. Dr. Curiel is an Assistant Professor in Urban Affairs in the Department of Sociology at Norfolk State University in Virginia.

Students sharing community based study at Norfolk State University

Expensive textbooks hit school districts and college students hard in the pocketbook. Your average textbook runs $180, and a small no frills black and white paperback for my introduction course climbed above $200 this semester, so my department is switching to one that is less than half that price (Weisbaum, 2014). Many school districts, colleges, and students are opting out of the corporate textbook extortion cycle, and are turning to open source textbooks, e-books, used books, and textbook rentals as a solution (Carrns, 2015).

However, the problem is not just with exorbitant textbook costs, it is also with books that spray students with a barrage of information that has been denuded of context, controversy, and relevance. As C. Wright Mills noted, the goal in the corporate world of textbooks is to produce the least offensive texts in order to maximize sales (Mills, 1959).

Geoff Ruth teaches high school chemistry, and he has found that the less he uses a textbook and the more he goes local in the community the more his students learn

The problem is students are hit with texts that maximize high profits and are maximum boring. A solution to this dilemma is to look to the food industry where decades ago corporations began unleashing toxic, processed foods denuded of nutritional value and flavor on an unsuspecting public that did not wake up until Rachel Carson yelled the shout heard around the world in her book Silent Spring (1962). Regular people responded with an organic, whole foods movement that operated on “think global, act local” basis.

I am talking about getting rid of a convenience junk book diet and replacing it with a nutritionally dense, intellectual banquet of students learning in their communities while consuming organic, whole books. I am talking about re-awakening the American intellectual giant in the public schools and colleges, a giant who has been knocked out with a one two punch of high prices and irrelevant data posing as information. It’s called reviving the student with real world drama only found in the dirty soil of real life, complete with complexity, controversy, and filled to the brim with relevance and discovery.

“What are you talking about? How would that operate?” you might respond. I am glad you asked because it is real, it’s dynamic, and it is a whole lot of fun. The world is whole lot more tasty and nutritionally relevant when you simply swear off the junk book text diet.

Geoff Ruth teaches high school chemistry, and he has found that the less he uses a textbook and the more he goes local in the community the more his students learn (Ruth, 2005). Ruth criticizes the junk book diet when he says,

artwork by Guy Laramme

Without a textbook, I can create curriculum that engages students by relating science to their everyday lives. Lessons become clearer when I link the topic to an issue that affects them personally. For example, many of my students live in poor, heavily polluted areas, so when we study intermolecular properties and precipitation reactions, we examine the air and water quality in their neighborhoods (Ruth, 2005).

Ruth’s students get their hands dirty in real life by going “local” into their communities to sample water in the gutter, in park ponds, and air on the street. They use chemistry to discover what they are breathing and what is dropping down onto their clothes from the clouds above.

Ruth get his students into the local community with high school chemistry, but you can do it with virtually any class as I have seen it done with history, math, music, biology, etc. Skeptical professors might assert, “You might be able to do that in high school classes, but it would never work in college introduction courses where we have too many concepts and too much abstraction. For example, how the heck can you teach Marx abstractionism with the real world?” Let me explain how to go local in the community with Marx at the college level by first explaining what and how organic whole books work.

Student project at Norfolk State University

I use inexpensive whole books to break the 15-week semester into three-week modules where each module is focused on one book. I choose five books for my introductory sociology course from the following: The German Ideology by Marx and Engels, The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills, Stigma by Erving Goffman, Columbus and Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World by Alan Weisman, The Chalice and the Blade by Riana Eisler, and The Philadelphia Negro by W.E. DuBois. The starting point is each book, but then I employ what I call “bridging,” to connect it to other works and authors. For example, the German Ideology is one of Marx and Engels’ earlier works, and as such it is limited. It does, however, provide an overview of their research agenda, and provides an opportunity to bridge to their developed ideas of social evolution in later works. This also provides a door to bridge to other author’s notions on social evolution, such as Comte’s Law of Human Progress and Durkheim’s Division of Labour.

Similarly, when you discuss the methods of Marx and Engels you can compare them to the methods of Comte, Ward, Du Bois, and Durkheim. The key to using whole books in an introductory course is having a broad knowledge of the material to be covered, and this takes time and a modicum of humility in asking your compatriots for advice on what should be taught and what books to be used. This explains how whole books can be used in any class, even in an introductory survey course, but let us return to the quagmire of teaching abstract Marxism by getting students into the local community.

It was a rough semester because my union was threatening to stage a teaching strike that would paralyze the state’s entire college system if we did not get a raise that was years over due, a raise that was woefully smaller than the state originally promised. My students were reading Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, and a large group from the class came to me during office hours and said they wanted to practice the Marxist concept of ‘praxis’ and go to the state capitol and walk the weekly picket line with the professors. I told them I would allow them five minutes of class time, without me in the room, where they could present to the class and take a vote, but the vote would have to be unanimous. They agreed, and, without my presence, voted unanimously to use class time to take the light rail from the university to the capitol to walk the picket line. I told them they would need to use participant observation to note signs and behaviors of class differences and struggle during our venture into the community.

The results were absolutely priceless as the student observations were astute and detailed, noting homeless people ambivalently perusing the scene, high powered lobbyists strolling the capitol, and working class law enforcement maintaining bourgeois order. Apart from Marx coming to life before their eyes in the real world, they were successful in unknowingly affecting the world they were observing. Two weeks later I received a phone call from the union wanting to know when they could personally come thank my class for saving the state from a strike. The representative said during negotiations the governor peered out the window and decided to find the money to avert a strike when he saw my class of students joining professors on the picket line at the capital plaza. My students read about “praxis” and actually lived it. They aced the essay on the examination on praxis because it came to life for them in their world, and they saved graduation and averted a strike for the entire state system.

Teaching in local communities with whole books should be a gradual process where it is eased into. Ruth did not scrap textbooks until his third year of teaching, a period of time very close to my own decision. Baker notes that it takes time to grasp the literature and to learn by trial and error what works and does not work. Not everything you pick will work. Plan a variety of activities for each lesson. “That way, if one fails, you can cut it short, move the class onto something else, and brainstorm a new way to teach the material (Baker, 2005).” Success is dependent upon planning and taking time to develop curricula to find exercises in local communities and using whole books that will work for you.

Going local with community learning and organic with whole books is the one two solution for bringing classrooms back to life as students rediscover the textbooks denuded of context eliminate. Ruth discovered this truth teaching high school chemistry, and I have found it teaching university courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. My students may be using five books, but the average price for each book is $15, so they pay $75 which is a whole lot cheaper than $220 for that black and white paper back my department was using. Reduce costs and revive engaging students by going local and with whole books.

Works Cited

Baker, Monya. 2005. “How To Toss the Text.” Edutopia. April 25, 2017 (https://www.edutopia.org/how-toss-text).

Books, G. Ed. 1989. Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. New York, New York: Gramercy Books.

Carrns, Ann. 2015. “Putting a Dent in College Costs with Open-Source Textbooks.” Retrieved on April 9, 2017 ( https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/your-money/putting-a-dent-in-college-costs-with-open-source-textbooks.html?_r=0).

Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mills, C. W. 1979. The Power Elite. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. W. [1959]. The Sociological Imagination. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Ruth, Geoff. 2005. “No Books, No Problem.” Edutopia. Retrieved April 25, 2077 (https://www.edutopia.org/teaching-without-text).

Weisbaum, Herb. 2014. “College Textbook Costs More Outrageous Than Ever.” Retrieved April 9, 2017 ( http://www.cnbc.com/2014/01/28/college-textbook-costs-more-outrageous-than-ever.html).

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