TITLE: Sticking to the Textbook
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: April 04, 2005 3:17 PM
DESC: Following someone else's textbook might be like sticking to a form in writing. Could it make me a more creative teacher?
On the flight home from my
ChiliPLoP hot topic,
I thought of a possible instance of
creativity in sticking to a form,
an unusual one in the realm of teaching.
I wonder if I would be more creative when
teaching a course if I subordinated my
creative impulses to the design of someone's
When I first started teaching as a graduate
student, I followed the assigned textbook
rather closely. I remember clearly a comment
a student made in my course evaluation one
semester: "This is a great course to take
at 2:00 PM in the spring. The instructor
follows the textbook, so I can skip class
on Friday and know just what he will cover."
Usually, I was teaching one section of a
multiple-section course with real faculty
teaching the other sections. Between having
little experience for deviating from the
book and not wanting to cause a problem
in the department, sticking to the book
seemed like the Right Thing to do.
As I taught more and became 'real faculty'
myself, I found myself deviating more and
more. New ideas, new examples, new order
of presentation -- all entered my mind
and flowed out into my courses. Students
had the textbook to read, for different
coverage of the material, if not more
complete. And I got to do more of my
These days, I tend to do my own thing
all the time.
For example: In Programming Languages,
I loved the approach of
Essentials of Programming Languages,
but my students had no background in
Scheme coming into the course, so we
didn't get very deep into the book. As
my lecture notes became quite extensive,
and deviated from the book in places, I
found the book to be less and less help.
Eventually, I just jettisoned it.
I just started teaching Algorithms last
fall and so stuck with textbook the
previous instructor had used, Anany
Levitin's The Design and Analysis
of Algorithms. My lecture notes
are not yet nearly complete enough to
replace a textbook, so I continue to
assign substantial readings from the
book. But I have several units during
the semester that are do-my-own-thing
(including Bloom filters and some fun
pattern-based material) where the book
is just along for the ride.
I've never written up all the lecture
material for my object-oriented
programming course in a readable form,
so they remain a hodge-podge of readable
stuff, slides, and pointers to outside
reading. Even still, my dissatisfaction
with the available books led me to drop
my textbook requirement beginning this
spring. I don't know if this was a good
idea from the students' perspective and
won't know for sure until after the course
is over. However, I don't yet see a marked
difference in student performance between
this semester and last.
I wonder, though, if I have limited myself
by giving myself too much freedom in some
of these courses. Maybe if I stuck more
closely to some textbook's topics and
ordering, I would put myself in a position
where I had to create something new and
wonderful just to be able to say what I
really want to say. Then again maybe
I'm just following a natural progression in
my each of my courses, starting close to
some book and then growing into my own
approach. The fact that every course I
teach seems to follow a similar trajectory
leads me to believe that the latter is
happening and that everything is just fine.
But I still have an incomplete feeling in
the back of my mind that strapping onto
a decent textbook might be a great way to
energize myself again in some course, and
unleash a burst of creativity.
Maybe next fall. I teach Programming
Languages again for the first time in
a while, and graduate-level Algorithms
for the first time ever.