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? ----- BODY: 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 textbook. 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 own thing. 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. -----