Although the word textbook tends to conjure images of heavy, overpriced, boring paper bricks filled with too many facts for any one person to learn in a reasonable amount of time, textbooks are actually quite varied in their style, tone, content, and even price.
Writers, assigners, and readers of textbooks will always disagree about what should go in a textbook, and some people will argue that textbooks are irrelevant and should not be used, much less required. I am not going to get into the textbook cost-benefit argument here, or the issue of whether/how professors assign textbooks and then (apparently) don't even use them. Those are topics of other posts, past and possibly future.
Today my specific subject is related to the content of textbooks for introductory classes. In the drive to make difficult and (apparently) boring subjects more user-friendly and accessible, some textbooks adopt a rather casual tone and format. Some textbooks I have seen recently reminded me of picture books my daughter liked when she was a lot younger -- those books with pictures of animals or construction equipment or whatever and bits of text scattered about to explain each picture.
So I wonder: Is there such thing as too casual in the context of textbooks, or is a 'fun' textbook a good thing if it helps engage the student in the subject?
There are various stages of casual style in textbooks:
- textbooks written in an entirely formal, classic style, with a casual quotient of zero;
- textbooks that are overall serious and classic in style, but with a few attempts at a lighter tone in text or illustrations. For some books, this lighter tone might be signaled only by a parenthetical expression with a "!" as a further clue that whimsy is being attempted;
- mostly serious, classic textbooks that have some references to popular culture and/or that use casual phrasing or images (such as in an analogy) to explain a concept;
- textbooks in which the casual style is a persistent features; e.g., books with cute chapter titles or section subheadings or some attempts at humor in illustrations;
- and so on, along the spectrum to intensely casual textbooks. It would be interesting to hear of examples of the most casual (interpret the term however you want) college-level textbooks in various fields, and what you think of them.
I am not a big fan of textbooks in which the casual aspects are distracting rather than helpful pedagogical tools. I also think that, in some cases, textbook authors might believe they are being cool by coming up with (apparently) clever chapter titles that read like blog post titles, but I wonder if the intended audience of the textbooks (undergrads in an intro-level course) thinks these are cool.. or pathetic?
And I also wonder: Is it condescending to 'dumb down' a textbook because the assumption is that most students can't (or won't) engage with serious topics, or is it a pedagogical best-practice to reduce jargon and try to capture the attention of as many students as possible?
Surely there is a good balance in there somewhere, such that a textbook is not primarily an impenetrable list of arcane terminology, and yet is not so informal that the pictures and words are an incoherent muddle.
I like textbooks that explain things and that don't focus on vocabulary (jargon) so much that the book seems to exist only to leap from term to term (that students memorize). I am fine with lots of pretty pictures and clever analogies. I am trying to overcome an aversion to 'cute' chapter titles in textbooks.
Part of what is difficult for me is that I know what I would have liked as a student, and I am pretty sure that that is not what most of my students today would like. Those of us become professors and essentially never leave school are not necessarily the best judges of what most of our students will find useful and interesting in a book. And yet.. we teach, and many of us do make decisions about textbooks.
I don't want to use a textbook that I dislike and that I think does a bad job of explaining important topics (who does?), but I also don't want to require a textbook that many of my students will hate and perhaps not read or understand no matter how much I try to integrate textbook-reading into the class. That's what can make the Textbook Decision a challenging one for me.
8 years ago