September 30, 2010

Thank You Students

Don't get me wrong... I love the ideas. Course "content" fraught with the "way(s) it is supposed to be" and the tensions or dilemmas and glorious messiness of complex systems. This part of teaching classes is good stuff. But none of it would come to life -- in that vibrant, see-something-new way that it does -- without students.

I really hope you (students) know this. Maybe sometimes we forget to let you know?

September 20, 2010

To Bum, Rent, Buy/Resell

Our little campus bookstore is experimenting with renting textbooks. I'm pretty excited about this, but concerned that it is too late. Students predisposed to renting books have already found renting sites such as Chegg. (Well, the organized, proactive students who have some money set aside for their books. These are also the ones that write their teachers for the ISBNs weeks before the term starts... which is great! But they could get the answer a lot faster if they looked up the ISBNs on the school's bookstore website.)

I have two issues with the standard textbook. [Note: These are my issues. Feel free to disagree and/or have other issues.] The first issue** I have is the insane price for something that loses 80% of its value after the rapidly shrinking span of time it takes for the publisher to churn out a new copy even though it is 80% the same as the earlier edition. Wait, I didn't get all my thoughts into that one sentence... I meant to add something about price not having any relationship with the book's value. As in the book costs a lot, but you end up feeling like you wasted your money.

** Yes, I made up those numbers. They are rough, but may not be out of the realm of possibility. Textbooks (social sciences ones at least) tend to have a 2-4 lifespan before the next edition. That I learned at a NITOP workshop on getting into the publishing game.

My second issue is that I cannot teach from one of those textbooks (which is related to my sense of price not have much of a relationship with value.) Maybe it's the courses I teach or the context I teach in, but giant, expensive books that break everything down, color code it, illustrate it, abuse headings, bullet point it (in the beginning, middle, and end of the chapter), overuse bold font, and then give you 20-some-odd different online supplemental materials to help cram the ideas into your students' heads seem to lose something. These books are wicked easy NOT to read. They whisper "skim me" or "just search me for the answer to that question." That is not a terrible thing to do. Skimming and referencing are legitimate skills, but I want the students to read. And practice. And persevere in the face of challenge and confusion by practicing reading material that doesn't bend over backwards to present itself. [The expectation created by these textbooks may explain the frightened looks my Intro Sociology students give me after reading a 10 page Goffman or Durkheim or Weber excerpt. Where are the bullet points? Why aren't the new words in bold print and in the glossary at the back of the book?] Still, I think learning how to read is a durable, valuable skill. Especially when paired with the recognition that you have the ability to do it when you put in the attention and effort. This is a lesson lost when using the traditional textbooks (as least in social science classes.)

Fall Term Experiment

This term I've been trying a few new books. What makes a book work in class is definitely on my mind, as is how difficult it is to predict if a book will work. Sometimes I like the book, and it doesn't work for the students. Sometimes, I have reservations, and yet the students make it clear the book is working for them. That seems to be the case this fall in PSY 211 Introduction to Behavioral and Community Mental Health Systems (aka long name class.) We have an expensive textbook and Pete Earley's "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness." I have my reservations about using Earley's book, but this is an empirical issue. Students can report that they enjoy reading it and are learning a lot, but it isn't clear to me until they've handed in some assignments and shown that they are absorbing the material, asking good questions, and see the complexity of the issues.

So... I'm hopeful. And yet, here are some concerns that I have about the book relative to class.

1. The book focuses on the "severe and persistent" side of the mental health/mental illness spectrum. I want to make sure that student get the big picture, which includes prevention and lower intensity services, as well as services for other disorders/diagnoses.

2. It also focuses on the relationship between mental health services and corrections and legal system, as well as the difficulties inherent in being labeled "ill" versus "criminal" or "ill" and "criminal." [Or "poor," "ill," and "criminal."] Okay, I'm talking myself out of this being a drawback... I thought it was spending too much time with the corrections/treatment dilemma at the expense of other intersections and dilemmas, but the mental health/corrections intersection and its associated dilemmas is what is resonating with the students as far as I can tell.

3. Would a father's narrative make it too story-y and be fun to read, but easy not think about?

4. Would I be able to use the book to highlight many of the major points that I want students to walk away from this course knowing?

I'll report back later.