Graduate school is unlikely to form us in favor of using a textbook. Fresh out of graduate school, with an enthusiasm for effective teaching, I spurned the use of textbooks for any of my courses with the sense that such books sent the wrong message to students: that mastering content was the most important learning goal in the course. Instead, choosing a variety of readings seemed to aim at leading students to critical thinking and discussion. However, I have slowly but surely come around to the idea that a textbook (though not all textbooks) can be very effective for student learning, especially at an introductory level. I will say a bit more about what led me to this conclusion, and then discuss the key ways an effective textbook addresses particular pedagogical challenges in introductory classes.
What exactly is a textbook? Textbooks are distinguished primarily by two elements: first, they provide a broad, unified skeleton for an entire course, and second, they include various pedagogical elements (such as discussion questions, exercises, and term lists) not usually found in trade or academic texts. Historically, the main problem with textbooks is their tendency toward pure content coverage – they read like low-level encyclopedias, in which a subject is reduced to terminology and historical survey. For religion classes, in which students often seek to explore meaning and professors to develop critical thinking skills, such a form seems deadening and unhelpful. And often it is.
My observations on teaching sans textbook indicated that, though my learning goals were not aimed primarily at content mastery but rather at critical thought, certain problems arose. I would identify three in particular. First, beginning students often found it difficult to connect various sources without some sort of framework. I tried many different variations, and developed detailed in-class descriptions about the connections among readings and why they were arranged in such a way. My syllabi would do their best to indicate the coherence of the course. Yet inevitably, by the end of the semester a number of students would appreciate this or that part of the class, but lack a well-conceptualized understanding of the whole.
A textbook reassured students that there was a framework within which they were learning, but how should the textbook be structured? As mentioned, encyclopedia-like texts have a framework, but surveys of content do not make for coherence for students. However, some textbooks develop an overall argument and are structured as the unfolding of a focused set of questions and topics that follow one from another. Such textbooks are distinguished both by their style, more Socratic than encyclopedic, and their focus, selecting particular questions to probe in depth rather than attempting to cover everything.
My introductory courses in the Christian tradition are structured around the question “Who is Jesus?” Class explorations of various aspects of the Christian tradition (doctrine, ritual, scripture, contemporary theologies of liberation, and so forth) all play off this question. Inevitably, certain areas are underserved. But textbooks which renounce covering everything are much more likely to invite critical thought about their objects of focus. My class risks the problem of Christological reductionism in order to allow students a taste of the complexities of this particular aspect of the tradition. Such a strategy of focus will make for a wider variety of textbooks, and once a good fit is found with the instructor's focus, the textbook can push students further than they would otherwise go.
A second problem with the use of individual readings is the tendency of many students to describe them as people's opinions. At an introductory level, one might characterize this as a problem of authority – not in the sense of imposing something on the students, but in the sense of students lacking a knowledgeable guide into the material, as if they just wandered in to an art museum and started looking around. Again, putting myself in that role proved less than adequate – and I further learned that students were more likely to feel comfortable disagreeing with and challenging their “guide” if the guide was not a living person giving them a grade!
Encyclopedia-like textbooks often feel reassuringly authoritative in this regard, while argument-like textbooks may seem biased – but the focus and depth of such textbooks emulate the characteristics of the best tour guides: use your own wisdom to prioritize. I recall one of Malcolm Miller's famous Chartes cathedral tours, during which he did not even attempt to tell us about each window (after all, we would be back, right? An introductory course should inspire a return to the subject matter!), but rather spent time describing key features and highlighting certain themes. My understanding is that Miller would often highlight different features and themes on different tours; what was important was not seeing everything, or even identifying what must be seen, but rather genuinely exploring a few areas of a place overflowing with riches. Analogously, a textbook might use a feminist lens, or a lens focused by ritual and worship practices of various communities, or an emphasis on praxis and ethics. Regardless, the best guides are ones that actually lead their charges – and good textbooks are able to be these kinds of guides.
Finally, although I agree with the importance of making content mastery a secondary consideration of such courses, there is still some content introductory students need to master. This is especially important in light of the much-discussed fact that students in religion classes often come in with wildly differing levels of literacy in the subject matter. In the absence of a textbook, I have found this difference to be flustering for students with less religious literacy, while strongly favoring students with high degrees of literacy. The latter were the students who could best manage to find unity in a looser course structure, and thus were often leaders in discussion – which only put the less literate students at a further disadvantage! A textbook enabled less literate students to feel more comfortable with the basics of a new subject matter. If the right textbook is chosen, such literacy need not come at the expense of the development of more advanced students’ critical thought.
To a large extent, my “yes” to textbooks is also a plea for fewer encyclopedia-like texts and more argument-structured texts which effectively address the three pedagogical issues I discovered in my teaching. As a textbook author myself, I hope I have been able to model my own recommendations!