Why I Made My Composition Classes Textbook-Free Zones

All, Teaching Tips

This semester I finally moved to make both of my general education writing classes textbook-free zones. I have long been able to jettison textbooks for my Writing I classes, but at my institution our Writing II classes have always been reading-intensive and I really liked my textbook. However, every time I assigned it I felt guilty. Guilty because I hate to make my students buy textbooks for a required general education class and guilty because I couldn’t find the time to craft a reading list that would allow me to avoid assigning a textbook. But this Fall my work with two National Writing Project initiatives (College, Career, and Community Writers Program and Writing Our Future: American Creed) combined with my work on the Morehead Writing Project’s Power Your Story Journalism Camp and further inspired by Liz Prather’s Story Matters led me to make the jump to assigning long-form journalism.

Why Textbook-Free?

I teach at a regional state university in Eastern Kentucky. My students are often working their way through college by cobbling together scholarships, student loans, and multiple jobs to make ends meet. Buying a textbook is not always an easy decision for students on limited budgets and so I want to make sure that when I assign a textbook it serves a purpose for the class and ideally for the future. I assign a handbook for my professional writing class because my students need that support to succeed in the class and they can use the handbook in their professional lives as well. However, I do not assign a handbook for my composition classes because I can use open source options such as the Purdue OWL and Writing Commons as well as the lessons I have adapted from the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program. In fact, I believe in the quality and usefulness of these free resources over many of the expensive handbooks I have been encouraged to use through my decades of teaching writing. I also like that their digital form makes them more accessible. I like being able to link directly to useful tips and strategies when providing feedback and instruction. I like being able to craft a HyperDoc lesson specifically for my class and my students. Last, but not least, Purdue OWL is regularly updated at no cost to my students. There is no danger that they will buy a handbook only to have the MLA or APA rules change the next semester.

Let’s Make It Personal

Reading is an essential part of writing. Reading and writing are closely linked. Writers need to read for information and ideas to feed their writing and writers need to read for mentors and inspiration to nurture their craft. My composition students read a lot just as they write a lot. In my Writing I class they read our nation’s foundational documents for information and ideas as part of our American Literacy work. However, I also like for them to have mentor texts that they can use as models and in my Writing I class that often means This I Believe essays. I like that these essays are short focused arguments that lean heavily on personal experience which seems a perfect model for Writing I. I am also able to offer students a choice of models that fit within our theme. In fact, I have been able to use This I Believe essays for a variety of themes over the years. I first began using the book containing a collection of essays when it was the common reader for our First Year Seminar program and I do still share the book with my current students (just in case they are inspired to read or share it), but the essays in the book are also available online so it fits in with my textbook-free zone. While I believe in choice and adore themes, I have assigned Reading the World: Ideas That Matter to my Writing II classes through three successive editions. I liked guiding students to choose readings written by great thinkers organized into eight broad topic areas. While the ideas represented in the text offered a lot of inspiration for our class discussion and our writing, one of my concerns is that they did not serve as good (or accessible) models for the kind of writing that my students were expected to do in Writing II. When I learned that my text was going into a fourth edition (which would mean students could no longer buy cheaper used editions) I decided it was time to make the leap that I had long contemplated.

Looking At Long-Form Journalism

Over the past year I have been involved in National Writing Project work, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, focused on encouraging student journalists. Then this fall I attended two different professional development sessions led by Liz Prather where she discussed weaving narrative and argument to improve writing. This combination has meant a lot of exposure to long-form journalism and its benefits as a model for the kind of critical thinking and writing I’d like to see in my classroom. Long-form journalism is a branch of journalism that generated longer and more in-depth articles than the typical news story. Many media organizations support in-depth reporting that result in longer articles and new media has created even more opportunity for such work (see Longform and Longreads). This means that there is a lot of free sources available so my students won’t have to buy a textbook and they have even more choice.

I am also attracted by the idea that allows me to focus our reading in a new direction. As I work with C3WP and American Literacy and in fact even when I was working with comic book and popular culture themes, I have found my students passionately interested in social justice topics from homelessness to income inequality to gender equity. If I can build a class where our reading and writing springs out of that passion then we have created a win-win. I employ project-based learning in my classes all the time and my hope is always that it will be passion-based learning.

One of the things holding me back from abandoning my textbook was the labor involved with building a reading list of open-source essays, but inspired by my Twitter PLN, I have solved that problem by revising my Paper Trail assignment to create a class-generated reading list. I love this option as it means it will truly reflect the interests of the class and guiding their model selection will allow me to integrate a key lesson series about Internet Misinformation into our work. Win-Win-Win!

I am super excited to begin this work next semester and I hope I can inspire/support your own journey to go textbook-free! I am sorry to let my old reader go, but I hope that once we begin exploring and sharing new essays and articles that I will forget all about it. And I am always happy when I can plan class assignments and activities that are twofers that intersect with so many of my own teaching passions! What factors determine your textbook choices?

Artwork by Jisc CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

One thought on “Why I Made My Composition Classes Textbook-Free Zones

  • Thank you for sharing your resources. I teach 2 online composition classes that I would like to go text free with. A concern I have is my students don’t read the online resources I provide them now.

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