Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Texts to Teach

Remember libraries? With books? How did you pick yours?

I was always a stacks-wanderer, and then a follower of particular authors and topics. I'd slip between stacks and look at colors, words, even the numbers of the spines, pulling out any that grabbed my attention.

I know, I know: don't judge a book by its cover. But, I did. It wasn't all about pretty pictures, but it definitely took something visual to pull me in, at least that first time. Once I'd had a good experience with an author or a topic, I'd be ready to look past covers and prepare for the good stuff inside, but the first time was all about hitting on the pretty one at the dance.

And I was, and am, a "book person." Yet, my choices were made in exactly the way we caution people not to do it. They were superficial, visual, and sometimes even instinctual or reflexive.

At bookstores, it had more to do with price. I didn't take risks, the way that I would at a library. I chose authors I knew I'd enjoy, and bought them at the lowest possible price (if at all). I didn't have much money, I moved a lot, and books were both an investment and a thing likely to be lost in the continual reshuffle of transience.

The reason I bring this up is that it factors into how I choose texts to teach. I think about my students and their financial woes and relative disinterest in reading. I think about their avowed disinterest in anything that smacks of authority, formal schooling outside of a career track, or the distant past (anything before Clinton). I don't acquiesce to it by rote, but I am very aware of the limitations. I consider it part of my job to get them interested in thinking about texts, but not necessarily about texts themselves. I try to get them to see that they are already immersed in texts. Sometimes, that opens the door to books. Other times, it just gets them to see what's really going on in the icky global and sexual politics of the Iron Man series.

So, in choosing texts, I have a few simple criteria I use to help me find something workable.

  1. Curriculum requirements: naturally, it needs to fit the needs of the class, the system, and the state boards. Also, for a lot of classes, it needs to be on an approved list of some kind, or I have to go about getting approvals.
  2. Cost: less is more. So many books, and so many of them can be gotten cheaply. I avoid the needlessly steep sticker-prices where I can. As a result, I use a lot of texts which have hit the public domain, been through many editions with minimal change, or which are available online.
  3. Bite Sizes: I often have classes of 50 minutes to 1.5 hours, and that means we don't have a lot of time to run a long discussion. In order to make real sense of a text, we need to be able to break it into smallish pieces and discuss it in chunks over a number of days or weeks. Longer texts, then, need to have clear breaks in chapters and/or action. Films need to have discrete themes and clear plotlines. Television shows need to work when viewed without narrative continuity. We don't have the time for extensive recapping.
  4. Thematic content:  What makes it relatable is what makes it work, I think. That boils down to themes and how available they are for parsing. A good Bildungsroman is often good, because youth and growing up are relatable to everyone, but particularly to traditional college students. I also like to use texts which consider themes of power and corruption, authority and resistance, sexual mores, ethical responsibilities and dilemmas, and mistakes. These help to reach a wider range of students, including resistant or alienated folks. Also, they provoke passionate discussion, wide disagreement, and keep me interested. 
  5. Informational content: for composition classes, the needs are pretty clear. But, I've also taught sociology, psychology and anthropology-based courses, where the needs were more diverse. In those cases, I've often chosen texts which offered a variety of essays on a topic, or which gave a discussion-friendly overview of a topic.
I don't think there's a magic formula for this. I have to be interested enough to cheerlead for their interest and participation. They need to "get" it, and be willing to talk about it. Everybody needs to able to obtain and afford it. The rest is up to interpretation.

Some books I have taught which worked well: The Reader; The Good Brother; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden; Coyote Blue; Tallgrass; Welcome to the Monkey House; Like Water for Chocolate; How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food; Bodies in the Making: Transgressions and Transformations.

Some of the films: Fight Club; Dr. Strangelove; Scream; Hard Candy; Tape; Freeway; The Curve; The Truman Show; But I'm a Cheerleader

TV shows: Firefly, Scrubs; Parks and Recreation; The Boondocks; South Park; Archer

My next textual experiment will be some pairings. The ones I have on deck at present are Dante's Inferno and the comic-book film Constantine as well as Romeo and Juliet and the zombie film Warm Bodies. And that's the thing I've had to keep learning: evolution. It gets too easy to rely on what I've already done. So, I try to change up my texts at least every 2 years, so that I'm getting to look at something with relatively fresh eyes as well. 

How do you choose texts to teach? What tends to work? What doesn't? Has your process changed over the years?

1 comment:

  1. I'm new at this, so in the beginning, I relied on advice from others. A colleague and I were just talking the other day about using a novel in class. I haven't tackled this yet, and I would like to. I usually use short stories and other easily-accessible readings. As a tutor, I saw a number of texts that profs used, so I have good foundation, I think. I've also seen some disasters. I think that's what makes me so cautious to give it a shot. The disasters. This semester, as one of their journals, I asked the students to write me a book review advocating for a book that they thought I should use in 116. I got some pretty interesting replies. I purchased a few from Amazon, and I'm seeing what I can do with them. Like you, I think we need to engage students and I want them to be interested. So far, they are really into the zombie texts we are reading, so this looks promising.