One of the duties of a tenured professor is to review potential textbooks. Publishers send review copies to instructors hoping that the instructors will assign the text, forcing the students to purchase it, and generating revenue for the publisher. On top of the free copies I’m sent, when I’m revising a course or developing a new course, I troll online book sellers looking for potential texts and read them. This is a task that I (and I suspect most teachers) take very seriously.
I’ve read a lot of text books. Some good, some bad, some useful, some useless. I find they generally fall into three categories. For reasons, explained later, I’m thinking a lot about text books at the moment. The three different styles of textbook seem to emanate from the type of person who sat down to write the book.
Publish or Perish. The first type text book I want to talk about is the from the author who has to write a book as a condition of their job. Many universities require their faculty to publish books or articles on a regular basis. The doctoral thesis that has been published also falls into this category. These books tend to be excellent for the more advanced students, but for intro students they are challenging. Often they are full of esoteric ideas and pre-suppose a great deal of knowledge of the subject before you begin reading. As I teach beginning students, most of these books get read, enjoyed, and then filed on my shelf.
The Guru Remembers. This book is written by an expert in the field, not by a teacher. It is full of remembrances and sage advice. In my first level lighting class as an undergraduate (when I had lots of grandiose thoughts, and no idea what I’m doing) I was assigned David Hays Light on the Subject. At the the time I found the book useless. I also am ashamed to admit I bad mouthed the book for years. The book told me a great deal about how to talk about lighting, but very little about how to actually light a show. It was full of vaguely amusing antidotes, and sage advise. A few years ago I agreed to proctor a test for a colleague who was away at a conference. Deciding that I wanted to have something to read, I grabbed Hays’ book. Now that I’m an experienced lighting designer I find Hays book an excellent read — but it is not a good introduction to young lighting students.
The Frustrated Teacher. This book is also written by a teacher. However, in this case the instructor is frustrated with trying to teach a class. The instructor has been trying to teach this class with another (several other) book(s), and none of them are reaching the students. These books tend to carefully define every vocab word. They also tend to be presented in an excellent order for teaching (or in the case of John Holloway’s The Illustrated Theatre Production Guide carefully written so they can be taught in any order). These teachers put a lot of time and effort into writing the textbook so that is organized in such a way that fits very nicely within the teaching semester.
So why am I thinking about text books? I’m a frustrated teacher. After teaching scenic design for the past six years, I have been unhappy with the three textbooks I have used in that time. The first (the one I inherited) was of the the Publish or Perish variety. The second was a rather technical book, that while very good, wasn’t actually about scenic design. The third was of the Frustrated Teacher variety, but it still didn’t really work for my students (although I’m sure it works for his students — and it is better than anything else I found).
I’m going through tenure review at the moment, and decided to submit the first third of the text to my review committee as demonstration of the work i’m doing. Before submission, I had my husband (who also studied theatre, although not the technical side) review what I wrote. This has given me so much respect for the good text book authors. Aside from usual commas, and spelling errors the biggest (oft repeated) comments dealt with “You haven’t explained this concept yet.” Design is a complete process. It is so hard to explain the concept to people who don’t already understand the process (which is really really unhelpful). Based on these notes, I added almost 1000 more words to this text (and I suspect after the next round of reviews, there will be more). Most of these words were a few words to a sentence or two to clarify ideas. In some cases paragraphs had to be added. Sometimes sections had to be rewritten for the sake of clarity. One of my toughest fixes boiled down to moving the topic sentence of the paragraph from the first sentence to the last (It took 20 minutes of working on it to see that simple solution).
When will the book be done? Who knows. I hope the text is done by mid-february. Of course in a design textbook, the text is only part of the story. The book will need illustrations — lots of illustrations. Some illustrations are being referenced in the text, plus other pictures. Design is so visual, and the illustrations are as important as the text. I don’t know how long the illustrations will take.
Some day soon, I’ll have a text book, my own text book. Then I will start teaching with it, and I’m sure I’ll need to re-write.