Q: What are your resources/budget as a teacher? Are you sometimes stuck using textbooks you hate?
A: I believe I can answer the first question pretty quickly: aside from a copy budget that, at best, lasts the first two weeks of class, the sole resources I have as a teacher are my own wits and physicality. I will leave it up to the reader to judge the adequacy of these attributes. But, given the fact that I teach writing at a university, I don’t actually require much in the way of funds.
Also, if I want to launch a big, experimental project that requires seed money, like reanimating Virginia Woolf for a guest-lecture and possible date (apologies to the wife), I can always apply for a grant. Our department has relatively decent funds, too, so they can pull in good speakers for classes across the board. I sympathize with high school teachers whose budgets are increasingly constrained and more directly tied to daily classroom operations, but since I don’t face these issues directly, I can’t bemoan absent funds that wouldn’t actually change the way I teach what I teach. This is one of the things that always attracted me to writing and literature, actually. These subjects are like running, in terms of possible athletic activities: you don’t need much equipment to do it, just commitment and a high threshold for tedium and pain. Perfect for the motivated loners of this world.
The second portion of this question is where things get a little more interesting. I am absolutely stuck with textbooks that I (and from what I gather, most of my students) hate, but this has less to do with budgetary issues, and more to do with the imposition of top-down curriculums. Students buy their own textbooks, and that means that I don’t technically have any budgetary constraints on required texts for my class. I could theoretically force them to buy whatever I think is necessary for the course. There is, however, an ethical responsibility on my part to keep book costs as low as possible. So, as much I’d like to, I don’t make them pay me (personally, in cash) for my as-yet unpublished memoirs. There are some things you can’t put a price on.
There are, however, at least two required texts for the course, which I have no control over, and this is the reason I bring up the issue of top-down impositions. One of these texts is a custom publication for the school, and as such, it isn’t cheap. In addition, neither of the texts works exactly right, and while there are good sections in each, making students buy the whole for a few redeeming parts seems off to me. I can’t bring myself to center the whole class around these texts, because as an educator, I don’t think it would be productive to my purpose.
To a certain degree, I understand the fact that these texts are required. The university wants consistency across their curriculum (which is incredibly important), and one way to do this is to have required texts. And my institution is actually quite good about giving their instructors flexibility, which I would argue underwrites their high academic reputation. But, as an instructor, I always want even more flexibility to teach whatever I think or know will work. However, if students need to buy a text, I will feel obligated to teach from it, at least in part, to justify the cost, even if it feels like a weirdly fragmented portion of the overall course. So, while I can’t complain about the lack of resources for extravagant in-class pyrotechnic displays, I can question the expense of required textbooks, which while not hitting my pocket directly, is problematically passed on to students.
How much do you spend on textbooks? Do you think it's too much?
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.
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