Replacing Textbooks With novels in First Year Writing

For the past five years, I’ve taught first year writing at community college and state universities. I assigned textbooks and/or trade books based on what other teachers used or what seemed like the kind of book college students should read. It didn’t work out so well. Now, I’m using books I get excited about.

The first books I recall assigning were writing textbooks like Curious Researcher or Axelrod & Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing. While these contain good information about writing and some useful exercises, they didn’t engage students. Half the students didn’t even bother reading, and the ones who did complained the book wasn’t worth the $50 or $60 they paid for it. 

As I got more experienced, I realized that most of the material in the textbooks could be conveyed through discussions about writing and having students reflect on their own writing and/or other people’s writing.

I stopped making students buy expensive textbooks and started assigning one or two trade books. Additionally, students would read assortment of articles they could access for free online or through the library’s databases. This works well for a lot of teachers.

While I did manage to find a handful or articles and essays that engaged my students, I couldn’t seem to find a book they liked.

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose held their attention for one chapter. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba was a neat concept, but they got bored with the amount of detail in the story. They liked some of the “facts” in Modified by Caitlin Shetterly, but were easily confused and claimed she kept getting “off topic” and wound up hating the book. They claimed Dwellings by Linda Hogan only needed to be a few pages because it repeated the same message over and over again.

The first book I assigned that more than one student seemed to enjoy was Feed by M. T. Anderson—a novel.

It took a while, but I finally figured out what my problem was: I really don’t enjoy reading book length non-fiction. I know it is sometimes necessary, and that a lot can be learned from it, but it always feels like work.

I don’t get excited about it, and that is a huge problem.

Students have very sharp bullshit detectors, so they know when I’m faking it. If I’m not excited about the book, why should they get excited about it?

Feed was the first novel I asked students to read. It also happened to be dystopian, YA, and science fiction – a combination of genres I love.

Because I was so excited about it when I introduced it, they gave it chance. Because they gave it chance, many of them got pulled into the story and enjoyed it. A few loved it. One student told me it made him want to start reading novels again.

Sure there were a few who didn’t like it, but since books are so subjective, that is to be expected. Enough liked it. And enough wrote thoughtful, sourced based papers because of it.

I’ve learned my lesson. Unless the department requires it, I won’t teach a book I am not passionate about. And novel’s can get students thinking just as much as non-fiction, and the questions those novel’s raise can prompt students to do research for essays.

So this semester, I am using novels all around. Comp 1 is reading Feed again and writing a sourced based paper about the issues the novel raises. My reading class is going to read Love, Hate and Other Filters as well as Shadowshaper.

I’m still working out the details of the assignments, but I am confident these books will go over better if I can express my confidence and excitement when introducing them to the students.

I’ll post something later in the semester about how it worked out.

3 thoughts on “Replacing Textbooks With novels in First Year Writing

  1. I think you’ll get good results. I teach writing and literature simultaneously. I find my students are motivated to write by the great fiction stories they read. They emulate the greats and are inspired by the stories. Best to you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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