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  • Textbook Pedagogy: Some Considerations
  • Laurie Haight Keenan

Experienced teachers realize that textbooks function as a co-instructor and bring to the classroom their own pedagogy that can turn a teaching experience from rewarding to burdensome, or vice versa. The thoughts I offer in this paper come from a dual perspective: from having taught a variety of classics undergraduate courses for many years, and from having worked as an acquisitions and development editor at a classics textbook publisher for nearly as long.

When I first started in publishing, I was a total greenhorn, an idealist, and a strong advocate for any proposal that sounded like a book from which I myself would want to teach, or any whose subject or ancient author was underrepresented, or whose approach was out-of-the-box. I cringed at the thought of writing rejection letters for exciting proposals, but I soon became used to doing exactly that. My rejection letters earned thank-you notes from rejectees. Why? Because I could explain why excellent proposals stand little chance of being published.

It will benefit both textbook publishers and the teachers they serve to put into words what anyone learns after working in publishing for a few years: why it is that the selection of available textbooks seems predictable and limited.

Publishing is financially risky and little understood from the outside, in part because publishers rarely take time to explain what it is they do. Many highly educated people assume that publishing is book printing—just about the only thing publishers do not do. It is the publisher’s job to help authors develop books that will be financially successful enough to pay—at least—for their own development, production, promotion, royalties, and distribution. Until Warren Buffet decides to pour billions into academic publishing, every publisher needs to cover costs. A successful textbook publisher keeps in close contact with the end customer, teachers. What teachers know works in the classroom is what also sells in quantity, year after year. This is what at Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers we [End Page 117] call the “multiple, repeat sale.” Such a product, though, is usually not cutting edge, because veteran teachers know too well how long a term can stretch when using an innovative textbook that does not work.

And so both teachers and publishers are risk averse: they favor proven formulas. For classics textbooks, risks are: ancient authors not high in the academic canon; subject areas not taught in most programs; newer, untested methods; and unfamiliar textbook authors. There is an additional limit on choice, something that one hopes classics and other disciplines eventually will address: publishing a textbook is not professionally rewarded in the same way that publishing a scholarly book is.

The bad news, then, is that textbook choices are limited. The good news is that both publishers and teachers are looking for the same thing: a book that works competently if not brilliantly in the classroom, over many years. Longevity benefits teaching scholars: it lessens prep time and increases time for research; it likewise benefits publishers: it reduces costs and allows for investment in other projects.

The criteria publishers use for acquisition of textbooks may, then, provide a checklist to help teaching classicists choose textbooks more mindfully, and decrease odds of being stuck with an unworkable book. I’ll suggest five considerations when choosing a textbook: teacher profile, author profile, content and organization, design, and, finally, ancillaries. I’ll also suggest ways that these considerations can be communicated to young classicists about to enter teaching.

The first consideration when choosing a textbook is the profile of the teacher. This means that teachers should know their own ways of thinking and learning, and how these may influence their choice of textbooks. An excellent place for teachers to begin to think about how they (and their students) learn and think is Andrea Deagon’s “Cognitive Style and Learning Strategies in Latin Instruction.”1 From research on learning style in language instruction, Deagon cites as her fifth of five commonly agreed-upon points that “The teacher’s cognitive style can play a part in how students learn and how they are evaluated.”2 But the teacher’s cognitive style also...


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pp. 117-121
Launched on MUSE
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