Thoughts on Textbooks

By now, some faithful readers may be wondering why “Tres Columnae” is not being developed as a textbook.  After all, I’ve had a few critical things to say about the current state of Latin textbooks – and some may interpret this post as further criticism!  I’ve also presented some sort of synthesis of the major approaches to teaching the language.  So why not put it all together, sell it to a publisher, and try to get schools (or homeschooling families, or independent learners) to buy it?

Full disclosure: if it were 1989 or even 1999, there would be no “Tres Columnae” project blog, but there would be a proposal letter to several textbook publishers!  But if it were 1989 or even 1999, I’m not sure that I would have anything like the “Tres Columnae” vision.  In 1989 I was still preparing to become a teacher; in 1999, I had been one for a while, and I had actually thought about writing a textbook someday in the way that many teachers do.  I had actually put together a collection of the Catullus poems that then appeared on the (late and much-lamented) Latin Literature AP syllabus at the time, largely because there wasn’t yet an affordable published collection that included all of the poems on the list, but none of the “school-inappropriate” ones.  I had even marked all the words that weren’t formally introduced in the elementary Latin textbook series we used at the time, and I’d developed – and borrowed – some comprehension and interpretation questions for some of the poems.  I used it with my students for a few years (until Ronnie Ancona’s Catullus book was published), but I never thought it was good enough to see a wider audience.

I was also busy developing supplementary materials for the textbook series I did use, including a set of cultural-background worksheets that have, in fact, been published (search for “Schwamm” and you’ll find them in the catalog) and a whole bunch of contextualized grammar-practice worksheets that haven’t been published anywhere to my knowledge.  But again, the thought of publication wasn’t very interesting.  I was glad to share the materials if people asked, but I didn’t want to add “author” to my vita.  Perhaps I had been affected, unconsciously, by the suspicion of “textbooks” that I want to address today.  I also did not think that I, one person, could do as good a job of textbook development as a panel of experts in the field.  There wasn’t yet crowdsourcing in 1999, so I was probably right! 🙂

But “Tres Columnae” is not a textbook; it’s a Joyful Learning Community.  There’s no need for a single expert, because the collective knowledge of the community far exceeds that of any panel of experts.  But the products of the community need to belong to the community – and that’s one reason that  “Tres Columnae” can’t be a “textbook” as “textbooks” are traditionally defined.  “Textbooks” are also static and unchanging – they have a revision cycle, of course, but until the new edition comes out, it’s not possible to see the changes, and it’s not possible to go back and update copies of the old edition with new information.  So “textbooks” eventually (or quickly) become obsolete.  I actually used to collect old textbooks – in fact, I still have a little collection of them – but I see them more as sociocultural artifacts than as information sources.

Dear readers, what do you think about the textbook issue?  Would you buy a “Tres Columnae” textbook if there was one, or should it remain an ever-evolving online story?  Or should we try to make a “third alternative” solution in which both things somehow happen?

Tune in shortly for more theoretical musings about textbooks….

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Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 11:11 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] implications of the Tres Columnae approach in this post, this one and this one . Then, in this post and this one, I explained why the Tres Columnae project, by its nature, is different from a […]


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