Textbooks, Metastories, and the Zeitgeist

What follows was originally part of my first post of the day, then the second.  Apparently I have a lot to say today! 🙂

Part of my reluctance to make a “Tres Columnae” textbook comes from a suspicion of  the “textbook” genre, and of other secondary-source collections of knowledge …  like encyclopedias.  Remember those?  I realize that this suspicion comes partly from the zeitgeist of the Web 2.0 world.  Yet I was born and grew up in the late Industrial Age, when secondary sources reigned supreme, and for nine years I taught in a very Industrial-Age school – it even had carpentry, upholstery, and auto-shop classes when I started there, though they’ve since disappeared as that school tried, quite successfully, to become more “academic.”  (I’m now at a rather post-industrial school, but that’s a story for another day!)

Ironically, though, a lot more deep, authentic learning went on in those shop classes than in many of the “academic” classes!  I loved those shop teachers as colleagues and as personal friends, and we said the same things about learning, about our students, and about the purposes of education.   (Longtime readers of the Latinteach listserv may recall the comments of DDFarms in this context.)

One of our biggest areas of agreement was that our students were “part of the family” or “part of a community” rather than “meat in the seat” (to borrow an ugly phrase from another former colleague).  Maybe it was that our students came back to us, year after year, while the “academic” teachers sent their students on to others.  But we also had a greater purpose beyond “covering the curriculum.”  The auto-shop students worked on students’ and teachers’ cars; the carpentry class built bookshelves and display cases; the upholstery class repaired furniture for the whole community;  and my Latin students eagerly taught their parents, friends, and siblings.  Scholars might say that the Industrial Age zeitgeist was marked by alienation and disconnection, but these uber-Industrial-Age teachers focused on craftsmanship and community.

One important motivation for “Tres Columnae” was to build such a community, but on a larger scale.   In fact, a sense of family and community is so critical to ‘Tres Columnae” that our metastory, as currently conceived, revolves around  two or three Roman families in community.  (I’m not using the term “metastory” in quite the way that it’s used by postmodernist or post-structuralist literary critics.  For our purposes, it’s the underlying framework or narrative world in which smaller, individual stories and characters will be set.)  Of course it’s important to remember that Roman definitions of familia, for example, are very different from the American idea of family, and urbs or cīvitās connoted something rather different for a Roman from what community represents to us.  The “Roman zeitgeist,” if there was such a thing, was very different from ours, if there is such a thing.  More on my suspicion of such abstractions in a bit.

I’ve worked with family-based reading-method Latin textbooks for 18 years, so I find the structure congenial.  But the “big three” reading-method textbooks (quōs nōmināre nōlō) aren’t as satisfying to me as they were 18 years ago, and they’re not very satisfying to my current students.  From my perspective, I’m troubled by the absence of strong female characters, the almost-exclusive focus on wealthy Roman men, and the lack of deep character development, as well as pedagogical issues I’ve discussed previously.   Perhaps the “big three” just betray their roots in a time (the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) and place (the British Isles) that is alien to my students’ experience.  In other words, maybe the zeitgeist of the textbook authors’ world is different from my students’ zeitgeist.  Or maybe I’m just enamored of the word zeitgeist today! 🙂  It is fun to say and type…. zeitgeist! zeitgeist! zeitgeist! 🙂

But for many of my students, the problem is that these textbooks are  textbooks.  For them, textbooks are cold, sterile, dead, and un-engaging.  As I reflect on this,  I realize that textbook are a product of the Enlightenment – and its zeitgeist – while my students come from a post-Enlightenment world.  Both Phyllis Tickle and Parker Palmer talk about how the Enlightenment conceived of an “object” or “field” of study, which is totally separate from (and unaffected by) the “experts” who study it.  (By contrast, Palmer talks about a “subject” of study in the center of a community of learners!)  Having derived the “principles” or “underlying meaning” from the “object,”  the Enlightenment “expert” codifies these in a “systematic” way and “delivers” them, through a one-way means of transmission, to a non-“expert” audience that cannot relate to the “object” or “field” directly.  It even sounds sterile and dead!

And of course it’s also wrong!  Physicists now know that you can’t study an “object” without affecting it!  In the 18th century, though, this view of knowledge was a huge advance.  It still made sense in the 19th century, and even in the mid-to-late 20th.  But in today’s world where raw knowledge is freely available on the Internet, where anyone can look at scans and photos of the Herculaneum papyri, do we really need an “expert” to “present” knowledge?   Instead of helping and informing, the “expert” now seems like an arrogant intruder who blocks the learner’s view.

Now, I’m not sure how consciously my students resent their textbooks, but I know they resent “expert” teachers who don’t create their own content.  I’ve talked with several students who got pretty angry because they “found the website where Mr./Ms. Such-and-So gets his/her PowerPoints!”  Or they “read along in the Cliffs/Spark Notes with Mr./Ms. Such-and-So’s lecture!”  (I would be angry, too!)  Of course, for a busy teacher who needs to be the “source of information” (that Enlightenment zeitgeist again!), a pre-made “source” for presentations or lectures would feel like a godsend!   But my students feel betrayed – especially if the teacher gets on the warpath about students’ plagiarism!

My students, and potential “Tres Columnae” participants, are content creators themselves. If you doubt that, just look around on Facebook or MySpace. So they expect their teachers to create content, too, and they  want – and need – to create content when they are learning.  Hence the collaborative, content-creating focus of “Tres Columnae.”

Dear readers, am I just tired, negative, and rambling at the start of a long-delayed winter break?  Or am I onto something here?

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Published in: on December 19, 2009 at 1:30 am  Comments (3)  

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  1. Here’s what I have discovered is key to my students in how they see something as GOOD (fun, valuable, interesting)… unlike texts and textbooks, which are mostly text on white background with limited images, they CRAVE IMAGES… and they CRAVE COLOR. When they design their websites, they almost always try to use colored backgrounds and colored fonts, and the use of images is something they find very liberating in their own writing, and it is also something that really draws the readers into their work; all the student writing (formal and informal) in my classes is illustrated with images and this seems to be CRUCIAL in getting the students actively involved.

    So, that’s one thing I love about working on the web: images are naturally part of the process, far more so than in any printed medium (especially any AFFORDABLE printed medium). I give my students guidelines for finding and using images on the web, citing images, and editing images (Picnik.com is a great free online image editor).

    Whatever kind of text or story that evolves, there should be pictures pictures pictures and more pictures. That’s my take on it anyway, based on what seems to engage my students in English language texts. I’m guessing it may be even more true for Latin, where the language can be intimidating/alienating at first glance. 🙂

  2. Laura,
    You are so right about images and color! Even my “sophisticated” juniors and seniors love to illustrate the things we read, and they do crave color – especially the visual learners. (Ironically, I am an auditory-kinesthetic learner for the most part – I listen to podcasts and audiobooks at the gym – but my students have helped me develop that visual mode.) Black-on-white textbooks with a few colored pictures seem natural to our generation, but they must seem so stale, outdated, and irrelevant to digital natives. I think of my reaction, as a child, to the tiny, black-and-white, leather-bound readers that belonged to my great-great-grandfather. They seemed so old – and of course they were, since I was looking at them in the 1970’s and they were published in the 1850’s. But our students have the same type of response to textbooks that were published 5 or 10 years ago – and understandably so! 🙂 My students in the early 1990’s thought that our then-textbook was cool because it had color pictures! Of ancient Roman stuff! And there were filmstrips and slides, too! My current students can see live webcam views of Pompeii and can take the GoogleEarth tour of ancient Rome, so they’re not quite as impressed. 🙂

    Thanks so much for suggesting Picnik.com! I had been looking for a free online image editor!

    Yes, I think endless pictures, preferably user-created, are the key. I would envision that we’ll provide simple, easily-editable pictorial versions of the major characters and their surroundings, then let participants download and play to their hearts’ content. I also want them to create dynamic illustrations (slideshows or actual movies) – I envision little stick-puppet or sock-puppet characters at first. And of course I want the dynamic illustrations to be narrated (possibly even with Latin text captions). I wonder if we could call them podcasts and get iTunes to host them…?

  3. […] 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 typical […]


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