Would you teach a really old but really good textbook?
January 10, 2013 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I've already taught this college course on media literacy for one semester, with results that frustrated me (here's my postmortem of my syllabus, including what students did and didn't get). Specifically, my students don't seem to understand how advertising influences the content of the media. I've been trying to remember where it was I developed the foundational ideas I have on the subject... and I realized, they're in a textbook I read in high school. In 1991. In a book which had its last edition that year.

I am no lover of textbooks, believe me -- in just about any circumstance I would avoid them like the plague. I haven't had to read one myself in years. But my students, who are largely advertising and PR majors, are not at a level where they can read academic articles or books; they get hung up on advanced terms, trying to use them over and over to impress me without really understanding them at a deep level. And this book, Don Pember's Mass Media In America (which I have been carrying around with me since high school for reasons that were pretty much subconscious until last week) just lays out the economic foundations of media beautifully -- in neutral, simple, journalistic language written at my students' level (first year of college; I was reading it at a college prep school); with illustrative anecdotes from the industry; with a focus on economics without an overbearing political bent of one sort or another; considering news content alongside entertainment content (which is important, as the latter crowds out the former), and thinking about the consequences of ownership and other influence. I cannot find anything like it, and believe me, I've looked.

So I wanted to ask all of you professors out there: am I nuts to want to assign a (text)book that was two decades old, to teach concepts to my students? Should I just be lecturing to them about the material instead? I am REALLY not the lecturing sort -- I did my doctorate in a school of education and I believe there's a time and place for lectures; it's after active student inquiry.

I wouldn't be asking them to memorize facts (ad buy prices, market shares, etc) from the book, as doubtless they are out of date. And I'm pretty sure my students wouldn't stand for it anyway -- last semester they scoffed at a researcher whose work was largely done in the 1960s, but who is hugely influential and respected in the field, simply because his research was old. I intend to have students scrutinize the claims of a number of texts (everything from Honey Boo Boo to Wikipedia to scientific journal articles to Malcolm-Gladwell-like stuff) anyway, so having them look at what from the text stands up and what doesn't is not out of the question. It's all media literacy anyway, in my opinion. What do you think, MeFi?

(Yes, there is of course the procurement question. First of all, there's a ton of used ones up online. Second of all, I plan to only use sections, so I might be able to use PDFs.)
posted by gusandrews to Education (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You could try using Google Scholar to see who has cited the book in the last few years. Maybe some good resources there? I'm not knowledgable in that area so I have no idea.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:49 PM on January 10, 2013

A good book is a good book. We still study Victorian Poetry don't we? (Well...maybe that's just me.)

I think that if you preface it with what you said, "This text lays out the economic foundations of media beautifully -- in neutral, simple, journalistic language written at my your current level. Plus, you'll note that it's dirt cheap because it's old."

That should sell it for you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:53 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you find it useful and think your students would find it useful, distributing a PDF of the appropriate sections seems like the best option, or alternatively including it in a copy packet. I would recommend against asking them to order used copies of a 1991 textbook, because that's just rude.
posted by asperity at 1:54 PM on January 10, 2013

I'd be down for it. A good book is a good book.
posted by spunweb at 1:56 PM on January 10, 2013

Assuming all the students can actually procure the textbook, I don't see why it's a bad idea (or rude). Alternatively, contact the publisher about making copies of the relevant section(s) for distribution in class.
posted by asciident at 1:56 PM on January 10, 2013

Yeah, isn't this what copy packets are for? I've had courses where the entire course text is a copy packet of out-of-print case studies and other articles.
posted by GuyZero at 1:57 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't know why using an older text would be rude or strange, but then I come from a very different discipline. Unless it were shockingly expensive or difficult to get, I wouldn't blink at having to buy an older book.
posted by PussKillian at 1:59 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: I guess one of the reasons assigning a textbook gives me hives to think about is this article by Richard Feynman about how he was called on to review textbooks... if you haven't read it, the synopsis is like that old canard about politics being like making sausage: textbook creation is not a process you want to watch.
posted by gusandrews at 2:00 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've definitely had sections of seminal works assigned to me and that are put on reserve. If it's perfect for your class, then that's that.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:00 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: And another thing to remember, of course, is this is a mass media book from before 1995 -- i.e., before the advent of graphical web browsers anyone could use. Before The Internet. Forget about Web 2.0. Hell, this book is older than MetaFilter! ;)
posted by gusandrews at 2:01 PM on January 10, 2013

I routinely use two books published before I was born to teach HS German, but not as the main text.
posted by vkxmai at 2:07 PM on January 10, 2013

Have considered going to the primary sources he used for his text book?
posted by empath at 2:08 PM on January 10, 2013

I would ask Rowly Lorimer (author of Mass Communication in Canada) whether his book might be appropriate for study outside Canada - I haven't looked at it in 10 years, but much of mass media studies has been generated by U Chicago and U of Toronto scholars who were Canadian in origin, so it's not like it would necessarily be a terrible fit. If you instead choose the older Mass Communication in America, I would suggest only assigning segments of the book or getting permission to copy portions of it. I cannot imagine that you would curry favour for yourself or your school if you used a textbook that was 20 years old as your foundation textbook. However, using portions of it in conjunction with more modern resources would certainly be appropriate.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:09 PM on January 10, 2013

Give it a go. If it doesn't work, get rid of it next time. If anything, you could talk about how things have changed since it was written.
posted by starman at 2:15 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: Chausette, the Lorimer book is a good tip, thanks!

Empath, my major problem last semester was assigning my students readings that were way over their heads -- it slowed things down, intimidated students, etc. So going further up the academic food chain is not the best idea.

And yes, everyone, I would not by any stretch of the imagination be using this for the ENTIRE course -- I pick and choose my readings (which clearly is making things harder for me).
posted by gusandrews at 2:21 PM on January 10, 2013

To be more specific about why asking them to order the physical textbook would be obnoxious: shipping costs will be expensive even if the books aren't, and the lack of resale value will mean that not only will nobody buy the books from them at the end of the semester, but they won't have any non-paper-recycling way to get rid of the things.

Also, that cover's likely to scare them. Copy packet = no scary 1991 cover design.
posted by asperity at 2:22 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Review the textbook, make sure it is still current, and make notes about which parts need to be ignored, updated or added. (Really, this should be how even new textbooks are considered.) It sounds like you're already planning to do that, since you say you're only going to assign certain sections of it.

If I was your student I'd be glad that you assigned an old textbook because it was the best/clearest/etc. I'd rather be read the best material rather than just-because-it's-a-new-edition material. Just make sure you explain how/why you decided to use the text.

In my current masters course, we are regularly assigned very old readings, from 1910 let alone 1991. Nobody has questioned it, because they are clearly assigned for good reason.
posted by robcorr at 2:27 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

My library stocks two copies of every required text for every course taught at our university. Getting long out of print texts is a huge pain the the butt and on top of that, because the text is out of print and the bookstore may not stock it, students end up stealing our copies, which starts the pain of the hunt all over again.

PDF scans may be your best bet, especially if you are only using parts of the book.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:28 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

One other consideration against assigning the whole book: at the university where I sometimes teach, students on financial aid must order their books from the bookstore for the cost to be covered by their aid package. (And on preview, it would be a pain for the bookstore to obtain, as robocop is bleeding notes.) Even if the cost from a secondary source were covered, shipping fees would not (as asperity alludes).

If you just pdf the appropriate sections into your reading packet then you may also avoid them pre-judging the material as "irrelevant" just because of its age, if you de-emphasize the date on the pages you distribute.
posted by gubenuj at 2:41 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You could also email Don Pember (retired from UWash, but I bet he still has email there) or UW and ask what they would use now. They used that text for about 20 years and they still have a school of communication - they must have something similar now.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:48 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

last semester they scoffed at a researcher whose work was largely done in the 1960s

Well, one of the things these students should be learning is not to scoff at something just because it is 10 or 20 or 50 years old. If it is good, solid, insightful, relevant research it doesn't matter if it was done 50 years ago or 500 or 5000.

Obviously, there are important things that have happened in media in the past 20 years, but you are covering those using other materials, so--problem solved.
posted by flug at 3:06 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are subjects which haven't been covered for decades. I have to use Frank Ching's work, because no one has been able to update the content, even though architectural drafting is a whole other thing today. It's OK with me, and with the students, but with undergraduates, I have to spend a lot of time translating the book into current conditions.
posted by mumimor at 3:12 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No kidding, Flug -- I was just so shocked at their reaction last semester that I'm not even sure I managed to explain to them why older texts can be useful!
posted by gusandrews at 3:14 PM on January 10, 2013

You could also contact the author and ask about putting out an updated edition, if he has had his rights returned to him.
posted by jadepearl at 3:23 PM on January 10, 2013

So, I looked over your syllabus, and I have to say, as a former educator and someone really interested in the subject, if I were an undergrad student today, I might hesitate to take your class.

Media doesn't just mean the written word, obviously, and yet all the required and recommended media you have listed on your amended syllabus consists of readings, some of which are as old as 1975. Now, I know you have people coming in here saying that pivotal works are pivotal works and it doesn't matter how old they are, and that's true! But you are also dealing with a sophomore level (not graduate) college course, one that attracts PR and Advertising types, and--well, you mention that it's been many years since you were an undergrad yourself, and it shows in the materials you've chosen and the presentation of the material.

You don't have to make your students buy several different (expensive! and even out-of-print!) books/textbooks or haunt the campus library stacks to get them to understand the concepts you are teaching, you have to show them how what you are teaching is relevant to their lives.

So, they are undergrads; you mention yourself, on your blog, that the majority of them are majoring in PR and Advertising. The complaint I hear from students graduating from marketing courses--and I heard it again as recently as last Thanksgiving--is that the courses they took were out of date and irrelevant to what's going on in the workplace today. The social consumerism they take for granted is missing entirely, as is SEO, etc.

Now, in your case, you have these kids in PR and advertising coming in and reading excerpts that were old when I went to school, and your students are picking up on that. That's what they mean when they say the information is obsolete. With the works on your syllabus and the book you are thinking of including, it seems like you are preparing them for a future in academia, giving them the research sources to write a Master's thesis on media literacy. You are weighing them down in academia when there's current examples all around you that would make the points just as well. And you can't get them to respect the material if you can't get them interested and engaged to begin with.

Your material doesn't seem to fit your students (or your audience, if you prefer). If you feel that certain concepts were explained in a way that makes you really get it in this old textbook you love, that's fantastic! You know those concepts now. Can't you find current media that illustrates those concepts in a way that they will really get your students to understand them? Or, since you get the concepts, even create the media yourself? Or, better yet, use the course (and your students!) to help you create media for the following year's course every semester. Why rely on old, outdated material to say it for you? If this is relevant to their interests, if it is something they really need to know, it shouldn't be that difficult to do. Making, maybe, more of an effort to incorporate their world and their interests into your class seems like a much better plan than trying to locate out-of-date textbooks (which, yes, to them will seem obsolete, because your students weren't even born until the nineties).

Some resources you might check into:
Media Literacy: The Foundation for Anywhere, Anytime Learning and
Five Core Concepts and Five Key Questions (both from the Center for Media Literacy, some of the material is geared towards middle and high-schoolers but could easily be adjusted for your purposes).

Media Literacy Project

PBS Learning Media: American Passages Archive (I noted on your syllabus the section on PBS, Sesame Street, etc.)

From the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Toward a Media Literacy in Games.

Those are all I could think of off of the top of my head, but there's so much material out there for you to use that is both current and engaging to today's undergrads! Please consider incorporating some of that instead of going backwards in time to, maybe, a more nostalgic take on your passion that won't translate to your new audience nearly as well.
posted by misha at 6:06 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

My modern algebra professor taught from a text that went out of print in the 80s. Most of us were delighted because we could find it used at great prices and he encouraged us to share books or use the library.
posted by town of cats at 8:20 PM on January 10, 2013

I've had OOP books republished by Wipf and Stock, and they were great. Took care of the rights and everything.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 10:27 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: misha, perhaps you read a bit quickly -- I did have them view a number of videos (some of which aren't on the syllabus, there was usually one a week), and did things with technological literacy which are pretty much unprecedented in media literacy, as far as I know (whois lookups, close reading of Wikipedia, etc. This semester, maybe I'll have them do traceroutes). Not to mention assigning finnb's not-even-published-yet book on spam (out in April! I'm so excited! I read the draft and want to recommend it to every MeFite.)

I am generally not a fan of slavishly covering things just because they are new. Video games are particularly a hot button issue for me that way, having watched the MacArthur Foundation and any number of educational media departments fall all over themselves to set up game programs, and seeing the results be unthoughtful, hand-wavey, and slipshod in many cases. (The article you posted was by Kurt Squire, though, and I respect him a lot, so I may take a look at that. His colleague James Gee's work on video games was already on my syllabus.)

What I'm working on here is building an argument and enduring skills which will serve my students no matter what medium they encounter (immersive virtual worlds? 3D printing? Direct neural taps?). Just bringing them up to speed on the facts of the current media landscape will produce fragile, ephemeral knowledge that will be irrelevant next year. I don't think my students came away thinking I was behind the times -- the feedback was generally that I was working way, way over their heads (and that I was disorganized, which I chalk up to teaching for the first time) and that's what I really need to work on.
posted by gusandrews at 9:11 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I want to second part of what misha said, that I think got lost (because it is not directly about the age-of-the-textbook issue, but it is directly relevant to the problems you are having with the course):

I would strongly recommend that you drop the idea that you're not going to lecture much because that's not you. I agree with misha that you are making the (very common rookie) mistake of replicating a grad class, not just by assigning grad level readings, but also by thinking you can only convey ideas through readings. Unlike teaching grad students, where your primary job would be to select readings and minimally guide students' self-learning, your job as a teacher of undergraduates is to directly mediate between the scholarship and where they're at: take the graduate level readings and condense them down into something they can understand, and then they can work with you on active learning techniques to really absorb the concepts and see how to apply them, etc.

I agree whole-heartedly, however, with your point that an idea is either good or it isn't, regardless of its age. This is a good attitude for students to learn as well, so I think you should go for it with the older textbook, but you definitely need to be explicit about what you're doing and why. Talk about which parts still hold true and which don't, and be judicious about how much of that older text that you use.

Good luck with it -- I wish you well.
posted by ravioli at 7:00 PM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

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