Since the fall, I’ve visited several colleges and universities to review writing programs and their curricula, and I’ve had a chance to see many outstanding course descriptions, syllabi, and related materials. The teachers and administrators I’ve spoken with were all thoughtful, engaged, and committed to students and to student writing. They had worked hard to craft assignments and choose texts that students could enjoy, as well as learn from.
But in looking at syllabi, one thing in particular leapt out at me: while all these programs listed a handbook as one of the class texts, that’s about as far as it went. Nowhere did I see a handbook even mentioned in daily class work, much less fully integrated into the course. Now maybe I’m touchy since I’ve written some handbooks myself. And maybe teachers are using their handbook in class but not showing it on the syllabus (I didn’t ask teachers about this issue, though perhaps I should). At any rate, I expect that more often than not, the handbook is assigned—but not taught. If this is the case, it’s no wonder students complain about textbook costs: they don’t want to spend money on a book they never use.
I wonder if others have encountered this situation or have thoughts about it. In my experience (50 years of it now!), I need not only to introduce my students to a handbook, working through front matter and previewing in detail the parts of the book and how to use them, but also to work with the handbook in class, modeling for students how it can serve as a support for all their writing. I’ve written earlier about a series of interviews I did with first-year writers across the country about a year ago, interviews in which a number of students said, for example, that they didn’t know where the index was or what to use it for.
So I remind myself frequently that my students don’t know what I take for granted—like where to find an index. In fact, I try not to take much of anything for granted, remembering what I felt like as a bewildered first-year college student trying to learn the ropes of academic discourse. And that means that I look for ways to get students into a handbook and to use it in class. Here are just a couple activities that have worked for me:
1. I introduce my students to our handbook on the first or second day of class and walk them through it so they will begin to be familiar and “easy” with it. I try hard to engage students by asking them to work in pairs or small groups with their handbook to answer questions like these (and I like to give a little prize of some kind for the group who finds the information most quickly and successfully):
- Where do I find information on using italics for emphasis?
- How do I cite a TV program using MLA style?
- How do I use quotation marks with poetry?
- Where can I find advice on working collaboratively?
- Should I say “compare to” or “compare with”?
- How can I find help in moving from a topic to a thesis?
2. I hold “tools of the trade” days, and include them in my syllabus: 15 minutes once a week (or more if it feels necessary) when students bring in every question they have about grammar, usage, punctuation, or any other aspect of writing. No question is too small or too “dumb.” They also bring questions they have about a particular choice they need to make in a draft they’re working on. Then we break into groups to answer the questions, documenting just how we have come up with tentative answers. Finally, we share information and discuss what we’ve learned.
3. I teach writing and research processes with the handbook, and we all have our handbooks ready at hand during every revising and peer reviewing workshop.
Of course, any textbook is only as useful to our students as we make it, but that seems to me to go double for handbooks. We have to use it—or they will lose it!
[Photo credit: Lendingmemo on Flickr]