Sunday, May 27, 2018

Why use a handbook?

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under BLOG

College instructors are justly concerned about textbook costs for students who may be financially struggling. We’re all trying to teach as well as possible, with as little financial burden to our students. That’s only right.

One thing I’m hearing is debates about the value of *not* adopting a handbook in writing courses, on the premise that students can find answers to questions about grammar and documentation online. That’s a great idea.

But it’s a great idea, I believe, only for students who know what the questions are and who are motivated to find answers to them. That would certainly describe most graduate students, advanced undergraduates, English majors, and the like. It wouldn’t actually describe me; I still turn to authoritative hardcopy references (which now include my own handbook!) for such information. But I recognize and respect that it describes many others.

Those “many others” do not, for the most part, include my own students in first-year comp. For most of them, writing is an empty ceremony that they reluctantly perform on the command of their instructors. They work hard at figuring out what the instructor wants and how to deliver it with the least effort. In saying that, I am not disparaging my very earnest and likable students; I’m just saying that their goals in a college classroom are different from mine. It’s my job to figure out how to bridge the gap. Expecting or demanding that they go online to find answers to arcane questions that they do not themselves care about or fully understand seems to me a form of denying the gap rather than bridging it.

For me, bridging the gap means not only adopting a hardcopy handbook but using it in class. After the end of the term, my students will no longer have regular access to me when they write, and they will no longer have me to motivate them to care. What they will still have, if I’ve done my job well, is a handbook that they feel comfortable with and that they won’t sell back for a lousy ten bucks at the end of the term.

So bridging the gap means I have my students buy a hardcopy handbook, bring it to class, and use it in class in a variety of ways. They get comfortable with it, they come to value it, they keep it, they use it. That’s the goal. And that seems to me a very responsible thing for me to do. It may cost my students some money, but if I’ve chosen the book well, for its price and for its quality, I have done them the great favor of educating them, getting them more involved in writing, moving them toward being confident writers, and providing them with an ongoing writing tutor (the handbook) that I have used my writerly expertise to choose with care.


    2 Responses to “Why use a handbook?”
    1. Jim Pangborn says:

      I’ve been doing this for some years now, and I’ll recommend it for anyone. As it happens, the SUNY where I work requires a standard handbook (Hacker’s Rules for Writers)for all students–at least partly to have a standard dispute-settler, to keep the profs’ notions of correctness from diverging too wildly. At the Community College where I also expiate the sins of my past lives, my ex-students can often be seen carrying their yellow Hackers like badges of honor. I was also asked by one former student to donate an extra desk copy to the local branch library where she had subsequently found a job. People quickly realize the practical value of such a thing.


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    1. […] also talking about how a handbook can best be woven into the syllabus (rather than just being a putative reference work for the students). To anchor those conversations, I drafted a list of my own principles of handbook […]


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