Popular Nonfiction in the Classroom: A Mid-Semester Update

Popular Nonfiction in the Classroom: A Mid-Semester Update

My class's apparent impact on Amazon: search for Ad Nauseam, get all of these results (the rest of our reading list).

Earlier this year, I posted about my intent to choose six popular nonfiction titles in lieu of a textbook for my introductory “Mass Communication and Society” course this fall, as inspired by Joshua Kim’s post at Inside Higher Ed. I followed through on the idea, and am now in the middle of the semester, about to select books for next spring. (Our textbook orders are due October 15 for spring 2011, which is frustrating when two books haven’t even come up on our schedule yet.)

Here’s the final list of books I adopted this fall:

  • Fame Junkies by Jake Halpern
  • Ad Nauseam by Carrie McLaren, Jason Torchinsky and Rob Walker
  • True Enough by Farhad Manjoo
  • Journalism in Crisis by Neal Cortell
  • Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky
  • Republic.com 2.0 by Cass Sunstein

My 116 students in this course (no TAs, no discussion sections, two 75-minute sessions per week) have been assigned 50-75 pages of reading from one of these books per class session – a hefty chunk, especially for freshmen and sophomores. I’ve created a variety of tasks intended to support the reading, including a student-produced study guide for every session that’s posted on Blackboard, online “blog posts” on the Discussion Board that rotate among groups for every session, and small group “discussion warm-ups” in every class meeting, in addition to daily iClicker reading review quizzes. (You can see the whole syllabus here, which contains links to these assignments and their descriptions.)

So far, based on an anonymous, optional mid-semester SurveyMonkey class survey, just over 70 percent of the class says they have done either about three-quarters or all of the reading assigned. Sure, the survey respondents are probably the more motivated folks anyway, but I’m still hopeful about that result.

The students have taken to the books pretty well. Eighty percent “liked” or “loved” Fame Junkies; 77 percent liked or loved Ad Nauseam; but only 38 percent said the same for True Enough. They seemed to find the concepts from True Enough to be interesting during class discussions, but they struggled with the political anecdotes used as illustrations; they are too young to remember the 2004 election and the Swift Boaters, for example. Overall, our class discussions have been quite active (especially since I now have a grade linked to successful discussion, as inspired by a presentation I attended at the CSU Teaching Symposium in San Bernardino last spring).

For the spring, I’m planning on changing up the books a bit. Fame Junkies and Ad Nauseam will stay on the list, but I’m going to rotate in some newer books: Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload for journalism, I Live in the Future & Here’s How it Works for Internet/technology, and The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media for a bit more of a global and political perspective. I’m concerned that the students will struggle this semester with the density of Republic.com 2.0; Journalism in Crisis turned out to have a rather awkward structure, and the associated documentary wasn’t fabulous; and though I like Here Comes Everybody a lot, I Live in the Future also looks promising and is brand new.

I think the students are getting more out of this class than they did when I used the typical approach to this course, in which media industries are usually approached one by one and discussed in terms of their history, their current status, and a few of their possibilities for the future. Not only are students learning to read a different kind of text – something I feel will have value across for their future courses and their lives – but they are also being exposed to a great many real-world examples of media issues that they are going to encounter as media consumers and (for some) as professionals.

And I’m enjoying teaching the class a lot more. That’s never a bad thing. I’m giving up some of the structure I used to impose on classes through lecture with slides, devoting a lot more time to discussion and group work, and working in some of the media history and giving multimedia examples when needed. I can respond to questions in class much more freely in this approach than when I had, oh, 30 slides to “get through” in class and felt guilty if I spent too much time on questions and didn’t make it through the presentation.

I have more fun reading these books and teaching with them than I ever did with any textbook I’ve used, and if my enthusiasm can be contagious and help students also feel more motivated to ask significant questions about the media, then I’m thrilled.

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