Putting the Text Back in Text Book

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Chantelle Warner, German

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

As a teacher of foreign languages, I have had problems with the ways in which even the best language textbooks present culture. During the first year of language study at Berkeley, one such book is used by all GSIs in the German Department. The book is structured thematically and each chapter includes short dialogues, short texts, communicative activities for the students, and two or three sections that specifically address culture and biographical information about a famous German figure. Instructors and students alike have often complained that textbooks’ portrayal of German culture is overly simplistic and that the suggested activities are boring. Instructors often supplement the textbook with other literary texts, films, music, advertisements, etc., in order to complicate simple notions of culture and encourage students to develop the skills for critically reading and analyzing texts, which they will need in the second year of study. But merely supplementing the textbook ignores the fact that the textbook is not a collection of texts come together by happenstance, but a text itself, carefully edited and authored by individuals with ideas about what parts of German society should be represented and how this should be done.

The first year German textbook does attempt to address the presence of minority groups in Germany. This is done primarily through the introduction of a Turkish-German figure named Mehmet, who lives in Berlin and works as a truck driver. In addition, one-fourth of the last chapter deals with issues of multiculturalism, integration, and racism in Germany. In order to problematize the textbook as a text, I have asked students to do two activities that focus on this part of the book. The first activity involves bringing in previous editions of the book and asking students to compare and contrast the ways the section of multicultural Germany is presented. We look the publication date for each edition and talk about what was happening in Germany at that time, and the ways in which current events and discourses affect the presentation of the material. Through the discussion, I hope to make it clear to students that it is not enough to dismiss the textbook as biased, but they must realize that authorship is always somehow biased in that it involves making choices. At the end of the chapter, I have asked students to author a new section with the same title, “Multicultural Society.” When they are faced with the task of trying to do a better job than the textbook does, students realize firsthand how difficult the task of cultural representation is. The students then distribute their versions to other members of the class and the entire class tries to decide what we would use if we were the editors of the textbook for first-year German students. Although it is typically impossible to reach a consensus, the students come to their own conclusions about the importance of looking at all representations (even those in textbooks) critically. Through these activities, students are able to develop those desired text analysis skills, while discovering for themselves the limitations of any textbook representation of culture. They are also able to focus on the language insofar as they are looking at specific words in context and how they carry certain connotations and representations (such as the word multiculturalism in the German context as opposed to the American).

I have judged the success of these activities primarily by the students’ enthusiasm during in-class discussion and informal feedback that they have provided me following the activities. I also feel that the new sections on multiculturalism that students have developed demonstrate a heightened sensitivity to the pitfalls of cultural representation. Many of the students drew from material not only in the section specifically on multiculturalism, but also from other parts of the text, where these issues are in no way thematized. Based on their discoveries, they were able to view not only this chapter, but the entire textbook in a different way.