On writing a textbook

By Paul Budra

May 04, 2016
Shakespeare Early and Late a Textbook

Many years ago I was asked by SFU’s Centre for Distance and Online Education (CODE) if I could do something about the distance education Shakespeare course that was being offered by our department. It had been purchased from another institution some decades before. Students who took the course received not only a course manual; they got a set of cassette tapes. Clearly, it needed to be modernized. But when I reviewed the material I quickly realized that modernization would not be sufficient; the course had to be scrapped and a new one written. I was given the job. The resultant course proved successful and has been running for well over fifteen years (with some updates). In fact, the course has been so successful that recently Dr. John Whatley of CODE approached me about doing a sequel. The existing course was called Early Shakespeare (ENGL311); he thought we should do a Late Shakespeare (ENGL313) course as well. I agreed and was about to begin work on the second course when John had another idea: why not combine both courses into a textbook?

Now, professors are not trained to write textbooks. They’re trained to write scholarly monographs and articles for select audiences who possess a command of the primary material, surrounding critical traditions, and jargon. This is an intensely learned and critical readership. Textbooks, on the other hand, are meant for students, people who are new to the source material and are unfamiliar with its critical history. Subtle arguments have no place in a textbook. Indeed, a textbook, unlike a scholarly monograph, may not have an explicit argument at all, thus breaking the cardinal writing rule that professors drill into their own students: make sure you have a thesis statement.

I would have to learn how to write in a very different way.

I began by collecting together my Shakespeare lecture notes. I have some 30 years’ worth, some of which predate (gasp!) personal computers. I distilled them into what became, in essence, lectures on the individual plays. Now, successful teachers, in my opinion, can remember (or at least imagine) what it is like to know nothing about their subject. They can then construct a logical path—steps of knowledge arranged in a need-to-know hierarchy—towards an understanding of their subject. In terms of the textbook, I could not presume that its readers would know anything about, say, Elizabethan England. In fact, I could not presume they knew what “Elizabethan” means. I would need to explain everything and explain it in the right order.

Academic prose is often dense (nay, convoluted) and citation heavy. I would have to strip all that away and adopt a more conversational tone: write the way I lecture. I would have to break the chapters into bite-sized pieces for the attention spans of students raised on cell phones. I decided I would not use secondary criticism except where absolutely necessary because, frankly, there is too much Shakespeare scholarship out there and if I opened that floodgate the students would be overwhelmed. And I would avoid the opaque technical language of literary criticism or explain it as I went along.

This set of restrictions forced me to write about Shakespeare in what I hope is simple, direct prose, and that forced me to clarify my thinking about the plays. I couldn’t just quote a critical tradition or allude to a cultural context; I had to explain why they were important. I couldn’t allow for an infinite play of subtle textual interpretation; I had to explain to students what was actually happening in the plays. It was much harder than I thought it would be.

Did I succeed in writing a successful textbook? Time will tell. But I’ve had one (admittedly biased) review that pleased me greatly. My mother has copies of all my books. She hasn’t read any of them. She’s tried, but she’s given up when confronted with the scholarly prose and subject matter. Fair enough. Why would an 81-year-old Lithuanian lady want to read about the phenomenology of consciousness in Hamlet or the historiography of A Mirror for Magistrates? But I sent her a copy of the textbook to add to her collection. She phoned me a few days later and told me she had already read the first three chapters. “I love it,” she said. “It’s just like you’re there teaching me in person.”

That is exactly what I wanted to hear. Thanks mom.

Paul Budra teaches Shakespeare and early modern literature and has published articles on Renaissance literature and contemporary popular culture. He is the author of A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition and co-editor of the essay collections Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel, Soldier Talk: Oral Narratives of the Vietnam War, and From Text to Txting: New Media in the Classroom. He is a past president of the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society, former Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and winner of the SFU Excellence in Teaching Award for 2004.