Writing Textbook Challenges Students in Creative Ways
William Palmer’s Discovering Arguments: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Writing, and Style textbook is the solution to a problem that began 15 years ago.
“I was teaching English 101, the main course that I teach, and I couldn’t find textbooks that I thought were worthwhile,” he says. “It bothered me to make students buy a textbook in which they used maybe 100 pages out of 400.”
This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it forced Palmer to experiment as a teacher. He accumulated many ideas for writing assignments, which he was able to include in the book.
Discovering Arguments, now in its fourth edition, is used at universities, colleges and community colleges across the country, including Georgetown University, Texas A&M and Indiana University.
The textbook is inspired by discovery learning, which Palmer studied while working on his Ph.D. He finds this method to be most effective in helping students learn.
“I studied the work of Jerome Bruner, a psychologist who writes about three questions to judge the value of any teaching method: Is it simple? Is it surprising? Is it useful?” says Palmer. “These ideas are always in my mind while teaching, and they also have shaped my book.”
The Dana Professor of English says it’s fun to figure out ways to surprise students. He admits that presenting critical thinking in a creative way may sound like a contradiction, but he has managed to do just that.
“I recently introduced argument in class, and I asked a student to arm wrestle me,” he says. “I asked, ‘How is arguing like arm wrestling?’ As we discussed this, students began to realize that arguing is a lot more complex. In arm wrestling, there is one winner and one loser whereas in arguing, people can reach a compromise. Or there can be no winner or no loser.”
In the past, Palmer has inspired students to write from a new perspective by taking them to the College’s human anatomy laboratory. He also has supervised students to teach poetry workshops in local prisons.
“I like helping students lose balance, and I like helping them regain balance,” he says. “That’s my job. If I can find something that really works, I feel good. That’s how I know I’m succeeding as a teacher.”
Palmer says philosopher John Dewey, who argued that people learn best by doing, also has influenced his teaching style. Putting this idea onto the pages of a textbook was a challenge, however.
“In class, I teach elements of style through active learning, but I’ve needed to adapt this method in my book,” he says.
Because examples teach a lot, Palmer searches for the best examples that show the concept he’s trying to teach. Discovering Arguments features multiple student writing samples, which he says make the book work on a more realistic level.
“Using students’ papers shows the audience how the textbook helped these students write,” he says. “I want to honor students for the excellent work they do, so I am happy to publish their writing. It’s fun for them, and it makes them feel good about writing.”
Posted: Fri, February 18th, 2011 at 3:48PM