On the CHE-sponsored blog Brainstorm, Gina Barreca wrote recently about bad (with the comments here containing many positive recommendations), good, and the best books about writing, which set me to thinking about the writers' handbook often required for FYC classes. A little cost/benefit analysis is in order here, I think: in particular,
- how much are these manuals costing our students?
- what material are we as instructors expecting students to find in these manuals?
- how much are these manuals actually used by students?
Textbook publishers often don't make it easy to find list prices of these books (maybe because the cost doesn't matter to instructors requesting their free desk copies?), but a quick bit of research on the website of one leading publisher shows prices as high as $70! The concise editions that have started to proliferate do provide a more reasonable option, but it's still worth thinking about why and how we expect students to use these supplements.
Now, I haven't studied these books exhaustively, but at first/second/third glances most appear nearly indistinguishable (spriral-bound, tabbed, an "innovative" chapter on visual rhetoric, research chapters tucked non-threateningly at the back). The three main content areas seem to be grammar/usage tuneups, style matters, and the research process. Can our students get this info elsewhere, more completely, more engagingly delivered, more reasonably priced?
From the Internet we have (free) online resources such as Purdue's OWL, the Capital Community College Foundation's Guide to Grammar and Writing, Bedford-St. Martin's Re: Writing, Chuck Guilford's Paradigm Online Writing Assistant, the elegant clarity of Punctuation Made Simple, and the attention-getting (maybe) Grammar Bytes. Also, if you haven't seen it yet, you may want to check out the Rhetoric and Composition Wikibook (if there's something you don't agree with, change it; if you think something is missing, add it). (Many of these online resources include an interactive component as well as explanatory material and multiple examples.)
Mass-market options (most at $15 or less) include Michael Harvey's The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing ($6.95 from Amazon!!; also available here in an online version): Constance Hale's lively Sin and Syntax; and, of course, the classic Elements of Style, most recently released in a gorgeous, cleverly illustrated version (see the illustrator Maira Kalman's site for a taste via video; for the more conservative, the original Strunk text is available here).
For the research process, check out Steven Krause's The Process of Research Writing, offered via Creative Commons licensing. As for MLA citation, do you really expect our students to see the value of remembering all those details when they have available such options as Citation Machine, EasyBib, NoodleBib, and (if yr institution ponies up the fee) RefWorks? (And is it really all about where we put those colons and what we set italic??)
The main issue for me comes down to how (if at all) students will use (any of) these resources. After relying on electronic sources for a while, I thought that students might be more likely to consult a book than a website, so I did require one of those generic handbooks a few semesters ago. Maybe it comes down more to how the instructor uses the reference rather than the mode of delivery? But in my more cynical moments I wonder if it's just a romantic delusion to think that a FYC student will take the time to look (in either book or website) to find out whether an indefinite pronoun takes a singular or plural verb (to reveal one of my own grammatical insecurities).
Questions: What's the value in writers' manuals? Which one(s) do you prefer, and/or what are yr criteria for selection? How do you encourage yr students to actually use these books?