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Nick Carbone

Hi Holly,

I think the central question is one of use. If a student uses a book, then the book has value. For example, even a big $70 book is a good value if its used often. So if a writing instructor asks students to buy that book, then it's important, I think that students learn to use, which means not only requiring them to use it, but teaching them how to use once the course is over. 70 divided by 2 is $35 , the cost per year to a community college student if they keep using that book whenever they do writing at the CC. Or, it's $17.50 a semester. If they keep the book and continue to use it as they write beyond the CC, whether as a transfer student to a 4 year or as life-long learner, the value increases.

But it's about teaching students to use the book. I work for Bedford/St. Martin's, and but when I teach a course (part-time), I tend to use a smaller handbook rather than a bigger one. Mainly because I've tried using alternatives such as the Purdue OWL only (back when I was a graduate student at UMass, Amherst years ago).

I found that the consistency and constancy of a print book; the interface was the same for every student and not subject to browser types; the tone of the work was the same; the editing was consistent (Purdue's handouts are useful, but written by different OWL tutors over time and thus not always consistent in tone and terms.)

A handbook, anyway, is a good reference system; the cross-references are carefully made; the index is accurate; and so on. As a resource, it becomes more valuable as a writer continues to use it and grows as a writer. Other composition textbooks, rhetorics -- like the St. Martin's Guide to College Writing; or the book that Matt's students have made -- that have specific assignments, are less useful after a course.

But anyway, I think you're right: value matters. For me, it's less about price (though less is always better) and more about teaching writers to use what you have them get.


Thanks for the thoughtful response, Nick. It's set my thoughts going in several directions.

First my own disclosure: I've found handbooks of limited usefulness in my own development as a writer (which does not necessarily correspond to what my students may find useful, I know).

I do think it's worthwhile, for those who ask students to purchase such books, to think about when and how we expect students to use them, which is why I posed the question. (And it's not just a dollar-and-cents question, I agree, and I agree that we can't expect students to know how to use them without training.)

I'll stick here to the grammar-and-style side of the aisle; others of you who find handbooks useful for other aspects of the writing and researching process, please feel free to weigh in! Will students use handbooks during drafting (of their own initiative, realizing the need to check out some grammar or style point), or do we see these manuals as a help for students in interpreting teacher comments?

For the second purpose, electronic handbooks seem like a good option, esp. in the context of a web-based tool like Bedford's Comment, where hyperlinks can be provided by the instructor to the relevant grammar info. (Of course, this does not give the student info they can carry beyond the course...)

As for the first, to what extent are these handbooks like dictionaries for those who complain they can't look up the spelling of a word if they don't know how it's spelled? Only (if we hope for students to look things up on their own) it's often a more serious problem: that they don't know that they don't know the correct spelling. (That is, one needs a certain awareness of ignorance combined with an approximate-knowledge in order to use the resource effectively.)

In terms of training students to be able to use these manuals (to know on their own when they need to look something up), I'm pessimistic. I talk to students about developing their own checklist of personal usage "issues," but I'm not sure how well it sticks. I have so many students who can't reliably point out the subject and verb of a simple sentence, let alone be able to see how a compound-complex sentence is constructed. Without the grammatical terminology, it's hard to talk about many matters of correctness (how to explain the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs? that commas come after introductory subordinate clauses?--my students' eyes would glaze over). For such students, the handbooks often seem intimidating rather than helpful.

No answers here, I'm afraid--only questions...It's a larger issue, though, perhaps to do with how important "correctness" is in FYC (from our perspective within the English department as well as the perspectives college-wide and in the workplace), and how we "teach" it, or help students to learn it.

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