Spanish professor Laurie Massery faced a dilemma. She was struggling to find a textbook for her Conversation in Spanish course that was both affordable to students and dynamic enough for a subject she views as intrinsically tied to today’s global conversations.
Laurie Preston, Head of Digital Resources & Scholarship at the McGraw-Page Library, offered Massery an innovative solution: make her own. Through a VIVA Open Grant awarded in 2019, Massery and her co-authors, RMC professor María José Bordera-Amerigo and University of Lynchburg professor Pedro Larrea Rubio, created Conversaciones Corrientes: Temas de Cultura y Sociedad, a free open access online textbook that was piloted by one of Massery’s classes in the spring of 2022.
A hard copy of a textbook for a Spanish conversation class typically costs in the range of $150-$300. Conversaciones Corrientes is conveniently accessible from a laptop or phone and completely free, saving students hundreds of dollars per semester.
Hosting the textbook online also means it is a living document that can keep up with global conversation and trends that interest Massery’s Spanish students. Its title translates to “Everyday Conversations: Topics of Culture and Society,” and Massery takes the goal of staying current seriously in a course designed to help students increase fluency, speed, and accuracy.
“I wanted something that would allow me to continually change content to stay current, to get students excited,” Massery said. “Pretend you’re in a coffee shop; what would you talk to your friends about?…That’s how I started with my chapter, ‘Life Decisions.’ I’m thinking, what do these kids talk about? It’s probably what they’re going to do with their lives.”
Massery can also add activities about current events or pop culture that get students engaged. Often, those topics spark bigger conversations that integrate other classes and subject areas in the true spirit of the liberal arts.
“For example, last spring, I included the Chris Rock-Will Smith story. By this spring, probably nobody is going to be thinking about it, so I can go in and replace it with whatever other story there is. ” Massery said. “That sounds like a light topic, but that’s tied into freedom of speech. They’re bringing in law, they’re bringing in political science… they’re able to start making connections. It’s not just a Spanish class.”
The student experience is at the heart of this project. Cameron Murray ‘21 and Anayeli Verduzco Ríos ‘22 were integral in the textbook platform creation, administration, and design.
“One of the reasons I suggested that student workers be involved was that then they could give continual feedback on topic areas, so that it’s not us looking at what a 19-year-old is interested in, but a 19-year-old saying, ‘this is good,’ ‘no, this is not good,’” Preston said.
Students had a helping hand in developing the content of the textbook as well. Kelsey Craighead ‘23 designed the cover art, while chapter one features stories highlighting alumnae Ali Fay ‘19 and Kaitlin Deaton ‘17 using Spanish in their daily lives post-graduation.
Yet another advantage of the open access, online format of Conversaciones Corrientes is the ability for students – now and in the future – to get published in Spanish, a rare opportunity for undergraduates.
“They don’t always have time to write these big research articles, and then on top of it write it in a second language,” Massery explained. “So, I wanted a place where students could publish short articles, poetry, artwork, and videos that talk about why they chose to study Spanish and how they are currently using, or plan to use, it in their future.”
The uses for open education resources go well beyond Randolph-Macon’s campus. Davidson College is piloting a class using the textbook this semester, and the content is available for anybody to access.
“Anyone with a Spanish curriculum teaches conversation, so the potential savings to students is worldwide,” Preston said. “It could be used in a high school, it could be used as a supplementary text not even associated with a course, it could be used in a program at the State Department if they’re teaching speakers to go overseas. It’s not just limited to a college textbook.”
For Massery, the best part of the process was creating something that filled a critical need for her students.
“The reason I came up with this book is just because it wasn’t out there,” Massery said. “I really enjoy writing research articles, so a textbook was never really on the radar. But there was absolutely nothing out there. And this is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”