The number and length of the comments incited by yesterday's musings about textbooks illustrate my main point: people have strong opinions about the purchase and use of textbooks. With all due sympathy for those who have been afflicted with expensive and useless textbooks, I find this strong emotional reaction to textbooks very interesting. For this discussion, I will refer to the collection of feelings, many of them negative, surrounding the purchase of expensive college textbooks as Textbook Syndrome.
I have no particular opinion as to whether Textbook Syndrome is a legitimate affliction (and possibly highly infectious) or psychosomatic. I am not a real doctor.
As in the discussion yesterday, I am going to ignore some major aspects of the issue; for example, university bookstore policies regarding new textbook pricing and buy-back value. Instead, I want to focus in particular on student knowledge and perception of the role of professors in triggering the Textbook Syndrome. Some possible triggers of this syndrome include:
Professors who write textbooks and assign them as required reading for their students
I don't want to make excuses for faculty whose motives and methods in writing and assigning textbooks are not pure and whose classes are boring, but consider the following complaints and responses, in which the latter are written from my biased professorial perspective:
(1) The professor is making a profit from students and this is not fair.
If a professor writes a textbook and then teaches a class on the subject of the textbook, do you really expect them to use another book? Wouldn't that be kind of weird? Wouldn't that be like saying "I spent years pouring buckets of knowledge into this book and thinking about the best ways to illustrate some really essential concepts related to this topic that I am going to teach in this course, but maybe I should use someone else's book just because I will make $3.57 from my class if all the students purchase new copies of the latest edition of the textbook and that would be unseemly?". And if professors don't write textbooks on the subjects of their expertise, who will write these books? Other professors, just not yours?
Most textbook authors I know wrote their book out of a sincere interest in explaining to students how some aspects of science work. I am sure that some textbooks are lucrative for the authors, but most professor authors are not getting rich off their students. They spent years on these projects, writing mostly in their 'spare' time, and they are proud of the resulting book despite the lack of financial rewards.
That said, I personally feel uncomfortable requiring that students buy a textbook with which I am associated, but neither do I feel comfortable using another (inferior!) book. My discomfort is part of my motivation for being accommodating about student textbook purchases.
(2) If the professor wrote the textbook, the class will be boring. Students can skip class and just read the textbook, which will also be boring.
When I first got involved in a textbook project, I worried about the effect on my courses of using a textbook that had my name on it. If I put some of my best anecdotes and illustrations in the book, and then I assigned the textbook for the course, would my class automatically be boring? Would students stop attending lectures?
I suppose if my teaching consisted of standing in front of the class and reading from the textbook, attendance might dwindle substantially. Of course I don't teach like this (does anyone?), but the question remains how using your own textbook affects course dynamics and attendance.
My anxieties about assigning a textbook with my name on it were unfounded. Science is dynamic, so there is always something new to talk about, or at least a new perspective on a fundamental concept. I am always changing how I teach and what I teach, and I can always bring something new to a class.
That's nice, but despite the dynamic new material I present in class, the textbook is not irrelevant. The basic, classic concepts are in the textbook and I teach them in class as well. These form the core of the class, around which I present new examples and ideas and topics to discuss. In theory, the in-class experience and the textbook reading reinforce and complement each other.
It's fine with me if textbook materials (text, illustrations) are provided by some means other than the traditional printed (expensive) textbook, but until there is a good alternative for the classes I teach, I will keep assigning textbook reading for those classes that will benefit from this.
Professors who require the purchase of expensive textbooks but hardly use the books in the course
There are several possible explanations for inadequate textbook usage:
(1) The professor might be disorganized and/or evil and assign an expensive book for students to buy, not caring if this is a financial burden.
If students in a course believe this to be the case, it is important to try to fix the situation. Students who are upset or concerned about inadequate use of a required textbook could politely question the professor. Alternatively, they can wait and write angry comments on the teaching evaluation at the end of the term.
In theory, a large number of negative teaching evaluations for more than one course will trigger corrective action. This is becoming more common that it used to be. For example, if significant numbers of students provide articulate comments in teaching evaluations regarding problems of textbook usage, the professor might be motivated or forced to fix the problem. Random negative comments about hating the textbook could easily be attributed to grumblings of slacker students who don't like to read.
(2) The students might think the textbook is useless, but in fact it is not.
I've gotten a few random "the textbook was useless" comments in teaching evaluations from time to time, and I find this comment puzzling. I assign specific textbook reading for each class, and these readings are listed on the syllabus. I discuss the relevant concepts in class, and I use illustrations and examples from the textbook, supplemented by other illustrations and examples. I do not cover every topic in the textbook (nor could I, even if I wanted to), and I do not ask exam questions on textbook information that I have not discussed specifically in class. I do, however, refer often to the textbook reading.
Given all that, what does it mean if a student comments that the textbook was useless? Without additional information about the student's reading habits or specific problems with the reading, I have no way to evaluate the criticism. Owing to the rarity of this comment, I conclude that I don't have a problem, but if I got this comment consistently, I would rethink my textbook choice and use.
I think that if students have difficulty reading a textbook, do not spend the time reading a textbook, or have a problem integrating textbook and in-class information into a coherent understanding of the course topics, their response might be to blame the textbook as being useless, and therefore a waste of money.
(3) The professor might have no choice in the required textbook.
For some large courses, departments have a committee that selects the textbook. Individual professors teaching a section of a large course might not have had any input into that selection, and may have a teaching philosophy or preference for course content that is different from the textbook's. This situation might also arise when one professor inherits a course from another professor, and hasn't yet had time to select their preferred textbook.
You might think that the professor should just follow the textbook no matter what, but in many cases, courses are best taught if the professor isn't forced to follow a textbook they think is boring or strangely organized. This opinion is based on the assumption that the professor isn't teaching old, outdated material because that is easier to do, or is insane and wants to spend the term ranting about some bizarre obsession. Most professors who deviate from a preselected textbook do so because they think they can provide a more interesting class by not following the textbook closely. I don't think the main decider in teaching philosophy and course content should be 'following the textbook closely', even knowing the rage that lack of good use of a textbook ignites in many students.
In these cases, it is best if, early in the term, the professor clearly explains the course content and expectations with regard to textbook use, and gives students options with respect to textbook purchase.
Maybe textbooks will one day be obsolete. Like many professors, I am fond of books and still have most of my college and graduate school texts, in addition to all the ones I have bought over the years. However, I am willing to consider other options for textbook material delivery, as long as these other options still require that students read and understand written information.
5 months ago