Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Textbook Syndrome

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.


Squeaky_Brakes said...

Back when I was an undergrad, I appreciated textbooks because they were safety nets against incompetent lecturers. If the lecturer is competent, I definitely preferred taking thorough and efficacious notes in class to use for studying for exams.

With the exception of my first year where a lot of general/introductory courses required textbooks that cost an arm and a leg, my upper year profs were considerate in only requiring us to buy essential textbooks; those courses often covered more material than the lecturer could squeeze into his or her lecture. In this case, the textbooks were useful in supplementing topics the prof had/choose to rush over in class.

However, I feel a lot of introductory courses taken chiefly as electives should not require students to buy egregiously priced textbooks the size equivalent to a phone book, along with glossy study guides and interactive cdroms. I took intro sociology and psychology courses were I had to fork out $150+/per course for required textbooks. Yes, the textbooks are placed on reserve in the library. However, in this day and age where colleges are infested with shameless and nefarious premeds, I've never been successful in replying on a reserved textbook to get through a course.

The_Myth said...

Brilliant! Thank you for carefully articulating all of this to the uninitiated.

Many undergraduates simply refuse to absorb that professors are trained as scholars--inventors of knowledge--and not just educators--shepherds of knowledge. I would often hear classmates and students complain about having to read a professor's articles and books as if this wasn't a good thing [since, you know, he or she is AN EXPERT and all]. As you said, whose work is better to read than that of the expert teaching the class?

I once explained to a class of undergraduates that college instructors had a different background and training than high school teachers. It was stunning how many of them later, on course evaluations, made outrageous claims about me having to re-take "the test necessary to teach the class" as if there was some sort of Praxis exam like most states have for K12 teachers. Hah!

Oddly enough, I could tell from the other comments that these were the students who didn't read the text book, didn't pay attention in class, and then blamed me when they earned poor grades on assessments.

There is often a connection between reading the textbook and earning good grades. I don't care about the random "I never cracked a single textbook and earned all A's" people because, to be honest, I think they're lying...probably to themselves.

pleclair said...

Excellent points, and very relevant to my situation. Whether it is a good idea or not, I've shared your thoughts with the students in my summer course ...

Anonymous said...

Some random comments:

1) As a professor, I find textbooks that have minor revision every 3 years to be a pain. I typically pick and choose HW problems that I like from the textbook (and supplement them with my own questions), rather than assigning all the problems on a given topic. New editions require me to look up all my assigned HW problems in the older version of the text, find them in the new version (if they still exist), and change my HW assignments accordingly. Not a big deal, but just an unnecessary hassle to keep up with constantly-changing editions, especially if the new editions have few substantive changes other than renumbering the HW questions.

2) I do encourage students to use older editions of the book. On my HW assignments, I give the problem numbers for both the old and new editions of the book.

3) I know several colleagues who have written introductory texts for large classes. One told me that according to his contract, his publisher can require him to come out with a new edition every 3 years. If he does not want to write a new edition, or just doesn't have time, tough -- the publisher is allowed to hire someone else to write a new edition and put it out under the original author's name, whether the original author likes it or not. In a nutshell, the publisher is going to get a new edition one way or another -- all in order to eliminate the used book market, of course, through which the publisher makes no money.

4) As an undergrad, I took a class with Carl Sagan. He assigned several of his books as required readings, but he told us he thought it was "unconscionable" for profs to require students to buy their (the profs') own books. Instead he had us come to his office, where he sold us the books himself but sans his author's royalties.

Anonymous said...

You'd be surprised how many students fail as they are trying to revise from a crap / incomplete set of notes! I prepare two sets of notes for my classes. One is a "full" set, the other a set with bits/sections taken out. Each student gets a set of the latter when class starts. Each week, as I lecture, they go through the booklet and fill in the gaps. This means they don't have to do a lot of "copying" in a class at the expense of listening at key points/concepts. At the end they get a half-decent set of notes as a minimum (depends on how they fill in the gaps!).

Of course a base set of selected problems is provided along with a reading list. However an attentive student, who work through the material provided should be able to at least pass the course without having to refer to text books.

The full set of notes is also useful for assissting with students who have disabilities - i.e. those who perhaps don't have the physical capacity to make (detailed) notes at the speed required during the lecture. It also means if I get knocked down by a bus tomorrow a colleague could come in and pick up my notes and cover the class with ease.

Downside: costs my teaching busget a few hundred pounds a year - but this works out at ~£1 per student per class (~17,000 sheets of xerox at £0.02 per sheet for around ~340 students. We do have a central print facility thank god!!)

Anonymous said...

FSP, it sounds like you have a very healthy attitude towards textbook use. Unfortunately, not all professors do. I have run into problems mainly in courses taken at German universities, but they might be illuminating.

"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."

As a student, what upsets me is when I am forced to use the professor's published or unpublished book even though it is inferior to other published works. I have experienced this at least twice. One professor required an apparently self-published book so poorly written in English by its German author as to be almost unreadable for me (a native English speaker). I believe this was a case of professorial arrogance -- couldn't he have hired a professional translator and/or editor?

Another was a set of unpublished lecture notes so poorly organized and badly edited as to be often incomprehensible. The reader was constantly required interrupt reading to locate figures in a pile of separately distributed photocopies (instead of them being embedded in the text where they belong), and the notes lacked other important features such as a table of contents, index, etc. If a student had turned in work of the same quality, they would have been lucky to get a passing grade. I bought a recently-published edition of well-known textbook and referred to it instead.

In this second case (quite common here), I believe the professor meant well -- he was trying to provide equivalent materials for the students in their own native language, for free, instead of forcing them to buy an American textbook for about $100.
However, the time I would have wasted had I relied solely on his lecture notes was worth more than $100 to me, so I bought the book (which incidentally has turned out to be one of the most important additions to my library yet).

"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?)"

Believe it or not: Yes. I once took a quantum mechanics course that was literally taught like this, and from an inferior book. I stopped attending class, which was truly a waste of time, bought myself a vastly superior textbook, and taught myself QM. I passed the class (and even began to understand QM), which unfortunately is more than can be said for about a third of my fellow students, who failed.

Anonymous said...

You're right that one would obviously expect a professor to assign their book instead of someone else's.

In general, however, most fields of science and engineering have way too many introductory texts, so instead of using one of the many perfectly good ones out there, it seems like professors opt to write their own instead with an attitude of "I can explain this better." They then of course require their students to buy their book.

And like it or not, it's a conflict of interest to require students to line your pockets (however thinly) in order to pass your class. It may be unavoidable, but it doesn't make the students' discomfort with the situation any less valid.

Anonymous said...

I would claim that your assumption to ignore college bookstore policies in your posting is a false logical step. Despite the availability of textbooks at various online retailers, most students have little choice but to use the college bookstore since many times the required textbooks (and versions) aren't posted until the first day of class, leaving little time to purchase online.

Your assumption is the equivalent of airlines ignoring the effect of TSA screening on passengers' attitudes. The effect is almost always strongly negative, meaning your "customer" (i.e., the student) arrives at the "gate" (i.e., classroom) with a negative attitude from the get-go.

Anonymous said...

In my academic career I was assigned at least some textbooks as definitive references on the subject of the class. "The Art of Electronics" comes to mind as a reference I keep 15 years after my 200-level electronics lab, though I hardly used it at the time. I was lucky enough to be able to afford to keep many such books. Otherwise I might have resented it.

Sadly this reason seemed more common in liberal arts classes than in the sciences. Perhaps that's because Edith Hamilton hasn't been much improved upon in, what, 75 years?

Doctor Pion said...

Concerning your first paragraph, I want to be clear that I was complaining about expensive textbooks that offer little value to the student as a professor! Being able to choose the book means little when the choices are all bad and they change (often for the worse) every three years.

[There is an old joke about a comprehensive exam problem that asks you to predict when the shelf space occupied by The Physical Review will grow faster than the speed of light. One common textbook is headed that way. It gets longer with every edition; they just make the paper thinner to avoid that problem.]

I was ecstatic when several new books appeared that (a) included modern pedagogy from the start rather than as an add on, (b) could be read by a typical undergrad of indeterminate national or high school origin, and (c) that one of them was under $100 for a one-year majors course.

Less turgid prose that is well focussed (succinct) has increased the number of students who actually read the book before class and advise others to do the same.

BTW, I agree 100% with your comments about whether we should "teach from" the textbook. My lectures don't come from the textbook but they clearly refer to the specific things the students should already have in their notes from reading it. For example, I may tell them that the next lecture will look at how to apply equations X and Y, so they need to copy them onto the top of tomorrow's notes. (To drive the point home, I might only show the equations for two seconds at the start of class and make a note of who tries to copy them down.) My lectures extend and apply that information.

Anonymous said...

Related NYTimes Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/technology/27digi.html?em&ex=1217476800&en=3bd5ac3fee2b62a8&ei=5087%0A

The History Enthusiast said...

"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?)"

Actually, my first American history class in undergrad (I went to a SLAC) was taught by a guy who did this. I almost didn't become a historian because of that class. The course also met 4 days a week and there was no discussion like in my other history classes. So, 4 days a week we got to listen to the textbook for an hour. Attendance did taper off, partly because he didn't have an attendance policy.

Becca said...

Textbook syndrome is also triggered by professors who don't remember (or never knew) what it was like to eat Ramen for a few weeks because of a $40 difference between two textbooks.

"whiny undergrad slacker syndrom" is an ailment of professors, and is caused by latte sipping, cell phone talking, jetta driving undergrads who wanna know if they "have to read for this class?"

"Socioeconomic bigotry syndrome" is triggered by encountering someone who made less money in a year than you got as an allowance when you were in high school.

Ocassionally professors get a nasty case of "SES-BS syndrome", triggering "textbook syndrome" in students. The professors *cough*the_myth*cough* then proceed to complain about "WUSS".

Anonymous said...

"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?)"

I took a class from a professor who didn't so much read from the book (which he had written) as speak in what turned out to be identical wording as the textbook, this coming naturally to him after some decades teaching the same material.

Anonymous said...

The Uni. of Utah recently enacted a policy whereby faculty using their own books or materials in courses have to donate their royalties to charity. This does avoid the conflict of interest, but does add some weird paperwork to teaching (estimating royalties, etc.).

Anonymous said...

I was told once by a textbook author that he received NO royalties on the sale of his introductory book to the entire university where he taught!

I am not sure if this is still in practice.

As for people complaining about teaching styles, dry material, crappy books, etc., grow up. It is your education, take the initiative to learn the material one way or another, don't expect knowledge (or life) to be spoon fed to you at your convenience.

Optics-Student said...

As an undergraduate, I was occasionally assigned textbooks I deemed useless. In hindsight, I realize I unjustly designated many of those textbooks as useless or disorganized, mostly because all I wanted to do was skim to the equation I needed, plug in the numbers (or the equivalent) and move on. Very few textbooks or assignments facilitated that kind of learning. Now that I actually read the textbooks, I find them much more useful.

The_Myth said...

Not sure if FSP will allow this to be posted, but what the heck...

"whiny undergrad slacker syndrom" is an ailment of professors, and is caused by latte sipping, cell phone talking, jetta driving undergrads who wanna know if they "have to read for this class?"

"Socioeconomic bigotry syndrome" is triggered by encountering someone who made less money in a year than you got as an allowance when you were in high school.

Ocassionally professors get a nasty case of "SES-BS syndrome", triggering "textbook syndrome" in students. The professors *cough*the_myth*cough* then proceed to complain about "WUSS".

Aw...it's been awhile since I was a target of an ad hominem attack. It would be nice if people could keep on point and address issues instead of falling into the blog-pandemic of mis-characterizing positions in order to make fun of intellectual opponents. As if *some* students weren't venemous, anti-intellectual, ignorant little slackers... \/\/

It must be nice to live perpetually in Undergradland, where every professor is an ogre, and every pedagogical missive is an affront on humanity. I have never encountered anyone call professorial selection of textbooks a sign of class oppression before [after all, I was under the impression this was a discussion of professor selection, not publisher pricing], so at least that's new.

I also think all it demonstrates is class snobbery and a lack of awareness [and ultimate acceptance] of expectations. Assuming everyone who teaches, [after all, who else assigns the textbooks?], is the equivalent of a trust-fund baby demonstrates a lack of understanding of the world, the academy, and economics. Dear God, I hope Becca's not a sociologist.

For those so oppressed by higher education that ramen is the sole staple in the food budget, I encourage you all to try your local food bank.

At the very least, make sure you get your ramen at 10 for dollar.

Oh, and for those of you who think all college profs make tons of money, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the work of Marc Bousquet and this video about faculty on food stamps.

Becca might be surprised by how little her professors make in a year. Sadly, I doubt she cares.

Anonymous said...

"And like it or not, it's a conflict of interest to require students to line your pockets (however thinly) in order to pass your class."

I think profs should take the money out of the question by doing something to return the royalties. Having never participated in a book that produced any royalties for me, I don't know how one would do this calculation, but I do think profs should return the incremental profit of their assigned textbooks back to the students in some way.

Anonymous said...

PS: and, if it's really a dime per book, then all the better -- just return the dime to each student who says that they bought the book. That might even provide the useful exercise of showing students that the author doesn't make a lot from the book.

I think the bigger issue here, though, is that students are getting used to getting a lot of intellectual property without paying for it. We're rally in a new world, when information is disconnected from a physical product. When one had to buy a book, when it was an actual physical thing, the cost of the intellectual property and the cost of the physical object could be conflated. Now that books can be completely electronic (and frankly, most textbooks should be -- with print if so desired) we have to be upfront about the price of the intellectual property in the book.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm not going to deny that some students are simply whining and/or don't want to do the work. I have no pity for those who think the book is a waste because they can't be bothered to read it.

The prof is not to blame for the way bookstores operate. Thta's a whole other thing (welcome to capitalism).

I don't have a problem with a prof using a book they hemselves wrote as long as it is well written, appropriate for the class, and used.

Having purchased expensive textbooks that were not well writen or useful for a class, I understand why students are upset sometimes. And that IS to be blamed on the prof; don't assign a textbook that is badly written or unnecessary. Period.

FSP, it sounds like you put a great deal of thought into your textbook selections. If only everyone did.

oh, and in addition to reading the textbook to students...I have had profs who read their powerpoints to students (and I mean literally).

Unknown said...

I was never particularly angry about the price of textbooks as an undergrad, but then I rarely bought them. I took a "wait and see" attitude, that if the book turned out to be needed I could buy it later and make do with borrowed copies while waiting for delivery. Sometimes I'd buy a book that looked like it would be a good reference for later. Happily my problem sets tended not to have problems from books.

Based on this post and some of the comments, it sounds like at least some profs don't like this strategy, and that puzzles me.

From where I stand, it is hard to see what the books would have added to my learning. My lecture notes were enough to do the problem sets and study for the tests, and I think my grades and understanding of the material were certainly satisfactory. I'm sure there is additional information in the books that I could have learned had I had a lot more time to spend on classes, but that was generally not the case. In classes where I had the book and the notes, the notes were generally still the shortest route to getting the work done.

So, I find it puzzling to see textbooks presented as so essential. I understand the convenience of using problems out of the book, but I'm also glad my professors didn't, as it made my approach much easier.

On the other hand, a fellow I know could write just what I have with the word "lecture" substituted for "textbook." He just had a terrible time absorbing information in a lecture and got everything out of the books and labs.

I'm glad professors have textbooks for classes. I'm glad my classmates buy them and let me borrow them for a little while now and then. In return I explain what that part of lecture was about and we figure out the homework together (in keeping with the collaboration policies of the school, naturally).

Ψ*Ψ said...

The best textbook I've ever used was free--a collection of detailed lecture notes from an amazing prof. The material is explained so clearly that I've used it for other classes. Hopefully he will publish it someday.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to make a case for students who do not need textbooks to follow a lecture and understand the material. Yes, I used to be one of those random straight A non-reading science students the_myth doesn't care about.

I learn best from talks and discussions, or by trial and error. Reading bores me if the text has a lower information density than a journal article. I thoroughly hate texts that spend an entire page explaining something that could have been said in a sentence. It bores me even more if I read something I have heard before.

If you have such students, please don't try to make them read. They are not trying to insult your textbook writing skills or expertise. They simply don't enjoy reading or don't get anything out of it.

EliRabett said...

There is an ethical elephant in the room. Professors receive free copies of just about any textbook they want. This practice should stop

Anonymous said...

I think the reason for "Textbook syndrome" is that buying textbooks is required and perhaps many students pay for the books themselves (instead of their parents). I bet all the students who pay for tuition and student fees out of pocket (oh don't get me started on student fees) have "tuition syndrome" or "student fees syndrome" or both, combined with textbook syndrome. If you actually sit down and calculate how much each hour of class costs (I did that when I was an undergrad) it is quite a lot of money. So then, if we have a terrible professor, we feel cheated. A 1 hour class might cost twice (probably 3 or 4 x by now) what a movie costs and isn't educating me or even entertaining me. (Though that is when a good textbook is vital) Often science majors don't have a choice about courses, so we have to take them when they are offered even if we know the prof will be not good. Same thing with books, we have to buy them, even if we know they are not going to be used much or are known to be bad books. When you are forced to buy something, the price is a much bigger issue and will piss the buyer off. "ipod syndrome" or "laptop syndrome" or "cellphone service" syndrome are less common because they are elective purchases. Don't like the price, then don't buy it.

From a environmentalist standpoint, printing new books every 2 years is atrocious. That is so wasteful. Think of the energy of printing, plus shipping the books all over the country, the paper which is used, the trucks that log the trees, ship them to the paper factory, then ship the paper to the printers, the whole "carbon footprint" is huge. Not to mention that profs have to write new versions whether they think it is necessary or not because the publisher makes them.

I know this is contrary to our typical model for how books are bought, sold and borrowed, but couldn't they make some small profit off of the used books so that we can all save the money and resources? Could they run the campus bookstore, so they actually get some profit on the used books and can stop cranking out new versions like it's nobody's business? Maybe used books should be sold directly back to the publisher, unless they are given away or kept by the student? We let them have a reasonable profit off of the used books so that we can keep saving $ by buying used books. Professors who write the books should only do a new edition when they feel it is necessary. This means less barely different editions and less of a headache for the profs who assign the book and have to adapt to the new edition. We just need to think outside the box to find a solution that works for the students, professors (some of which are authors) and the textbook publishers and can hopefully be less wasteful.

Electronic books are one option that completely avoids the issue, but I for one am not ready to give up on real textbooks, though I do love reading novels and magazines on my Kindle. But for whoever wants to use that version, electronic versions should be made available for a much cheaper price and should be readable forever. I read in the NYT article that they would make the text only available for the semester, but that would not be cool with me. If they need to do DRM so kids don't torrent the files, ok, but just don't take the book away after the semester.

Sorry this is so long. It's just frustrating that the current model doesn't work for students or publishers or authors or professors, yet we are stuck with it. Let's be creative!

Beth said...

I never had a problem with purchasing text books, or even text books that were written by people who conducted the course. My relatively mild case of Textbook Syndrome stemmed from how ridiculously heavy they were to lug around to all of my classes (and I always needed most of my books with me for classes). I had a biology book that weighed 2.5 kg! Even with one of those super backpacks, I'd still get bad neck and shoulder pain from carrying around all of my text books, when I only needed them for just one or two chapters at a time. I always thought: why couldn't they make each chapter as smaller book, and then put them in a binder, so I could just take each of the chapters out as I needed them, and leave the rest at home.

Janice said...

I've had some students complain about textbook costs and uselessness. There's a certain sentiment that seems to hold that if we have a lecture class, then they've covered what's in the textbook for that topic so, then, who needs to read the textbook?

As I try to explain to them, I rely on the textbook to give them the big picture and bring them to class ready to participate and build on some certain aspects of the topic. If I can't expect that most of the students will have done the readings, we're going to get through a lot less material and they're going to do a lot worse when it comes to the assignments!

That said, if I could convince the textbook companies not to put out new editions of first-year texts every three years, I'd be happy. It's not fun to have to pour through the text looking to track changes when you'd rather spend your prep time doing other, more useful chores.

I'm happy that some of my upper-year courses have books with staying power. There's one class I teach that has a great textbook still available from the 90s. I'd really like to see a new edition that incorporates more recent research, but at least I can work that all in myself and not worry about the revolving door of new editions!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if elirabett would like to take away professors' health benefits too.

textbooks are a perk of the job.

and I bet she has no idea how much a burden that perk would be to a professor's budget to have to buy all of hir own supplies, do you?

cuz of course all profs make 100K a year, right? thieving bastards!

Becca said...

@ the_myth,
*For the record, I didn't say WUSS was triggered by imaginary latte-drinking/cell-phone-talking/
jetta-driving undergrads. I'm sure you know plenty of annoying students.
That said, the vast majority of the students I knew would not have triggered "WUSS".

*Of course I care a great deal about the plight of professors (particularly adjuncts) who aren't paid a living wage.
Sympathy for teachers and sympathy for students are not mutally exclusive.

*Assuming an extra $40 here or there is trival is not an act of class oppression, but it is evidence of class priviledge. To be fair, I don't think you're coming at this with "how can anybody think a $150 textbook is expensive?"

You do seem to be saying "kids today just aren't willing to sacrifice"... I'm trying to point out that, in particular circumstances, the financial sacrifices we are asking of students may not be reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Err, the_myth? Way to make yourself look good there.

Isis the Scientist said...

FSP, this has been an interesting few posts. I find myself unsure of what students want from us...specifically, what format do they want the information in if not a textbook? If the issue is purely the price of the textbook, then I think that your practices are perfectly reasonable, if not more generous than the standard. However, I encounter students who not only don't want to buy an expensive book, they don't want to buy any book. They expect that my powerpoint slides or notes packet should be sufficient.

I appreciate your tackling of this issue. I am not sure that we will ever come out ahead. But, I think that we can continue to try to treat our students fairly...as it seems you are.

Anonymous said...

@ anonymous 02:43:00 PM

"As for people complaining about teaching styles, dry material, crappy books, etc., grow up. It is your education, take the initiative to learn the material one way or another, don't expect knowledge (or life) to be spoon fed to you at your convenience."

I and most other students do take initiative to learn in spite of poor teaching. Still, it is insulting to have someone stand in front of your class and read from a textbook or slides, or similar. Students (like anyone else) do not appreciate having their time wasted by someone who couldn't be bothered to do a decent job (doing what they get paid for! -- and I am talking about full tenured professors here, not the often-abused adjuncts).

@ the_myth
"As if *some* students weren't venemous, anti-intellectual, ignorant little slackers... \/\/"
"[professors are] not just educators--shepherds of knowledge"

These comments show a certain degree of contempt for students, and also for pedagogy, an activity that is not easy to do well, even for "experts" (I am reminded of Tom Lehrer's song "Mathematics Professor"...). When students do not learn, it might be a sign of laziness or inability, but then again it might also be a failure of their educators. The best students tend to hack their way through no matter what obstacles they encounter, but educators also have great opportunities to inspire and facilitate their students' learning. Those who fail to do so may have missed their calling, and those who respond with contempt for the students who fail are sure to inspire contempt in all of their students.

EliRabett said...

FWIW Eli Rabett would like to take away the way textbooks are marketed.

In my own case I go to the library (remember they still exist) to look at textbooks, look on the Intertubes, and talk to the textbook reps. They bring a copy by if you ask, and chapters are available on line.

When it gets down to the final two or three, I buy the books, often used, occasionally if I am out of the country in a place where textbooks are NOT marketed to professors, well, I pick them up for 1/3 the price, often in paperback.

Now we can discuss the ethics of accepting copies of every text and selling them off to used book handlers.

Pagan Topologist said...

The conflict of interest problem was solved by some of my colleagues years ago. All royalties from sales at their institution were donated to their department for an award of some sort for students. IIRC, it was/is an award to the grad student TA with the best teaching evaluations.

Samia said...

FSP, you ignored most of the problems undergrads have with textbooks. The buy-back thing is ridiculous, and there is no reason to demand students buy a "new" version every couple of semesters because of a few new photographs. Our bookstore is often late getting new texts in, which is really annoying. Not all departments let students know which books they need to get before the semester starts and it's easy to get behind trying to find a copy by the time they let you know.

Not digging the anti-student bias apparent in some of these comments. Most of my books have been lifesavers because quite a few of my professors have sucked audibly. It's funny how someone can get paid to teach without ever learning how to do it properly.

I'm a prof's daughter hoping to become faculty someday.

Anonymous said...

When I was in grad school I once TAed for a prof who used his own textbook for an introductory class. (So did all the other people in the department teaching sections of the same class during that semester). His approach was to say "If you think I'm doing this to make money, please realize that I make less than a dollar from each book. If it still bothers you, bring in your receipt and I'll give you a dollar." He had no complaints, and few takers.

Jennifer said...

A year late to the discussion...what matters to me is the attitude of the professor on the first day of class when she is discussing the required text. Did she email everyone beforehand so we could look for the book ourselves? Does she mention that she thinks this is the best book even though it is more expensive or that the topic is so specialized that this is the only or least expensive book (at over $100)? Has she made a good-faith effort to find the best book and is she aware of the cost, even if she can't do anything about it?
It is to my advantage as a chemistry student that many of my books lasted me for an entire year rather than just a semester. My bill last fall was rather steep but I only bought two new books in the spring.

I have had one optional text assigned that was written by the professor for that class. Sometimes his jokes in class were jokes out of his book, but I believe that this was because he is a senior professor who has taught the class many, many times. In addition to making it very clear that his book was optional, he made sure that used copies were available and he provided a list of recommended books that covered similar material to his text.