Thursday, April 28, 2011

Too Cool For Me

Although the word textbook tends to conjure images of heavy, overpriced, boring paper bricks filled with too many facts for any one person to learn in a reasonable amount of time, textbooks are actually quite varied in their style, tone, content, and even price.

Writers, assigners, and readers of textbooks will always disagree about what should go in a textbook, and some people will argue that textbooks are irrelevant and should not be used, much less required. I am not going to get into the textbook cost-benefit argument here, or the issue of whether/how professors assign textbooks and then (apparently) don't even use them. Those are topics of other posts, past and possibly future.

Today my specific subject is related to the content of textbooks for introductory classes. In the drive to make difficult and (apparently) boring subjects more user-friendly and accessible, some textbooks adopt a rather casual tone and format. Some textbooks I have seen recently reminded me of picture books my daughter liked when she was a lot younger -- those books with pictures of animals or construction equipment or whatever and bits of text scattered about to explain each picture.

So I wonder: Is there such thing as too casual in the context of textbooks, or is a 'fun' textbook a good thing if it helps engage the student in the subject?

There are various stages of casual style in textbooks:

- textbooks written in an entirely formal, classic style, with a casual quotient of zero;

- textbooks that are overall serious and classic in style, but with a few attempts at a lighter tone in text or illustrations. For some books, this lighter tone might be signaled only by a parenthetical expression with a "!" as a further clue that whimsy is being attempted;

- mostly serious, classic textbooks that have some references to popular culture and/or that use casual phrasing or images (such as in an analogy) to explain a concept;

- textbooks in which the casual style is a persistent features; e.g., books with cute chapter titles or section subheadings or some attempts at humor in illustrations;

- and so on, along the spectrum to intensely casual textbooks. It would be interesting to hear of examples of the most casual (interpret the term however you want) college-level textbooks in various fields, and what you think of them.

I am not a big fan of textbooks in which the casual aspects are distracting rather than helpful pedagogical tools. I also think that, in some cases, textbook authors might believe they are being cool by coming up with (apparently) clever chapter titles that read like blog post titles, but I wonder if the intended audience of the textbooks (undergrads in an intro-level course) thinks these are cool.. or pathetic?

And I also wonder: Is it condescending to 'dumb down' a textbook because the assumption is that most students can't (or won't) engage with serious topics, or is it a pedagogical best-practice to reduce jargon and try to capture the attention of as many students as possible?

Surely there is a good balance in there somewhere, such that a textbook is not primarily an impenetrable list of arcane terminology, and yet is not so informal that the pictures and words are an incoherent muddle.

I like textbooks that explain things and that don't focus on vocabulary (jargon) so much that the book seems to exist only to leap from term to term (that students memorize). I am fine with lots of pretty pictures and clever analogies. I am trying to overcome an aversion to 'cute' chapter titles in textbooks.

Part of what is difficult for me is that I know what I would have liked as a student, and I am pretty sure that that is not what most of my students today would like. Those of us become professors and essentially never leave school are not necessarily the best judges of what most of our students will find useful and interesting in a book. And yet.. we teach, and many of us do make decisions about textbooks.

I don't want to use a textbook that I dislike and that I think does a bad job of explaining important topics (who does?), but I also don't want to require a textbook that many of my students will hate and perhaps not read or understand no matter how much I try to integrate textbook-reading into the class. That's what can make the Textbook Decision a challenging one for me.


Anonymous said...

One of the most spectacular examples of casual textbooks I've come across are the "Head First" series of textbooks by O'Reilly. They take aspects of Computer Science that are usually presented in an extremely dry manner and present then in a format that fits your description of "extremely casual". The surprising thing is that the books often cover more material than their more conventional brethren. I find that the conversational style of the books along with their sometimes groan inducing illustrations really help the concepts stick in my head.

Anonymous said...

As a graduate student, I don't really care if something is formal or casual, but writers that choose formal/casual styles tend to also do other things that I like:

Writers who tend to choose a very formal style also seem to want to choose convoluted descriptions that alienate the reader.

A few attempts at lighter humour are good. It's an indication to me that the writer is thinking about their material in many different ways, which usually manifests very nicely structured explanation..

Pop culture references are only pathetic if it's a clear attempt at patronizing the reader. If the reference is to the authors favourite band, website, art, etc, then the reference is endearing and personable. I see writers who choose this style as being honest, and their explanations are often very straightforward ones that don't hide any details that might not be very good.

My very favourite is when textbooks are written in a style that is casual *about* the contents. Examples of this are when a writer admits that a certain technique was/is a very bad idea for some reason, and describes why.

Quill2006 said...

Most of my undergraduate and graduate courses used articles and assigned works, not what I would think of as textbooks, but I majored in history, not science.

That said, my pet peeve with some of the assignments I received were the authors who'd written in several languages in one monologue or article; if they'd been written in a time period in which an "educated" person was expected to know Latin, French, German, etc., I might not have gotten as annoyed, but they weren't written a hundred years ago. Tossing in sentences in Latin, French, and German just made the author seem elitist and the professor oblivious and annoying. Thank goodness for Google Translate!

That said, at the time I was in school it wasn't as common for students to have constant access to the internet; I often would read articles outdoors or far from a computer, and I hated having to mark pages to find translations or simply skip those sentences and hope that I hadn't missed something important.

The other annoyance was the history authors who'd make casual reference to someone that they thought everyone would know about... frequently, by the time we read their work, that person they referenced had been completely forgotten. In that case, I'd end up looking them up on Wikipedia to see if I could figure out who Mr. So and So was. Reading those articles taught me to be kind to my readers and always identify how Ms. So and So was connected to the narrative. i.e. "Ms. So and So, Director of the Center of Stuff, said..."

Anonymous said...

I think the Feynman Lectures are a very good example of were the limits for casualness lie. And of course Feynmans critique of math textbooks for schools is an interesting read for anyone who has to select books for class.

ExpatScienceGrad said...

One problem I have with a lot of textbooks for introductory courses is that they are full of "cookie-cutter" approach examples and problems, so many students never learn the basic concepts, let alone the skills of defining a problem, figuring out which information is important, etc.

The result is that classes in, say, introductory physics usually actually fail to teach students basic physics concepts, even if they do well on exams:

So if I were teaching such a course, I would try to choose a textbook that contains a lot of conceptual problems -- and then actually assign them, with some calculation thrown in too, of course. As a TA for a similar class, I actually did assign a lot of conceptual problems, as well as problems that didn't tell the students which bits of information were important. A lot of the students complained about this, mostly because it was "too much" work. But the ones who really made the effort to think the problems through clearly learned a lot from the process (even and maybe especially when they sometimes came to wrong conclusions, which helped uncover misunderstandings and misconceptions).

About me: said...

A recent article in "The Physics Teacher" ( examined, among other things, a "funny" physics problem introduced in a recent physics textbook as a way to use humor for promising educational effects.

The problem asked the student to imagine lying on his/her back in a bathtub without any water in it and describe the view of a cup on a soap dish when the tub is filled to water level over the student's head. What comments did this near death situation provoke when posted as a You Tube video ( A vast majority of the comments to the video described negative feelings evoked by physics and also showed that students perceived the problem to be decidedly unfunny thereby negating any positive effects on student learning.

So should we go back to our "old" dry as dust textbooks with not a trace of humor in them? Or should we strike the golden middle ground of classic Feynman lectures and "David Griffiths"? Should we incorporate "modern" and "engaging" textbooks into our courses?

I have more on this at


Barefoot Doctoral said...

The text books I like(d) to teach from (read as an undergrad) tend to be terse, with a few examples done out in the text, but with lots of interesting problems and applications in the exercises section. However, this is may or may not be what is useful to my students, depending on the institution. I'll try to give the following three cases without considering the bulk of students who's main desire in a textbook is to make the matter simple enough for them so they don't have to work hard.

I've found that my favorite style is more popular among students most likely to apply the techniques of the course to their major/future careers.

For student who are taking the course to fulfill a university or major requirement, but where the subject matter is tangential to their interests, the more entertaining (but not at the price of clarity) books with more worked out examples seem to be more useful in my experience.

For students in a completely different major, or who are taking a course out of casual interest seem to like it more informal still. I think applications and examples are key in this case. These are the hardest students to keep interested in a class, and it is important to make the subject matter real and relevant. It requires the professor to be a great communicator, which is NOT taught in the PhD process. Having a good book, or one that helps the lecturer develop interesting lecture material takes some of the burden off their shoulders.

AcidFlask said...

The example that comes to mind of a casual textbook is 'Div, Grad, Curl and all that', the well-known book on vector calculus.

steve said...

I had a real analysis textbook in college that was pretty formal, but at some point described some theorem as "a wolf in sheep's clothing". In the index, there was an entry for "canis lupus" pointing to that page. I was amused.

If I were writing a textbook, I'd do stuff like that just to amuse myself and my friends. I wouldn't really care much about whether the students thought it was pathetic or not.

Adam said...

I like "Atmospheric Thermodynamics" by Bohren and Albrecht (Oxford, 1998). It doesn't have a lot of pictures but the writing style is very informal, humorous, and unapologetically opinionated. It's worth looking at for anyone whose field involves thermo as they cover basic concepts (not just atmospheric) in the first few chapters. One of their points is that thermo is taught badly in many places and that it's made more difficult than it needs to be by unnecessarily idiosyncratic notation - for example they argue that differentials are totally unnecessary. They claim that many textbooks are boring and hard to follow because their material has basically been copied from other textbooks, over and over.

Materialist said...

As an undergrad I preferred textbooks that were terse and really highlighted key equations. This preference has only strengthened with time.
My pet peeves are intro texts bloated with unnecessary (and expensive) pictures, and engineering texts made useless by skipping the sophisticated theories in favor of qualitative description.

Kevin said...

Although I've been a professor for almost 30 years, I still fairly frequently take classes. I prefer a book that contains all the important information, but is not loaded down with excess verbiage. ("Python in a Nutshell" is great, "Learning Python" is terrible.)

The casualness of the tone is neither a plus nor a minus (except in series, like xxx for Dummies, where the casual tone is used to make tiny content into a long volume).

I do like good illustrations, and Larry Gonnick's "Cartoon Guide to xxx" books are a excellent introduction to almost every topic that he has written about. They're not college-level texts, but they cover about all you can expect high schoolers to learn in the corresponding courses.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I really struggled with some of these same questions during Textbook Selection '10.

I am never going to make all of my students happy with my textbook selection. For every student that wants an informal tone, there is another student who prefers more formal writing.

Ultimately, I chose a more informal textbook this semester because I thought it would encourage more of my students to actually read the text. It won't work for every class, but my students have responded pretty well.

E.M. said...

Great topic! I've often wondered how my professors pick their textbooks. I'm not sure how representative my perspective is as a psych/neuroscience student, but here's my 2 cents :).

I learn best by skimming large quantities of information, abstracting out the main points and mentally summarizing them to myself, and only implicitly focusing on the specific examples and details (I can always rederive them from the main concept if I understand it well enough). Most textbooks are dense and don't lend themselves to this kind of learning, so as a student, I've hated pretty much every textbook I've ever used. I usually learn more from reading journal articles.

I like textbooks that are casual in the sense that they use examples from everyday life and use the simplest sentences that will get the point across. When they try to make jokes, puns, or pop culture references, I feel patronized. Textbooks that use too many pictures are so distracting they actually interfere with my learning. I waste way too much time thinking about the illustrations and trying to figure out what they have to do with the concepts being presented, especially when they're badly designed and seem to say something different than the text. The more colorful and gimmicky they are, the more they distract me. My ideal textbook would be written in a simple, casual style but would include only a few simple, unobtrusive illustrations.