Monday, March 13, 2006

 

Common Textbooks

A reader wrote in asking for input on the perennial humanities issue of whether to choose a common textbook for every section of a course. I’ve been chewing on that one for a while, since it pits two of my instincts against each other.

The question is liveliest in disciplines in which consensus is low, sections are many, and adjuncts are legion. English composition is the obvious case, but it would apply as well to many of the humanities and social science disciplines. A given instructor might not like the textbook ordered by the department for Comp 1, and might want to select her own. Should she be able to do that?

Educationally, I want to say yes. I’ve been saddled with lousy textbooks in the past, and it’s an anchor you have to drag through the entire course. Given how expensive textbooks are, it’s certainly preferable to get ones the instructors will actually use.

That said, though, and at the risk of honking off a great many readers, I’ll vote for common textbooks, unless a given instructor can show a bleeping good reason (such as a pilot project) to deviate.

At the cc level, we’re driven substantially by transfer considerations. Four-year schools aren’t always as forthcoming with recognizing transfer credit as they should be, he says diplomatically, so it’s important for us to have some sort of quality control across sections. If we use the same textbook for a 101 class that the four-year school uses, we make it harder for the four-year school to label our course unworthy.

From a cost perspective, a common textbook avoids the dreadful scenario of a kid buying a book for the ‘wrong’ section, opening the shrink wrap prior to class, and being stuck with an unreturnable purchase. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s just not right. A standard book also makes the sale and resale of used books easier, which can reduce the cost pressure on students. (If Professor X is the only one who assigns book Y, his students will have a terrible time selling it back.)

From an educational perspective, the internal battles over textbook selection can actually be quite healthy. A department choosing a common textbook has to lay its cards on the table in terms of what it expects from a given course. It forces the issue of quality.

I’ve seen a couple of pretty good mechanisms for forging consensus on a textbook in the face of wildly disparate opinions. The classic, of course, is the anthology. If a reader for (say) comp 1 has 25 essays in it, any given instructor will probably pick the 8-10 s/he likes best. Those 8-10 don’t have to be the same across sections. If the anthology is paperback and reasonably cheap, this strikes me as fair.

More ambitious departments can go the way of custom publishing. At my previous school, the composition instructors did that, putting together a very good anthology that they’d keep using for several years between revisions. Since it was paperback and relatively unchanging, the cost to students was low, and since every piece in it was selected by the faculty personally, the anthology actually got used. The work involved in going this route is significant, but if you have the right group, it can work brilliantly.

In my scholarly discipline, textbook selection is a constant process, because the information changes so rapidly. The best one I ever found (in terms of usefulness to students, as opposed to quality of writing or depth of analysis) had multiple choice reading quizzes for each chapter in the back of the book. Each chapter quiz had something like 25-30 questions. I’d tell the students that, on any given day, I’d take 3-5 questions from there and use that as my reading quiz. The students loved it, because they knew that if they did the reading they wouldn’t get ambushed. I loved it, because most of them actually did the reading, and it was terribly obvious if they didn’t. (Experience suggests that reading quizzes posted online separately, or in a separate workbook, don’t do the trick. They want one-stop shopping.) I used to nag book reps from other companies to include this feature in their editions, to no avail.

Colleagues in disciplines with much more consensus (like math) tell me that the major issue in textbook selection for them is the number of errors. I find that disturbing beyond belief, but apparently, it’s a major issue. You’d think that publishers would at least take care of that.

Has your department/school found a good approach for textbooks?

Comments:
I have taken your ideas to task. I will provide only the link here, given my post is rather long.

Burnt Out Adjunct: Common Textbooks
 
My previous CC had common textbooks. As an adjunct, I had no input about the text and found that they generally sucked. In my discipline, a couple of the basic courses can have very different content and organization -- so it can be very difficult for an instructor to use the textbook if they disagree with some of the underlying assumptions of the text.

When I interviewed at my current CC, I asked them about common textbooks, as it would be a significant factor in my deciding to take the job. I'm glad I did --- and that they don't have a common textbook because one of the textbooks that would have been on the list is really bad -- so bad that many students re-take the course with other instructors who use a different book. Getting this changed would have been a process several years long and many students would have had to suffer with this book.
 
If you want to see a lot of time wasted, I suggest that you attend a meeting of the Calculus Textbook Committee.

When mathematics is stated in its most precise and most carefully justified way, it's also at its most difficult to understand. Thus, when it's phrased in a way that undergraduates can understand, some precision is lost.

Do we value rigor over comprehensibility? You can spend years arguing about this!

Also: the same homework problems that mathematicians find delightful and fascinationg are not at all pleasant for undergraduates.

We use common textbooks because no one knows what they're teaching until about a week before the semester starts! It's hard to place orders for a zillion books at the last minute. :)
 
What we do in my department for the composition courses is to provide a list of "recommended" textbooks for instructors, something that we did a couple of years ago because part-time faculty requested that we do so because they don't have time to evaluate all of the textbooks out there. We came up with recommended texts that approach composition from a variety of perspectives (service learning, pop culture, multi-culti, etc.) and that all meet the criteria for what we think should be happening in our composition courses in the department. These recommended texts work together with stated criteria for what each of the courses are supposed to accomplish in terms of learning objectives, and all instructors have these materials available to them.

I think this is perhaps a nice middle-of-the-road option that nudges instructors in a direction but that doesn't police what they teach in their classes. This is important for a couple of reasons: 1) ultimately I do think that this is an issue of academic freedom, and when we mandate what texts instructors must use we strip them of their autonomy. Since often it's adjuncts who teach courses that would have a mandatory text, we're doing them a kind of double-violence when we don't let them decide what they teach or to participate in the conversation about what book is chosen as the authorized book. 2)I think teachers do a better job when they like the book that they are using. There is no one-size fits all text, and my tendency in composition courses is not to use a text because I've yet to find one that does what I want it to do. The reality is that a lot of people who teach composition are not specialists in composition and rhetoric and teaching that class is not something that they enjoy on its own. Thus, giving those people control over the reading in the course is key to their ability to make the course meaningful to students. I'd imagine that the same can be true across other disciplines as well.

As for students buying the wrong book... well, I have little sympathy for them about that. I mean, yes, it sucks, but I'm not sure that pedagogy should be determined based on concerns that students can't make sense of the bookstore.

Re: ease of transfer credit, this is an issue, but at my university the policy is that if a course is questionable we ask the students for the course syllabus/assignments and we evaluate on that basis. Whether a university has an authorized text-book doesn't really factor into the decision, as far as I'm aware, and we get a lot of transfer students at my university, from community colleges as well as from other 4-year universities.
 
I don't have a general comment about common textbooks, but I do have a specific comment about textbooks in accounting classes for individual income taxation.

I've yet to see a good one. They're all uniformly bad, and what's worse - the edition changes every single year because the tax code changes every single year. The students can't get used books and can't sell their used books.

Why not use IRS Publication 17 for a textbook? It's FREE and it's CURRENT and it's ACCURATE.

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
 
Rudbeckia's point about timing explains the persistence of lack of adjunct voice in textbook selection: staffing is frequently last-minute. When that happens, it's awfully useful to have a 'default' selection, if not a standard one.

The lack of adjunct voice is a major issue, one that goes far beyond textbook selection. My preferred remedy for that is to increase the percentage of courses taught by full-timers, but that's an uphill battle, to say the least.

Respectfully, I think ppp is understating the difficulties involved in getting four-year schools to accept cc credits as transfer. They get persnickety because it is in their material interest to be persnickety; the more arguments we can take off the table, the better for us and our students.

It's certainly true that most textbooks suck, and that's the case regardless of who chooses them. But that fact can cut either way; if we allow at-will substitutions, who's to say that every substitution will be an improvement? I've seen improvements, and I've seen their opposites.

Allowing endless customization could work if you had a fully stitched-in, stable, long-term group of faculty engaged in consistent and passionate discussions at the department level. Absent that, I think the arguments for some level of standardization make sense.

Dr. Crazy's suggestion takes my 'anthology' idea to the next level: replace a single book with a Chinese menu of books. Works for me, as long as the books are truly comparable.
 
I second what's been said about adjuncts having the least power in decisions about texts and being in the position of having to use a "common" text they haven't chosen most often.

Let me add a wrinkle: many adjuncts I know are "freeway fliers" who cobble together a semester schedule from several schools, often teaching three or four sections of one class. If those people can choose a single text for their sections, they can ease the difficult situation just a little. Imagine having to teach comp for two different schools both with mandatory texts you hate.

Most adjuncts work very hard, and try to be very ethical in their duties. Schools use adjuncts for economic reasons, but we should work to make adjuncting as humane as we can so long as we're using them.

My experience at five different four year schools is that there was never any common text for composition (the area of this I'm likely to know best). Are you sure the four year schools your students feed into really have a common text?

I like the idea of recommended texts (for comp, anyway) because such a list can help comp specialists help the rest of us do a better job.
 
Wow, I feel very fortunate that my cc let me choose my text. When I was first hired it was definately last minute and so I was forced to use the stupid book the previous instructor was using. But that was her choice and as soon as possible I got to change it. Very enlightening - thanks!
 
Everyone is missing the point. The problem with textbooks is the cost. The cost is driven by the fact that the people who order the textbooks are not the people who buy them. The SAME textbooks are available in Europe for 1/3 or less of the price in paperback.

http://rabett.blogspot.com/2005/09/who-ordered-that-if-it-is-college.html

http://rabett.blogspot.com/2005/11/why-are-college-textbooks-expensive.html

http://rabett.blogspot.com/2005/11/announcing-new-contest.html
 
A couple of unrelated comments.

In my discipline (economics) at my school, we use anarchy--everyone chooses his/her own book. About a decade ago, we tried to go to a common principles of econ text, and a couple of us were asked to make the choice. Which the rest of the economists refused to accept. So anarchy remains.

I do occasionally have students who transfer into my sections from someone else's, and I usually try to translate my syllabus to their book. In intro econ, that's not all that difficult, although I always say there will be some differences.

I like the "range of choices" approach, though. Also, I found the tax accounting recommendation really interesting. Given the almost annual changes in the tax code...

Finally, there is a textbook publisher, with a VERY restricted range of books (I have no interest in this company, and I do not profit from their sales)--Best Value Textbooks. Their intro econ books (which I do use) are $19.95 to the bookstore, and about $30 to the students. I have no idea about the quality of the books in other disciplines.
 
Another gripe I have is trying to chose one (science) text that will cover multiple courses in a sequence in order to save students money. (Most students actually don't take the whole sequence in question). In our case, it has resulted in a textbook that covers a lot of material but none of it very well. Very frustrating.

I vote for the recommended list approach. (If only my vote mattered)
 
The profs teaching the same classes in my school collude and decide amongst themselves which text to use for that particular class. They then pass the title on to the dean for approval. In my opinion thats a pretty good solution cause then there's flexibility and choice with a measure of standardisation.
 
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