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?