Friday, June 01, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Textbook Adoptions

A book rep writes:

I don't talk about work much in the blogosphere, but I work for a
major textbook wholesaler/retailer. One of my areas of responsibility
is a web application we built to help faculty research their textbooks
and pass their adoptions on to the bookstore. I've just been given
clearance to start a revision of the site, and I'm hoping you (and
your readers) might have some suggestions.

See, I hear about what our reps think are good ideas, and sometimes
the bookstore guys, but I rarely if ever hear from administrators,
secretaries, or faculty, and they're the ones actually using the site.

So, what do you hate most about the textbook adoption process?
What data do you look for when researching a book?
Anything you'd really, really like to see in a site like this?

The last time we did this, the best features were the result of user
feedback, but this time I'd like ideas from people who aren't using
the site, but might if we could design it to fit their needs. What do
you think?

Ooh, I should have written on this years ago.

I'll admit that I haven't scanned textbook websites recently, so I'll just open with a few comments on traits I've found endearing in textbooks I've used, then ask my wise and diverse readers to comment.

When I taught the intro to my discipline (a social science) at Proprietary U, I quickly realized that most of the available textbooks were horribly inappropriate. They were dry, visually complicated (someone declared at some point in the 90s that every page of every textbook should look like a GUI with about six tasks running simultaneously. Noooo...), intolerably long, and expensive. The students responded by buying used copies (or not buying at all), and then not reading. It was ugly.

Gradually, I learned better textbook-selection skills. I went with 'brief editions' whenever possible, paperbacks whenever possible, and shrink-wrapped 'freebies' not at all (since they exist mostly to short-circuit the used book market). But the real breakthrough came when I found one – an otherwise average text – that had multiple-choice chapter quizzes in the back of every student's book. When I found that, I seized on it, and told the students that the reading quizzes I gave each week would feature questions taken directly from the quizzes in the back of the book. So if they were smart – and I'd drop a 'hint, hint' here – they'd quiz themselves right after they read, so they wouldn't be ambushed. The students liked that, since they saw it as putting one over on me. I liked it, since they actually read – and re-read! -- since good quiz grades were suddenly enticingly attainable. Class discussions immediately improved, as did student attitudes and performance on exams.

I tried in vain to explain this to multiple book reps over the years. They always responded with something like “we have a student workbook that has quizzes, and we can shrink-wrap it!” No, no, no. If it isn't in the same physical volume as the reading itself, most students won't make the effort. (Admittedly, my discipline was well outside their majors. I'd imagine this objection wouldn't hold in, say, a competitive pre-med weedout course.) It has to be easy to use.

Another criterion – and this is so basic I'm almost embarrassed to include it – is font size. For reasons I'll never understand, certain academic publishers seem to think that teeny-tiny fonts are indicative of academic rigor. Nope. They're actually exclusionary, especially when you have a substantial proportion of adult students. Don't be afraid of big, reader-friendly print. If it forces you to be a little thoughtful about copy editing, all the better. (I've learned this lesson with in-class handouts, too. If it's something I've written, I never use anything smaller than 14 point. It actually helps.)

In my dealings with the math department, I've heard that a major distinction between different texts is the number of errors. I admit I found that fairly alarming, but there you go.

In foreign languages, it's a common practice to have a single textbook to encompass multiple semesters, so a single text might cover, say, the first four semesters of Spanish. I'm of divided mind on this. It's probably a good deal for students who make it through the entire sequence, but the sticker shock upfront is considerable. If some publisher were to experiment with smaller, cheaper breakout editions, the results would be interesting. I don't know if that has been tried.

There's a much broader issue about departments choosing common textbooks across sections of a given course. I've written on that before. Suffice to say, that one's case by case.

I'm sure that different disciplines have different needs, and that the needs of typical cc students may differ from the needs of students at a hypercompetitive liberal arts college. So I'll ask my various readers – if you had a book rep's ear, what would you suggest?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.