Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Should Textbooks Count?

A new correspondent writes:

I would appreciate your insight on a situation I am dealing with at my community college. I am writing a textbook and have been told by college leadership that the textbook project is a "personal project" and that I cannot use any college resources. I haven't asked yet for clarification of what "resources" includes, but I assume it means the usual material things, like paper, computers, post it notes, etc. as well as the materials I create for my classes, such as handouts and syllabi. I am not sure if it includes student work (for which I always get a signed release).

I assume my president's concern is that working on the textbook will take me away from my "paid duties," i.e. teaching and service to the college. As a teaching-focused institution, my college makes no demands for research or publication. This is the first time I've actually been told that research/publication is considered "personal" rather than "professional" by the college, however. My college does provide small amounts of travel money for conference attendance and I am expected to periodically attend professional development events, so I know the college does appreciate some kinds of scholarly activity.

I already knew that I would not get release time to work on the textbook, and I am planning to teach a full load and continue my service duties to the college. My concern is that the textbook I am writing is built on my class materials, and I was planning to feature some of my students' work as examples. You can probably see that being prohibited from using college resources will make my project extremely difficult.

Have you ever heard of a college considering a textbook project to be "personal"? Do you have advice for how to change college leadership's view of my project? I want leadership to see that this project will benefit the college and students as well as me.

The definition you're assuming of 'college resources' strikes me as awfully broad. It's one thing to say you won't get release time or a stipend; it's quite another to say you can't even work on it on your office computer. There's 'cheap,' and then there's 'petty.' But that's a side issue.

On the main question – should textbooks count? -- I'm of divided mind.

Just off the top of my head, I can come up with a few ways that textbooks are different from what usually counts as 'scholarship':

  1. They don't usually contain 'new' knowledge or information, or even new syntheses of cutting-edge research done by others. Since textbooks are generally only relevant for first- or second-year courses, they tend to stick to consensus information.

  2. They actually make money for their authors. A successful textbook can pay major royalties. I can imagine a strapped college saying that royalties are their own reward. If you aren't going to give the institution a cut of the royalties, why should it support your production of the work?

  3. Textbook publishers choose for commercial appeal, rather than quality.

To overshoot badly, one could say that scholarship is for love, and textbooks are for money.

There's something to this view, though I find it much less convincing than I once did.

As any teacher can tell you, a weak textbook is a real burden for any class. If you've reached the point with a given course where you have strong feelings about how it should be taught – and most of us have – then textbook selection often boils down to finding the 'least bad' choice in a given case. So you look for something that isn't actually physically painful to read, that covers most of what you want covered with an acceptable rate of errors, and that costs less than a small car. Then you set about compensating for what the book lacks, or gets wrong, or makes unnecessarily confusing.

A really good textbook is a rare and fine thing. It's a genuine contribution to learning, if not to research as it's traditionally defined. For a teaching college, it seems like that should count for something.

Back at Proprietary U, one of the cooler things they did was to assemble (and periodically revise) their own in-house anthology for composition courses. The meetings at which people suggested selections were always lively and frequently great fun, and the book that emerged was both excellent on its own merits and well-suited to the course for which it was designed. The book was custom published, and, in exchange for some release time, the editors agreed to forego their royalties for copies sold in-house. It was done for love, rather than for money. As a result, it counted as a feather in the cap of whomever edited it at the time.

The labor involved wasn't trivial, but the payoff to the institution – more effective teaching in a core course – made some compensation worthwhile. The faculty got a book they could actually use, and had some sense of ownership. The students got an excellent paperback for cheap, and teachers who actually used the book they assigned. It was a pretty nifty arrangement.

If you want your college to support your endeavor, I think the burden on you would be to propose a deal in which the college gets something for it. What problem are you solving for the college? If you're doing one for a common course which with students commonly struggle, you might be able to pitch your 'personal project' as a win-win. And use the #%*#% computer.

Good luck!

Battle-scarred readers – your thoughts?

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