Textbooks, schmextbooks

Let me be forthright: I loathe the academic textbook industry. I loathe it with a fiery passion that burns in the depths of my soul. I loathe everything about it, and here’s why:

I actually care about pedagogy. My father was an educator and somewhere along the line I picked up the astonishing notion that a teacher ought to engage students and demand that they work to improve their thinking. This morning I was in a meeting and a colleague remarked to me that he didn’t understand how anyone needed time to prepare for lectures; after all, you prepare the course once and then just teach it over and over again! I just stood there, blinking, unsure whether I had really heard what I had just heard. You see, I’m a damn good teacher – it’s probably the thing I’m the best at, of all the things I do, and I’m a damn good researcher and administrator too – and I actually give a damn about my students, and their lives, and whether I am serving them well with the course material I am presenting. Pretty much every course I run these days has both a knowledge component and a skills component (particularly writing, but also bibliographic research, critical thinking, reading, quantitative methods … you get the idea). And I think that the most valuable thing I can do, as a professor mentoring junior scholars (whether grad students or undergrads) is to model academic behaviour for them: to show them how we reason, how we work, and how we interact with one another.

And so, yeah, textbooks. I get the temptation. Pick one book that covers some body of material in enormous detail, go through it chapter by chapter, structure your course to follow the book. You don’t need to be an expert on every part of the field, because the text will cover recent developments of importance for you, and as long as you can keep a chapter or two ahead of the class, you’re set. If you’re especially lazy, you can use the instructional CD that came with the instructor’s copy to develop quizzes and exam questions. But my only relationship with the academic textbook industry these days is to sellers whatever copies may end up in my hands to the various book buyers who troll the hallowed halls of Wayne.

It’s not the price that bugs me about textbooks, or not primarily. I can easily see assigning six or eight ethnographies in a graduate seminar, which could easily put you at $200 or more. I’ll admit part of it is a value thing: I find that textbooks are so overpriced as books, that you’re shelling out $100 or more for a glossy book with a CD insert (usually) that you’re never going to use and that isn’t a classic, and that isn’t even going to be resellable for anything like its original price, since they’re just going to come out with a new edition next year anyway, rendering the old one obsolete. But the money is only the beginning.

My wife, who is studying library science, currently has the misfortune to have been assigned what I can only describe as the most inane textbook I have ever read. It’s as if the authors were being paid by the cliché. It seems also that they failed to employ the services of even a modestly competent fact-checker, instead relegating that task to some sort of small nocturnal goblin. The intended audience for this pathetic text cannot possibly have been students in a graduate professional program. I suppose I should count my blessings that it only cost $60 for a softbound 250-page text.

In the vast majority of my classes over the past few years, I use only PDF articles, downloadable for free at my institution and most others. Why on earth would I ask students to pay money for a textbook when a better option is available at no cost (or rather, embedded in the tuition they have already paid)? Not only that, but using PDFs allows me to be much more flexible in planning my course, and changing it midstream if I so desire. I do use books (but not textbooks, you see): in Evolutionary Anthropology, they read Darwin’s The Descent of Man; in Methods, they read On Bullshit and How to Lie with Statistics (yeah, good times). But I see these basically as ‘big articles’, and I assign them because they are meant to challenge, rather than to inform.

When it comes down to it, what bugs me most about textbooks is that they are designed to convey information efficiently to students. Because I don’t want my students to idly absorb some set of facts presented just so, cookie-cutter format, because I don’t think they learn anything that way. I don’t want them to look at the discussion questions at the end of a chapter; I want them to think up their own discussion questions. I want to give them academic articles that are intended for professional anthropologists, and see what they make of them. I want to make them think about why an argument was constructed this way, rather than that way. I want them to read articles from 40 years ago, and think about the historical context of the information they are working with – that last phrase is carefully chosen. I want them to learn the skill of wrestling with information for which they are not the intended or immediate audience. And when they’re done, I want them to be better anthropologists for having done it.

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7 Comments

  1. I think one of the other problems with textbooks is that because of their perceived efficiency and ‘comprehensiveness’, no one actually reads them. No one even bothers memorizing the talking points, no one reads the challenge questions. I haven’t bought a proper textbook in probably two years, partially because the internet has made a lot of basic information readily available without the need for a special magic book, but also because they are useless. This goes beyond my undergrad social science needs.

    I worked for one of the best pediatric neurologists in our area for years, and by the second year I worked for him, he had told me that he would never by another textbook again. He had been purchasing certain books with each new edition, but stopped, because of, yes, the internet making publications more readily available, but also because the speed of research is such that traditional books just cannot keep up. Any textbook published in neurology, as an example, can be seen as being a year out of date by the time it is available for purchase.

  2. Lindsay: Yes, that’s true as well – which renders all the more ironic the frequent refrain in student course evaluations, “The textbook was irrelevant!”. Okay, obviously I don’t hear that one, because I don’t use them. But you’re quite right, unless there is a direct utilitarian reason to use the text (eg your prof says ‘25% of the exam will be on textbook material from Chapters 3-8 that is not covered in lectures’) they mostly are ignored.

    I should add that in linguistics, there is actually a better case to be made for textbook use, because they contain actual exercises to be done (with answer keys). For instance, Geoff Nathan from Wayne has just written a very neat little phonology textbook that has just come out. And I don’t expect a new edition every two years. 171 pages, 38 bucks: now that makes sense.

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  4. In December 2010 I asked Dr. Chrisomalis what textbook we need for one of his classes. I realize now, after reading what he has to say about Anthropology textbooks (and textbooks generally), that I probably seamed to him a bit “naive” like one of “those students” (extra concerned with getting familiar in advance with the class material). He probably even smiled slightly seeing my” devotion” for textbooks. Honestly, I wanted so bad to buy my “precious” textbook early, out of pure curiosity. In addition, I wanted to make sure that I have the textbook in time and cheaper if possible! Being a product of the “old European school” I strongly believed in textbooks as learning facilitators.
    However, after coming in the United States and enrolling in university, I had strong suspicions concerning the transparency and efficiency of the American “textbooks machine” materialized in the market mechanisms of the ridiculously expensive “Barns and Nobles” textbooks recipients of mass “academic” knowledge production.
    Now that I have read Dr. Chrisomalis’s arguments on the issue, I feel (once more) that my suspicions were justified.
    I thought often about the student-textbook relationship. However, I rarely considered the professor-textbook relationship. Reading about what Dr. Chrisomalis has to say concerning this relationship gives one something to seriously think about. Why? Well, I will say just this; I have had at least one professor in the United States that relied religiously on his textbook, insisting that the textbook was “the student’s best friend.” If considering the viewpoints and the arguments expressed here, then students should manifest maximum caution while mechanically ingurgitating textbook material and relying on their “best friends” made out of paper. :)

    • Marius,

      Thank you for your insightful comment. Rest assured that I appreciate your eagerness to get going early, and that I understood your inquiry strictly with the intentions you describe above.

      P.S.: The word ‘ingurgitate’ is lovely. For some reason ‘regurgitate’ is quite common but ‘ingurgitate’ is extremely rare in English.

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