28 June 2014

The Tombstones of Education

Were I the Queen of Higher Education, I would banish all college textbooks from my Queendom. Books, proper books could stay: anything that reasonable people might purchase, independent of a course requirement, for their edification or entertainment, could be used in a college-level class.  But the hefty, slick, overpriced repackaging of knowledge for the captive educational postsecondary market?  No.

Many instructors (including me) get frustrated that students don't buy the assigned textbook, anyway.  Banning textbooks is not capitulation to their misguided frugality. It's recognition that students don't view their textbooks the way we expect them to--and they may have a point. Students don't buy the required textbook because:

1.  The information it contains is available more cheaply elsewhere (this is particularly true of textbook anthologies).  Students in my "Intro to Fiction" course routinely come to class with printouts of the assigned short stories rather than the textbook I painstakingly selected.

2.  The textbook is superfluous.  Many lecture-heavy courses involve Powerpoint presentations that contain all the required material and that the instructor makes available.  Additional study guides further predigest the material in advance of exams.  The supplementary power of the textbook simply isn't worth the hefty price.

3.  The textbook costs a lot.  Students who otherwise no longer recognize the existence of library print holdings can be motivated to discover the library course reserve desk when it saves them several hundreds of dollars per semester.

4.  The textbook is not as crucial as the instructor thinks it is.  Students limp along without some of the required readings, simply because life is short, there are a lot of demands on their time, and they can.

When they do buy the textbook, they use it poorly.  Many forces in their K - 12 education have taught them to view learning as information processing.  Those who aren't trying to preserve the sell-back value of the textbook read with highlighter in hand, so as to sift out the information that doesn't matter from the information that does.  Rather than taking on board whole concepts and ideas, they search for the keywords that lock on the learning goals or questions that they've been given to guide their reading.

I realize that things may be different in STEM disciplines that involve a lot of problem solving. Textbooks save instructors from having to devise problem sets, and they often give students several different channels for learning problem-solving strategies, practicing solving problems, and trouble-shooting their failures.

But these are precisely the kinds of skills that textbooks fail to encourage in other disciplines. More and more, we need to teach students to learn.  Textbooks, which repackage reality into easily assimilated clumps of information, too often prevent us from doing that.  Students want to adroitly navigate the world of information--hence their zeal for finding workarounds.  By abandoning textbooks, we can better work with that grain rather than against it.

Of course, since I'm not actually the Queen of anything, I don't have to abide by my own edicts, even as I'm formulating them.  But I have not ordered a textbook for the course I'm teaching in the Fall (a 100-level intro to poetry), and I am thinking about how to make my 1600 - 1800 global literature survey and Intro to Fiction classes textbook-free as well.


  1. Normally I'm with you, but on this topic I could not disagree more. I teach in STEM, and I do not use the book for problem sets. I do use it for figures, schematics, drawings. I use it for examples in medicine and health. I also own almost all of my texts from undergrad. For undergraduates, I feel strongly that you need at least one textbook in each discipline. For graduate students, you can use that and other supporting information to understand primary literature.

    My students try to go without a text (and I allow them to use older editions, which cost $25.00 used on Ebay and Amazon). Those students often try to look things up on the web, but don't have the understanding for primary literature and end up getting false information from sites like walkingfordiabetes.com or something. Please don't take away my textbooks, oh queen!

  2. Glad to hear that you are planning to eliminate your textbook in favor of some new alternate system for delivering learning materials. You may want to check with your librarians to find out how they can help identify appropriate content. Many librarians are assuming that role at their institutions by promoting the value of OER and collaborating with faculty to help them identify open textbooks and other alternatives (e.g., licensed library content). Good luck ditching your textbooks.

  3. @Doc: as I point out in the post, "things may be different in STEM disciplines..." I appreciate your explanation of how the difference goes beyond problem-solving. Allowing students to use older editions of the text is an excellent workaround!