Assign whatever book you actually teach.

20 01 2012

Did Apple make the exact same mistake that I worried about yesterday morning? It’s hard for me to tell as I didn’t get enough time online yesterday to figure out precisely what it was that they announced. Was it really any more than an electronic online book store? Doesn’t Amazon already have one of those?

By now I’ve read lots of commentary from people who probably understand what Apple is doing no better than I do, but then there’s Audrey Watters, who was actually there at the big announcement. She seems kind of underwhelmed, but I think her analysis of textbooks as a form is much more interesting than anything she wrote about Apple:

Once you’ve recognized that textbooks are just an assemblage of resources and that, in a digital world, there’s no reason to bind it together and publish these en masse, then I think you can see a path to liberation from that industry model. You can disassemble, reassemble, unbundle, disrupt, destroy the textbook. It is truly an irrelevant format.

Here! Here! This is precisely why I killed my textbook and now assign Milestone Documents instead. Moreover, Audrey’s phrasing suggests an opening for me to elaborate on what I think is probably the most important reason that teaching without a textbook makes me so happy: The almost precise alignment between what I teach in survey and what I make students read.

Even if your 800-page textbook is the best written 800-page textbook that the world has ever seen, there is an enormous amount of material in that book which you will never get to in lecture and you will never test them on come exam time. Students have a hard enough time learning just what I lecture on and discuss with them well. Why do I need to burden them with a lot of extra material, particularly if it’s likely that they won’t read it in the first place?

Honestly, when is the last time you read your entire survey textbook from cover to cover? Would you rather cover everything and have them remember next to nothing or would you rather cover less material and have them learn it better because the readings reinforce what you actually teach? So go ahead, Apple: Kill the bloody textbook. I won’t mourn its passing because I’ve been teaching textbook free for over a year now.

The mass market paperback, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother story. Not only do I want page numbers so that students can follow along with discussions in class and footnotes so that they can do research with those books as a starting point, I want space in which to write my questions about the entire text, since I always assign the entire text.

I’m a hi-lighter, a page corner turner, a creator of marginalia and I tend to write all my discussion questions on the title page of every book I assign. This saves me the terrible burden of having to re-read every repeat book every time a new semester rolls around.* Nobody is going to be coming out with a new version of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test anytime soon just to make more money, and that’s precisely the way I like it.

Historians’ offices are full of books for a reason. Maybe you could talk me into reading novels on a Kindle or an iPad (if I weren’t convinced that Apple and Amazon were plotting to ruin my favorite pastime) because I know I’ll never go back to the vast majority of them again.** However, I won’t even give up the paper copies of my history books when Hell freezes over because I’d rather read than skate.

* To be fair to myself, I still re-read every book I assign (even the classics) at least every three or four times I teach it just to make sure I still remember the good stuff.

** Notice which books Historiann, my original inspiration for this whole no-textbook thing, is keeping in this post. It’s the same rationale.

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6 responses

20 01 2012
Matt_L

Hey Jonathan!

I agree, instructors should assign what they teach, especially in the humanities. But I do have colleagues in the Sciences and Economics who need to use textbooks for their intro classes. I think its telling that the first books apple went for were Biology and Algebra. These kinds of textbooks are where the money is at, not English or History. Language textbooks are another cash cow, $300 for a new first year German textbook at my school’s bookstore. Nursing is another one where the textbook costs are astronomical and there are new editions every year.

My colleague in Physics lets students use almost any edition of his preferred Introductory Physics textbook, because the only thing to change in the new edition is usually the problem sets and the pictures.

One last thing. Check out this piece over at Gizmodo, they are actually critical of Apple’s plan, because of the financial implications for our financially stretched K-12 education system. http://gizmodo.com/5877574/you-cant-afford-apples-education-revolution

20 01 2012
bibliopirate

E-Text books are fine with me, I’m still a die hard paperbound book lover though, and I always will be.

24 01 2012
Giant publishers are not your friend. « More or Less Bunk

[...] own textbooks (that won’t resemble what’s being produced now at all) on the basis of what we actually teach, and charge little or no money for them. The key here is that all the decision-making power would [...]

17 02 2012
Blowing up the history textbook and putting it back together again. « More or Less Bunk

[...] I hate history textbooks. They’re too long. They’re usually about as bland as possible because they’re written by committee. They give the illusion that they cover everything worth knowing, then leave many important things out. They come out in new editions about the same time most professors just get used to teaching the old one. They’re expensive. They’re heavy. They don’t contain the same kind of overarching arguments that good historical scholarship does. Most professors I know assign them, yet don’t even bother to use them when actually teaching. [...]

17 02 2012
Blowing Up the History Textbook and Putting it Back Together Again : Global Perspectives on Digital History

[...] I hate history textbooks. They’re too long. They’re usually about as bland as possible because they’re written by committee. They give the illusion that they cover everything worth knowing, then leave many important things out. They come out in new editions about the same time most professors just get used to teaching the old one. They’re expensive. They’re heavy. They don’t contain the same kind of overarching arguments that good historical scholarship does. Most professors I know assign them, yet don’t even bother to use them when actually teaching. [...]

1 10 2012
World History MOOC Report 4: In which I waste my time. « More or Less Bunk

[...] time. We get about three hours per week with them plus homework. If the homework or the textbook doesn’t jibe with what you’re teaching, why should students bother to read it? If your bells and whistles don’t help students get [...]

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