The one about textbooks and the "free textbook seekers"

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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

(16:36:41 CDT)

The one about textbooks and the "free textbook seekers"

I have not been an academic librarian for long. I am past the half-year mark, not quite up to the full-year mark. I have no long term insight into the academic librarian side of textbooks. I do have some fair experience with textbooks from the side as a student (primarily) and from the side of a bookseller. The overall game has changed little (though it has changed), and that is kind of interesting. I see the same textbooks now, kind of, as when I was student (which is six years ago, strange to think about) except the edition has changed. Different covers for the same name. Those that are different textbooks altogether are pretty much the same thing. The same approach to material. The same random lapses in editing. The same skipped chapters.

I do have a beef with textbooks. Let me clarify, I have a beef with secondary text textbooks. Primary texts are ok. Primary texts are the actual books and reports and articles and essays and poems and whatnot written by the actual experts. Secondary texts are what happens when someone adapts, expounds, and adds additional narrative to a primary text. I would guess that most popular nonfiction is actually secondary text. Most "original research" done in them is actually reading other primary texts. Secondary texts can be ok. Sometimes, though, there are a handful of logical leaps, great saltations of syllogismistic synthesis, if you prefer. Let's look at the interesting, and overall innocuous, Chew on This, an anti-fast food book written by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson. Lot's of research quoting lots of studies; but there are some "between the lines" comments that add additional flavor to the researc. McDonalds used satellite footage in the 80s back when only the military was doing it. This fact is paired up with the words "enemy" and "spying" to make it seem more negative than it might actually be (whether or not it's a good thing we'll save for another day).

Secondary text textbooks are a different sort of matter. Most of my readers have seen them. Some are still seeing them on a daily basis. They surview hundreds or thousands of documents and spit out 10-20 chapters of consise, instructional material that includes samples, different and various bullet points. Illustrations, example problems, questions for further discussion. I have had, at last count, exactly two professors praise a textbook that s/he required students to spend money on (for the record, the first textbook was Wheelock's Latin, the second was a book currently studied in my Young Adult lit class). Wait, make that three. My upper-level astrophysics used a testbook loved by the professor, even though it was written in the 70s (that's right, he preferred a text nearly, at the time, three decades old). In the majority of my classes, the secondary text texbooks (let's call them SETTs) were referenced less than half of the time, or only used as extra materials. In the majority of my [undergrad] classes, I would wager that I used less than half of the SETTs for any given class, and in probably a third of my classes, I would wager that I used less than a third of their given SETTs. However, each semester, anywhere from 200-500 dollars would spent on SETTs, often for a minor handful of assignments that might need them.

I've mentioned the simplification factor. Simplification can be a problem because it can lead to misleading, outright wrong, or editorially biased conclusions while presenting itself as unbiased and from authority. You look up actual details about the people you read about in history textbooks, or about scientific principles, and you will often find that the truth is far more complex. There are other problems, too. We have entered into the era of rapid edition changes. Has Calculus really changed in the past ten years? How come there have been two to four edition changes in the past decade? Chemistry does change and update, but probably not fast enough that a freshman level chemistry book gets an update every two years. This does not even include editions designed annually for a given school, or supplemental workbooks that might have be bought on the side. Let's not forget the new practise of packaging electronic materials with the textbooks. Professors may require the digital tools only once or twice, the CD-ROMs may do nothing more than authenticate something you download from the internet.

Again and again, you end up paying hundreds of dollars a year, likely thousands of dollars over an undergrad degree, for a series of books that you will try and sell back or give away or never look at again. If they have the aforementioned digitial content, you probably can't sell them back, so you are stuck with that bill. If you do sell them back, you are talking about less than a fifth the price you paid for it. I once sold back $240 in textbooks and got under $20 for them. I forgot what I bought with the money, but it was some paperback classic and some classical CD. I told them "I win" on the way out the door. Those with patience and the know-how can sell them through Amazon or some other method and get much higher amounts. Somewhere in there is that golden line where the seller gets 50% and the buyer saves 50%. Give or take. As businesses are becoming savvy to the system, more and more actual stores are selling the books through that system and the prices stay higher than if only students were doing it, but some deals are still floating around. When I was a student (I think my Junior year) I remember hearing about schools trying to stamp down on textbook reselling. I have no idea how far they took it, but that sounds like something a school would do. I'm not sure (someone might can clarify) but it seems like UAH used to have a policy (I don't think so anymore) that you couldn't advertise reselling of a book on campus.

Last night I had two interesting discussions involving textbooks. The first was a student just needing some primary texts. The kind of thing that would take 2-3 pages in a $100 textbook. I ended up showing her Project Gutenberg. She was able to get the texts she needed, in the original French (which she needed) and her cost was only the time it took to look them up. Possibly print them. Ever thought about how many lit classes use primarily public domain works, and only small snippets of them, and yet you have to spend something like $100 for that collection of public domain snippets? Sure, not every lit class does that, but I would say that the majority of primary texts looked at are in the public domain, available free to students and everyone from places like Project Gutenberg, and formatted well enough that they could be printed if the student needed, at cheaper than the cost of a textbook. The second discussion came up when a student wasn't able to use the textbook she wanted because it was a proprietary format. Some professor decided to use a digital format textbook, which is not necessarily problem, but this meant she had to install some special program, just so that she could view what was essentially a pdf. I do not know how much she had to pay for it, if anything, but it was clearly marked on the page she was accessing that she had 170 days left of use with that purchase. If she didn't pay for it, someone did, and only for 6 months or so. Just for the right to install some new program that only works with some computers.

There have been better, longer, and more sophisticated articles describing textbook issues, but I figured I would end this with the discussion of a new trend. I've noticed this mostly with underclassmen (I suppose upperclassmen have already grown to accept whatever is handed to them?). Over the past week, I have had three to four students approach me a night (last night was the low count for this, being only two) asking me where can they get textbooks in the library. Most of them say "I have a great idea!" and then proceed to tell me about how they are going to check out our copy of the textbook and not pay for one. I tell them, almost universally, that they aren't going to do that because we rarely carry textbooks. Or we carry older editions (sometimes they are fine with getting the older editions). Or we might have a copy but not the CD-ROM that comes with it. Usually, we just don't have it. Textbooks are not the best sources of authorative information, they tend to be high for their content, and there's a tricky little rub to them. Remember how that chemistry textbook I mentioned above had a new edition every two years? Let's say a library gets a copy. Students aren't going to check it out for a single month, they are going to renew it for most of a semester. There are two-three semesters in a year (depending on whether or not the class is taught in the summer) and so 2-3 students might use the textbook in a year. The book is outdated in two years. Said textbook costs something near $200. The end result would be 4-6 students using a textbook before a new edition is needed. That's not really a good exchange for collections development, especially when you get 2-3 copies of the books that the textbooks are referencing for the same amount. Arguably, the school could set up a textbook section, put current and recent editions of textbooks up and allow students to look at them, photocopy them, but not check them out. That might help. I don't know. But the downcast look on the face of my now dozen and a half students that I have had to tell that we don't have the new edition of the textbook they need in circulation brings back memories, when I was a freshman and sophomore and seeing textbook prices for the first time, and wishing for a better way.

By the way, if I do become a prof, one of my goals is to have a textbook-less class. Primary texts. Even secondary texts. No textbooks. It will save my students money and it will help them to read directly from the authorities.

What's your verdict? Textbooks? Good or bad? Too expensive? Really useful? What would need to be changed to make them better? What should be changed about them?

Si Vales, Valeo


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