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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Choosing a textbook

I always think it's a bit odd when textbook reps come by my office in the middle of the semester - I listen politely and then tell them (every single time), "I won't be thinking about this until the summer." It puzzles me because they never seem to come at a time of year that actually makes sense; I mean, does anyone ever decide to adopt a new textbook in the middle of the term? I sort of assume most professors are like me in that even if they are considering switching textbooks (or they are prepping a new course for which they need to choose a text), they wait until summer to sit down and think about it. Which is probably why I've seen at least a couple blog posts on the subject lately - the Teaching Professor had a post about the role of the text in course planning, pointing out that many faculty design their courses around the text, which can lead to too much focus on content, and Lisa Lane has a post about her personal experience finding an exceptional text that has led her to re-think the focus of her course.

Like Lisa, I resist the idea of a textbook shaping my pedagogy. It has been years since I have taught to, or 'out of', a textbook; instead, I start with what and how I want to teach and I've generally just tried to find a book that matched what I wanted to do as closely as possible, though never with perfect success. I have learned that students don't like it if I assign a textbook and don't use it, or seem to be skipping around too much, so I've experimented with not requiring a textbook at all (though students still had an online text through Aplia). Students didn't seem to like that either so then I tried using a custom text; student complained that they couldn't sell it back to the bookstore but since the cost was so much lower in the first place, I don't have a ton of sympathy for that...

Anyway, I've spent the last several weeks looking at textbooks for the data and stats class. At first, I was mostly reading in order to re-acquaint myself with the content; now I'm starting to get serious about deciding on a specific book and I'm having a tough time (not to mention that my bookstore is not happy with me). Previous instructors haven't even used one text but simply pointed students to a few different books they might want to use to review stats and Excel, and I am beginning to understand that strategy; every book I've looked at has either been way more than needed for this course (and ridiculously expensive), or only covers one aspect (either stats, Excel or data) and not the others. It's feeling like it's going to be a long summer... 


  1. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires that when students register that textbook information be available. We already implemented it on our campus; textbook selections for this Fall was due in mid-Spring. Seems that the reps were ahead of the law! http://www.uspirg.org/higher-education/affordable-textbooks is one link.

  2. About the only time I worry much about when I select a text is when I'm teaching a new course (which happens with more frequency than I like, frankly). For new courses, I need more time to prepare and more time to think about how a text is going to fit into what I do.

    For courses I've taught before, I try to abide by the textbook order dates we get (early March for fall, early October for spring), and I almost never change books mid-year.

    And the requirements are changing. (As things are going, the amount of regulation of higher ed practices is creeping slowly but steadily up...)

  3. I was going to mention the new federal regulations, too. Here's one story about them. On the one hand, I like the idea of giving students more information about the courses they're signing up for, and posting textbook selections does that to some degree. (Although the regulation is more about saving students money than helping them make informed course selections. And a lot of students don't put much thought into course selection anyway, unfortunately.)

    On the other hand, I see your point about textbook-focused courses. It's another version of our current system of relying on catalog descriptions to let students know about their course options. A list of topics is hardly an informative way to describe a course--particularly to students who don't know what those topics are yet! Letting students know about the textbook to be used doesn't add much to what's in the catalog description.

  4. Well, that would explain why my bookstore has been more persistent than usual this summer (though I wish they had just told us about the law, instead of just sending emails that seem mostly intended to make me feel guilty!). I definitely have mixed feelings about this law. Sounds like having the info available at registration is to be enforced 'to the maximum extent possible', which I'm guessing is the loophole that allows professors like me to argue that I'm not going to rush making a selection just to have the information ignored by students - I know that students complain a lot about book prices, and I really don't blame them, but I also don't believe that they are really going to make course selections based on book prices (at least not at a place like SDSU where they are lucky to get courses they need at all!). But I suppose that if the increased visibility puts pressure on publishers (and on professors to pay attention to prices), it's a good thing. Still, I'm not willing compromise and choose a book that is not really what I want, just because it's cheaper or because the bookstore is rushing me. Guess I better read faster!

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