Disrupting the Textbook Machine

Sep 02, 2011 |  David Clemens

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Disrupting the Textbook Machine

Sep 02, 2011 | 

David Clemens

The higher education bubble was inflated by various pumps and gases:  expensive but useless degrees, an ideological straitjacket, grade inflation, administrative bloat, and proliferating programs, centers, and offices of enigmatic, malign, or Kafkaesque purpose.  As FIRE’s Robert Shibley recently wrote, “. . . tuition and tax dollars are funding an ever-growing army of bureaucrats that police everything from free speech to dating. Administrators now outnumber faculty on our nation’s campuses, and even students’ innermost thoughts are subject to their oversight.”  Basically, ye olde sheepskin has become a product whose cost in dollars and nuisance far exceeds its value.

Textbooks play their own part in this carnival.  For one, it’s not clear what textbooks are for in 2011.  Some students won’t buy them, preferring rent-a-texts, e-books, library reserves, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, et al.  Other students won’t read them because they can pass anyway after a Google click-a-thon.  Thus, M. W. Klymkowsky says, “Clearly, the issue of whether to use a textbook is complex, and it is dependent upon course and curricular goals. Students(and colleagues) expect a textbook; yet often, the textbook is not used, except as a reference.”

Jane Shaw, President of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, goes even further, suggesting that a textbook may often be nothing more than a security blanket for the professor.  In an email, she says, “I think that most faculty members still want a textbook because it provides an instantaneous organization for the course.”

Still, there are some courses students can’t pass without the textbook, and those are the jackpot for publishers and authors.  At $100+ per book, constant revisions and new editions, websites, CDs, and DVDs keep that money pump humming.  James Stewart made so much money from his Calculus textbook that he built a showplace home/performance space for an estimated $30,000,000 after auditioning architects such as Frank Gehry.

In an email, Evergreen Valley College’s Sterling Warner says, “Publishers . . . like the idea of electronic textbooks—not because they will serve students as well or better than paperback texts (or reduced costs per textbook).  No, publishers are asking for paper and electronic rights to reprint works because they can make greater profits.”  Warner continues:

I see publishers rushing after the glitz, bells, and whistles (maybe even clickers!) placing pedagogical substance second. Soon they’ll all be using Go-Daddy girls to use a bit of sex to straighten out slumping sales . . . .”

Enter Zachary Mason, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, computer scientist, artificial intelligence theorist, and author of the celebrated The Lost Books of the Odyssey.   Mr. Mason has just launched a new company in what seems a virtuous attempt to shrink textbook prices by using a mixture of new methods and new technology.  Zach, a very bright and talented man, is interested in hearing from all the players in the textbook casino:  teachers, administrators, students.  If you have ideas and/or needs you would like to share, just shoot me an email at dclemens@mpc.edu and I will forward your contact information to Zach. Go-Daddy girls need not apply.


| September 02, 2011 - 11:17 AM

What bothers me is the extent to which the textbook publishers advertise their texts as pre-packaged courses for which the faculty member need only show up to class—I would add “sober” but you really wouldn’t even have to be that.  They have everything—teacher’s guide to the textbook, lecture notes, powerpoints/overhead projector slides, quizes and exams. 

You really don’t even have to know the subject—at all—to teach it, all you have to do is stay a few pages ahead of the students in the annotated book with all the answers in it—and that is if you want to do a good job.

And in the big lecture halls, you have “clickers” where you have the multiple choice questions given to you and take attendance by which student’s “clicker” was recorded as answering the question—you neither know nor care if someone has hers in one hand and her boyfriends in the other (or if she has four more in her purse)—no one knows nor cares if the entire football team is represented by a couple 110 lb girls.  And parents are paying how many thousands of dollars for this?

Yes, I will look at the stuff the publisher offers me for free, and if anything is particularly helpful in getting the information across to my student, I will use it, but my attitude is that *I* am being paid to teach a class, and if I am going to cash my paycheck with a clear conscience, it really ought to be *me* who is teaching the class….

I do wonder, however, how many are teaching classes that they would be lucky to pass were they taking them as the student.  I wonder how many faculty members are nothing more than study hall monitors, taking attendance

David Clemens

| September 02, 2011 - 5:06 PM

I share your distress, Ed.  Perhaps you saw the story this week about the robot that teaches foreign language.  Perhaps that’s the future.  Perhaps that’s the present.  From a management perspective, subordinating the costly teacher to “technology” makes perfect sense as a preliminary to eliminating instructional wetware altogether.

Joshua Converse

| September 02, 2011 - 11:49 PM

Will there be a job for me by the time I get there?

Glenn Ricketts

| September 03, 2011 - 8:40 AM

Sure, Joshua.  Just indicate that you’d like to be a residence life staffer or sustainability consultant, and your future will brighten.  But be sure to get rid of any lingering ideas that college has anything to do with teaching or learning in the traditional sense, since that will no doubt sink your prospects.


| September 03, 2011 - 10:54 AM

David, you seem to be unhappy about the prospect of teachers/faculty being replaced by robots (aka computers).  Others have related concerns with administrators padding their nests at the expense of academics.  Fair enough.  But you’re associated here with a group whose director, Peter Wood, is on record, if I recall correctly, in favor of or at least sympathetic to technologies that will disrupt and possibly destroy the faculty role as we have known it; in favor of ending the faculty role in academic governance; at the very least somewhat sympathetic to calls for the abolition of tenure.  I’m very doubtful that faculty like yourself can have it both ways.  If higher education has become as worthless as you seem to think, nothing is going to save faculty like yourself.

I’m pretty skeptical of the bubble idea myself—it has more to do with wishful thinking on the part of people who want to demolish higher education.

In the western state where I study, all the local public colleges and universities have had sharply increasing enrollment for several years.  This Fall apparently no exception, going by news reports.  Despite rapidly increasing tuition (thanks at least in part to legislative slashing of higher education).  The private colleges doing well too.  Apparently someone thinks it is worth the money.  And they’re not all going into oppression studies or finance and accounting.  Locally, the intro science courses are bulging to the point where student labs are starting to be scheduled at night.  If this is a bubble, it is a mighty strange one—people clamoring to spend nights in organic chemistry lab!  And this is not just in-state students fleeing high tuition at private schools—there are ever more out-of-state and foreign students eager to subsidize the in-state people.  I hope there are jobs for them when they graduate (those who do). 

Of course, a major depression could upset all of this badly.  But that is not saying much at all.


| September 03, 2011 - 11:05 AM

As for textbooks—ways to cut costs that I have observed professors use.

Course packets—excerpts from a variety of sources collected into a decently printed, cheaply bound source.  Many colleges and some private companies will do the legwork on copyright, pay for permission where needed, do the printing and binding at low cost. 

Old out of print books—Dover is famous for this.  Many of these are classic texts on which sales have slackened and copyright allowed to expire.  Classes have to be willing to do without fancy graphics, computer add-ons. 

Use same text for an entire year.  Only applies for subjects with a sequence of courses, like many science courses.  That $200 biochemistry text isn’t so bad if you pro-rate it over two semesters. 

These things obviously don’t cover everything.  But they can help—I know from experience.

Glenn Ricketts

| September 05, 2011 - 6:50 PM

I use two texts in two of my courses respectively that combine educational effectiveness with eminent affordability: 1) The Federalist Papers in a paperback edition which has no illustrations and fine print, for $7.95 and 2) a comparable 800-page abridgment of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for $16.95.  No technology whatsoever, just reading reading, reading and still more reading of lapidary, Latinate prose.  Who says that a good education has to be expensive?

David Clemens

| September 06, 2011 - 10:55 AM

WASHINGTON—Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.

Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.

“Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I’ve looked everywhere—there’s nothing here but words.”

Well, that’s The Onion:


However, it’s a fact that many of those cinder block textbooks feature pages designed to look like webpages with scant text, lots of pics, a font fiesta, and irrelevant links.

Joshua Converse

| September 07, 2011 - 11:00 AM

During hard times I found textbooks to be too expensive sometimes and I raised the issue with instructors, asking what alternatives were available. Sometimes they had reserves at the library or loaners I could borrow. Other times I doubled up with someone or made copies of key material (most (85%) of the textbook can’t get covered in a semester and certainly not in a quarter). Very often I could pass tests or complete assignments just based on information in handouts, study guides and lecture notes without needing to crack the textbook.  If the textbook was useful, I used it. If it wasn’t, I didn’t.

If one wants to get something done then one finds a way. If there were obstacles of money, time, energy, enrollment crowding, class prerequisites or red tape I’ve always been able to find a way around. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I think not. My point is simply that if a student wants an education badly enough he will find a way to get one. If there are impediments then he uses the brain he’s supposed to be developing to improvise, adapt and overcome. If things get more expensive it will only serve to make the people who really want to be there stay and the others give up. Even if it means having to delay, working a second job (at the height of my tribulations I held three), seeking out extra assistance or going to office hours or even, as you know, taking time to capture and harangue my favorite (read: most challenging) teachers…that’s the measure of a student’s resolve.

I bring all this up because it the more I’m reading the more I find educators are wondering how the students can be failing when so much is done for them. Handed to them. Maybe they don’t want to be there. Maybe they don’t all belong in college or maybe they’re not mature enough to be there yet. Is it possible that as ability seems to erode a bit more each year for the crops coming into college, less and less is being asked, and as less is asked then less is offered and the cycle continues to cycle downward? What if the economy is serving to right the ship in weeding out the people who lack the organizational skills to be ready to register for the proper classes the second they can? If someone can’t figure out how to get a textbook (or the information in a textbook) they can’t afford, what use will they be in any job that requires them to think on their feet and solve problems to achieve an objective? To some extent, the administrative difficulties that surround and complicate the college experience are as important to the holistic idea of “education” as any classroom history lesson or lecture on Pythagoras.

These are just thoughts and musings on much of what I’ve read lately about the state of education. Serious people will seek seriously and find what there is to be found. Personally, I think every eighteen year old should have to spend at least two years in an armed service before they are allowed to go to college. It might grow some kids up, and a lot of folks who don’t belong in college do very well in the military.

Of course none of this is helpful for the teacher in the trenches, is it? How does one handle the kids who can’t get it done? I’ve got my thinking cap on.


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