BOWING TO PRESSURE

Posted in Rants on October 7th, 2010 by Ed

As any academic or college student (past or present) knows all too well, the textbook industry is quite a racket. Every semester students are required to buy textbooks with triple-digit prices and publishers rush to release "new editions" that rarely amount to more than cosmetic changes. Political science is one of the few fields in which a regular update is necessary (due to biannual elections, new Supreme Court rulings, new issues, and so on) but even so, publishers are now eager to release annual new editions for the biggest moneymakers – Intro to American Government textbooks. In most fields, even though an update every five years or so would do just fine publishers are desperately trying to make one last killing off of paper textbooks before the entire industry (presumably) goes electronic at some point in the next decade or two. But I digress.

The courses that attract huge, steady enrollments – American Govt., macroeconomics, English 101, etc. – offer instructors a dizzying array of choices. The ability of publishers and authors to repackage and rearrange essentially the same information to create dozens of "different" textbooks is impressive. How many ways can you explain how a bill becomes a law? Lots, apparently, because there are probably 40-some AmGov textbooks on the market right now, each of which claims to have a unique way of presenting essentially identical information.

As the kind of grunt who does the 325 student Intro class lecture every semester, publishers are constantly sending me new (or "new") textbooks to consider. One course adoption pays for itself many times over, even if the publisher had to mail out 200 free textbooks to various professors to get one commitment. Accordingly I see the different tricks used to differentiate the textbooks, not only in terms of content but in presentation as well. The trend over the last ten years has been unmistakable to anyone paying attention: publishers are catering to a rapidly shrinking attention span, be it real or imagined.

This trend appears to have reached a peak with this book, Think from Pearson Education. This book, which finds its way into the mailbox of every professor who has ever thought about teaching Intro, is essentially a large magazine. That's it's selling point. It looks like a magazine. The layout appears to have been copied from Sports Illustrated. Each chapter is broken into "articles" of shorter length. Paragraphs rarely exceed a few sentences. The font is big and bold. There are pictures everywhere. A sidebar graphic of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert seems to be on every third or fourth page (although in fairness, this is true of almost every Intro book nowadays). In short, this textbook does everything possible to cater to a generation that, in the apparent opinion of the publishing industry, has an attention span of about 30 seconds.

It might as well have "Government for Idiots" stamped on the cover, but I don't hold anything against the author for writing a book in this style. There is a market for it. And even the big, dignified textbooks from the big, stately publishing houses that would never stoop to such cheap tactics are stooping to the same cheap tactics. This raises two interrelated questions: Do undergraduates really have such poor attention spans? If so, is it right to cater to it or should we attempt to push back?

While there have always been textbooks aimed at different, ahem, "markets" (top-20 schools vs. community colleges, for example) the tendency of all textbooks to cater to short attention spans has increased dramatically in a short period of time. For the average attention span to have fallen so quickly in the last decade would lend credence to the common refrain that constant internet access, social networking, texting, Twitter, and all of the other Signs of the Apocalypse for human communication have done everything critics have claimed – they've turned us into a nation unwilling to or incapable of reading anything longer than 200 characters. New textbooks are to old textbooks what CNN Headline News is to CNN; the same basic material stripped down, plastered with flashing graphics, and delivered in 30 seconds or less. I am not sure I buy this premise, but let us run with it for a moment.

If this is the case, why is academia essentially throwing up its hands and accepting that we have to make teaching more like Tweeting? The emphasis on dumbed-down textbooks, online assignments, PowerPoint lectures (no more than 20 words per slide, say the experts!), and the like indicate that we do not intend to put up much of a fight. Is it not appropriate for professors to say, "Look, I am assigning a real book and you will read it, because sometimes in order to understand something you have to sit down and read a damn book about it"? If everything else is conspiring to shorten their attention spans and make their desire for instant gratification all-encompassing, it hardly seems appropriate for the ivy halls of learning to shrug and start turning education into a series of 15 second commercials and Instant Messages. Someone needs to suggest the correct habits even if the students choose to ignore the advice.

Real learning, or at least real understanding, cannot be reached with shortcuts in most cases. There is no 30-second version of what the Constitution is about. There is no colorful 3/4-page text box with pictures of angry protesters that can convey the complexity of the 1st Amendment. How to write persuasively, why the Protestant Reformation was a historical turning point, how the money supply works…none of these are questions that can be answered in Twitter-sized chunks. Understanding issues like these demands that students do what colleges have made students do for 250 years: read something, think about it, and express their command of the material in writing. To pretend that any other method will result in real, meaningful learning is, in my view, delusional.

I hate to think what this profession is going to look like in 20 years. I already need a full arsenal of anecdotes, visual aids, and straight-up comedy to keep (a portion of) the students awake for a (gasp!) 50 minute lecture. At this rate, by the time I'm 40 I will need a fireworks show, two clowns, and a live alien autopsy to hold their attention for more than a minute or two. The truth is that the more we play along, the more the students will expect us to cater to their technology-induced ADD. And the more we enable and encourage bad habits, the harder it will be for us to do our jobs because no amount of editorial sleight-of-hand is going to successfully boil the Federalist Papers down to a 30 word or 30 second explanation.

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