BOWING TO PRESSURE

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.

50 thoughts on “BOWING TO PRESSURE”

  • As a person who paid $64 US for En attendant Godot my freshman year (1986), I thank you for your concern. Eventually I was glad to have supported Editions de Minuit, the publisher, who flouted the Nazis and published censored works; but at the time, it was an insult to pay 20 times the minimum hourly wage for a text I had already read in both languages. As an English major, I thank you for using the Quotation Marks of Dubiousness properly, and shall ignore the "it's" used as a possessive. But are there no source materials in PoliSci or Econ? Must you use textbooks? Many critical documents and commentary are in the public domain, or available from Penguin, or something, no? Make them read the source texts over and over, until they can recite long passages and correct misquotes. A single reading is insufficient.

  • I blame teacher evaluations. If you were to try to challenge your students to stop surfing the internet and think for 5 minutes, or read 100 pages of Tocqueville before Thursday's lecture, you'd get crucified on your next rounds of evals (for being an unsympathetic hardass) and those would end up in your tenure file. Promotion would go to the teacher who skateboarded into class, played hilarious sound effects during lectures, and was generous with deadline waivers.

    Most students aren't there to learn; they're there to do the minimum work necessary to get the piece of paper that their parents (or their loan office) paid for, so they might possibly get a job above assistant manager at Burger King. Your demanding that they challenge themselves and put away the beer bongs and stop sending naked cell phones pics to each other just interferes with that. Who needs it?

  • From the link Ed provides for THiNK, the textbook-zine:

    "With an engaging visual design, an inexpensive price, and filled with contemporary readings from blogs, newspapers, and other sources, THINK American Government is the American Government text your students will actually read."

    I distinctly remember being treated like an idiot by pretty much everyone by dint of being under 25, and as much as young people today may be slightly American Idol and Facebook-obsessed, this is clearly the work of people trying to convince college professors that they know the hip lingo that them krazy kidz use these days.

    "We included things from blogs! You've heard of blogs! They're on the internet! Reading blogs is what the kids are doing now! We totally understand young minds! Buy our book!"

    This a is pathetic yarn from a youth pastor in a sweater vest, only slightly less so from textbook publishers.

  • I vote that all colleges adopt the law school model — what is this business of reading a book that actually tells you things? How about nothing but primary source documents from which the students must extrapolate principles and historical information? Keep them on their toes, dammit.

  • I've got to say that I'm sick and tired of being treated as if I'm incapable of critical thinking by any and all mainstream press, publishers, activists, etc. because I'm under 25. Just because you as older people don't necessarily understand what we're all rotting our brains doing doesn't mean it's any more brain-rotty (is that a word?) than whatever you were doing at 22. We didn't invent the beer bong or the dance party.

    That said, I'm quite proud that I read my American History text book all the way though in high school (it was a college text book). In that class you basically had to or you didn't know the material well enough to pass. I think there's a fine line to walk between making the material relevant to college students and being an irredeemable hard ass of a professor.

    A certain percentage of your students really are there to do the minimum of work. Ignore them and cater to those of us who (ususally!) enjoy being in a classroom.

  • I think the extra dumbing-down often makes it harder for students to learn. I know I never retain 100% of the information in anything I read, but so long as the book is sufficiently in-depth and decently written, that's usually OK. Give kids a textbook that traces the legislative process in painstaking detail, and all that detail should grind the big-picture stuff deep into their brains. Get a good framework built, and they'll be able to extrapolate whatever little chunks they forget later.

    But when you cut it down to a flowchart and the first half of "I'm Just a Bill," there's not enough info left to figure out what matters or how things work. Students need to memorize every word in that flowchart or their recall is fucked. And getting the information out of context, or using minimal examples, means their chances of being able to apply what they've learned in new contexts are not so hot.

    No matter how little reading professors assign, most students are going to do the bare minimum (or less). I don't blame them–no matter how much one professor cuts, other classes, jobs, or Halo tournaments will rush in to fill the gap in their schedules. Giving them too little to read and then expecting them to learn it perfectly (because there's nothing expendable in a bare-bones textbook) isn't really making things easier for anyone.

  • This is why I try desperately to avoid textbooks any time I can. If there's not a book that does precisely what I need, at a price I'm willing to ask students to pay, I'll find some other way to get them what they need.

    But I have to respond to the prevailing ethos of this conversation, which characterizes students in a way that I really don't like. After 15 years, I've become quite certain that most students will rise to most challenges we set for them; it might take some work on our part to articulate the challenge and to motivate the students, but that's part of the job. If we can't explain in terms more convincing than our own internal certainty why something is worth doing or knowing, why would we expect anybody else to care?

  • Ah, yes. The review editions. You do realize that you can make a pretty penny selling those at half.com or other book resale sites, right?

  • It's against the law to sell instructors copies to those folks. Aside from that, it's the shady side of the used textbook market that drives publishers to release the unnecessary updated editions that set Ed's piece off in the first place. Textbook authors and publishers want to make money, which they don't from used sales. So they release new editions to make sure the used editions are no good.

    I'm not especially on either side of this, but the cycle is vicious. Well, I'm not on the publishers' side, but as somebody who has recently released my first scholarly book (not a textbook), I'm certainly inclined to empathize with authors who want some compensation for their work.

  • Ed;
    Screw these bumper stickers and coffee mugs you make available for sale – just make a compilation of your best G&T articles and get it published as a textbook. Then make it required material for a senior level class – this is your opportunity to make money in this market. The big draw? NPF occurs every 5th page – it'll be just like a picture of John Stuart but with more professional athlete name dick jokes.

    As a college professor, screw thinking of the children – think of the royalties.

  • Seth, I'm not talking about instructor copies. I used to get regular textbooks for review. If I didn't use them, I'd give them away or put them up for sale for a fraction of the cost the publisher wanted. I don't want to hear any bullshit about authors wanting compensation; the publisher provided the book for fucking free hoping to get it used. They've already fucked the author out of any compensation for those copies. There was no way I was going to use all of the books that were sent my way. If I just sent the goddamn things to a landfill, nobody benefited.

    Don't tell me that the used market is responsible for updated editions. Fucking greed is responsible for that. It's designed obsolescence applied to the publishing industry. If publishers could make books that would self-destruct after two years, they would, and they'd charge just as much (or more) than they currently do for new editions. That's right. If there were no used sales at all, they'd still do the same shit.

    I knew a lot of people who struggled to pay for textbooks. I'd rather help them out than line some publishing house cocksucker's pockets.

  • Seth:

    Not only am I pretty sure it is not illegal, I think such resale is explicitly legal under the first-sale doctrine, which despite its name, allows the owner of a lawfully-made copy of a copyrighted work to transfer (sell or give away) the work without permission. Originally this only applied to copies that had been sold (hence the name) but in the Copyright Act of 1976 it was opened up to any "owner" of a lawfully made copy, regardless whether it was first sold. In other words, if you came by it legally, you can sell or give it away to anyone as you see fit.

  • I was Biology major 20 years ago and even then, costs were exorbitant. I remember one biochem book being nearly 250 dollars and quite unaffordable at the time. So I bought a used older edition and went to the library and photocopied the updated parts of the new edition. The updated sections numbered less than 50 pages (of a 1000+ page book).

    I am so thankful that there are now creative commons textbooks and ck12.org for schools. I have absolutely no sympathy for the publishers and writers for price gouging me when I could least afford it. The best thing that could happen would be for them to go out of business and the flexbook style model to take over all course materials for colleges as well.

    "no amount of editorial sleight-of-hand is going to successfully boil the Federalist Papers down to a 30 word or 30 second explanation."

    It might not be 30 seconds, but wikipedia does a pretty quick job of it.

  • cmadler:

    Depends on what law you're looking at. The first sale doctrine under federal copyright law probably does allow instructors to sell review copies (although a publisher could argue that its "not for resale" sticker creates a license, not a gift under the 9th Circuit's recent Autodesk decision).

    However, other laws may apply. In Alabama, a state ethics law makes it illegal to profit from state employment, and the state ethics board interprets that to include selling instructor copies of books. Other states may have similar ethics laws.

  • Jude: Wow, I haven't been cussed out like that in a while. Refreshing! And better for my circulatory system than more coffee!

    In case you missed it the first two times I said it, I hate the textbook industry too. I work actively to design courses in which I can avoid using them altogether.

    If publishers paid royalties fairly and charged fair prices, we wouldn't be having this conversation about author compensation. Not all textbook authors are created equal, but you paint them with an awfully broad stroke. Actually, all you do is "fuck" them, and then lump them in with the larger industry. That lumping is fair on one level–if somebody signs a contract, they're complicit with its terms and context, obviously. On another, though, I know a whole bunch of textbook authors who actively negotiate terms that are more favorable to students. I know probably a dozen who have withdrawn from contracts when publishers called for new editions that weren't new; the authors simply refused to do them.

    Anyway, I'm not entirely sure we disagree as much as you seem to think we do. Whatever it is I said that got you so furious I don't think is what I thought I said.

  • To play devil's advocate. We've learned a lot about how people learn and think in the last couple of decades and research is unequivocal:

    #1 Even smart people have extremely limited short-term memory and attention spans.
    #2 Retention of learned material at all levels of education is very low on average.

    In other words, we're much stupider than we think. It might not be something that changed so much as something that we've become more cognizant of. If we accept these conclusions, then experimentation with the teaching process to make it more effective would be seen warranted or even positive development.

  • Some great points made by the contributors here. I agree wholeheartedly with Radical Scientist that stripped-down diagrams and descriptions are precarious mnemonic devices, and with others that primary-source materials are often more memorable and substantive than textbooks.

    As a survivor of California state grade-school social science courses and required history courses at the state University (I can only imagine the politics that led to the bland, bowdlerized texts we were given), I remember how galvanizing were source materials when I escaped into a college American Studies honors course and could read Perry Ellis's "The Puritans" instead of a text on American history. How boring had been the required world history textbook in comparison, say, to Amy Kelly's "Eleanor of Aquitaine," and finally how fascinating analytical works could be in the hands of gifted writers– Canetti's "Crowds and Power" or Rebecca Solnit's "River of Shadows" when I encountered them much later. As a college freshman I had concluded history was a crashing bore, but the problem was the writing quality and necessary brevity of textbooks. Even though when I was a college professor and had to use them, the word "textbook" was still a four-letter word for me.

    But I wanted to add another point: that with the bar moved so low for today's Twittering student body, the peaks of civilization represented by the great works of the past become that much more unscalable for them, that much more alien. A 500-page novel by George Eliot? Forget it. The convoluted sentences of Henry James? Canetti's erudition? The only American lit still within reach would be Hemingway and Carver, and the 18th and 19th century writing styles–in any genre–not to mention translations of the Greeks onward–would be out of bounds, and only foot-on-neck academic mandates would get students beyond Paragraph One in any of them, and maybe most of them helpless without the Cliff Notes versions.

  • As a teacher, you have to draw a line in the sand. Challenge your students and damn the evaluations. On the other hand, it's an INTRO class. 65 percent of students won't even be showing up after midterms.95 percent of them won't take another poli-sci class ever. Even the ones that are into the subject are just getting the requirement out of the way because they're already way too advanced for the material. 101 classes are classes which nobody wants and nobody needs. Just stop teaching them as soon as you can.

  • Ah, Seth, I'm not furious. I always swear a lot. If you look closely, I don't direct any epithets at you. I ain't mad at ya. Hell, if you think that's a lot of profanity, don't click over to First Draft.

    I don't think we disagree that much, either.

    I did seem to think that you were claiming that textbook resale (or the shady side of it, whatever that is) was responsible for the publishers' behavior; that is where I disagree. I know that the textbook companies are in pretty much the same situation as those other titans of motherfuckery, the big record companies. As I said, if textbook resale didn't exist at all, they'd behave the same way they do now.

  • truth=freedom says:

    "There is no 30-second version of what the Constitution is about."

    True, but you'd never know it listening to the Tea Party crowd.

    Truthfully, I'm not sure that the textbook makers are leading this revolution so much as trailing it. If you spend some time listening to the Tea Party crowd, you hear so much muddled thinking about, for example, the Constitution, that it's difficult to believe that these people graduated high school, never mind college. So, in a way, it's a kind of affirmative action for idiots.

    Maybe if it's cast that way, they'll suddenly be agin' it? Or is that wishful thinking?

  • I graduated college about 18 months ago (after going back to get my degree at a fairly advanced age), but had the opportunity to sit in on two college classes this week. This morning I was in a lecture where each PowerPoint slide had < 20 words. It was ridiculously dumbed down. One girl in front of my had her laptop open and was texting with a friend, reading Facebook, and other things. (Keep in mind that this was, somehow, the LAST lecture of the class today.) The TA told her (in the last lecture) that laptops are not allowed in the lecture. This girl completely freaked out and argued with her for a while, then huffily and noisily put her laptop away and made a big fuss out of dragging out a notebook and a pen.

    It was eye-opening ,to say the least.

  • I chalk it up to the "Student is a Consumer" mentality. Students don't want to write 20 page papers or read a textbook AND a primary source packet. Students have NEVER really wanted to do this. That's time I could spend sleeping. That's money I could use for beer. However, instead of saying, "Tough shit" as they had in the past, colleges are catering to this.

    Here at Big State School, I'm hoping we'll stop worrying about whether students flunk out (more of them should), whether students opt for other schools (should free up more space for serious students), or decide that the ammenities are not up to their liking (college should be more like boot camp than a resort in Cancun). Maybe they'll get back to actually educating someone. Seriously: College is not for everyone. We should stop trying to create college classes that anyone could pass.

  • Show of hands, now….who all want to see Ed's 30-second version of the Federalist Papers?? I know I do.

  • To focus on the subject of college textbooks: in 1983, I bought an Intro to Biology textbook for ~$40. At the end of the year the school bookstore offered to buy it back for $3, which I found insulting, so I held on to it. Fast forward to 1987, and my younger brother is now in college and needs that book. The bookstore price is $75. For the *exact same edition* that I had paid $40 for.

    College books are just a ripoff. An English class I took in the mid-1980s required several novels. The school bookstore was selling them for $12 – $15…I found them at Waldenbooks for $3.99.

    I can't wait until my own child goes to college. Will I have to start robbing banks now, or can I wait until his junior year of high school?

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Many of the professors in my dept. don't assign a textbook. They just post articles online. I'm probably going to move in that direction too, since the textbooks available for my topic (urban policy) aren't that good anyway, and you can just copy and post the chapters that are good. It just takes work on the front end to find and possibly scan in all the relevant chapters and articles you want the students to read.

    On the source material idea: the typical social science article is going to be 65% method and findings, and few of the undergrads will have the methodological training to understand it. But there are often good "summary" articles and lit reviews out there if you just bother to look. newspaper and magazine articles can also be good. I'm even thinking about assigning some podcasts next semester (some of the planet money stuff is quite good).

  • Ted Major:

    Are university instructors at public-supported schools in Alabama considered "state employees" or is that ethics law only applicable to K-12 teachers?

  • I feel your pain. I am a college professor and it seems like the more we do for our students (like posting PowerPoints online, reducing the amount of reading, reducing course rigor and having fewer written assignments, etc), the worse the student performance on assessments. I have seen this trend over the last decade and it concerns me.

    On the other hand, fewer papers to grade means more time to do research, which is what my university seems to think is increasingly important.

  • As Patrick commented above, we have learned more about how people learn. The problem is that many students don't want to have do what it takes. There are several key findings in much of the research in learning and cognition as pertains to education.
    1. People usually learn best by having repeated exposures to ideas from different perspectives. For example- exposure one could be the student reading a chapter in a textbook or part of a chapter with the intention of picking up on major themes and new terminology. Exposure two could be a "lecture" regarding some of these key points and development by the professor. Exposure three could be students taking notes of key points. Exposure four could be an exercise or other experience to get students to discuss, apply, critique, synthesize the ideas. Exposure five could be the student reviewing the learning objectives for the exam and reviewing their notes and other materials they have. We don't need to worry about learning styles so much because these multiple exposures from different perspectives engages the students' brains in different ways. As you can see this implies the students read before class, pay attention in class and take notes and ask questions, actively participate in discussions and other exercises, review their notes after class is over.

    2. People tend to learn best when they have spaced practice rather than massed practice. Review the material in shorter (30 minute) chunks over several days rather than cramming the night before the exam. This requires the student to better manager his/her time and to be diligent in doing a little bit of work almost every day.

    3. People tend to learn best when they are appropriately self-directed. This requires the motivation to learn, the discipline to manage one's learning environment, self-testing, and use of feedback from self-tests and other assessments in refining learning strategies.

    4. Students tend to learn best when they already have the knowledge or foundation to place new ideas on and can relate these new ideas to their own lives and experiences they have had.

    As you see, each of these asks a lot of students- certainly much more than just showing up for class. The problem is that many students work many hours per week, take too many credit hours, and aren't sufficiently self-directed to take responsibility for their own learning.

  • Just you wait. You haven't seen the half of it.

    I'm a high school teacher. Beginning this year, none of the teachers at my school are allowed to do the same thing for longer than ten minutes or so. We are to switch activities. Failure to do so results in unsatisfactory evaluations, which can lead to losing your job. So we read for ten minutes. Do a vocab exercise for ten minutes. Read for ten minutes. Do a writing exercise for ten minutes. Even if (as we often do, in my English class) you are reading something together as a class, you must stop every ten minutes or so and do some other kind of activity. You know, to keep their attention.

    If they can't focus for more than ten minutes of my 42 minute class, just think how these kids will be when they're in college.

  • Shit, that's probably one of the stupidest rules I've ever heard of, Ashley.

    As an undergrad who hopes to one day become a professor of Literature and Writing, I think I'll have an interesting time of things in the textbook department when it comes to choosing books.

    There are a few good writing textbooks out there. I already know which ones they are and know which ones come at a reasonable cost for students. If possible, I'll figure an older edition over the newer editions.

    How Not to Write a Novel has a great deal of tips and is very affordable, so I'd probably tell my kids to hit up a B&N for that.

    And then the novels/books of poems and such which I'll suggest looking around bookstores other than the campus one.

    I don't know. In a way, I figure a lot of English professors have it pretty easy in the textbook department with the general preponderance of novels (classic and more contemporary) to work with.

    But that's years off.

  • @Ashley

    Please tell me that policy isn't widespread. God help us all…

    As one of the under-25 crowd who actually can focus on things (even, you know, hard things) for more than fifty seconds, I am also dismayed by the shortening of attention spans and dumbing down of material. But much of this is due to the fact that this is how my generation has been brought up. Most of us were handed cell phones (and later smart phones), and video games, and never given books past the age of 6.

    The education system quickly taught us that minimal work was rewarded, and genuine intellectual curiosity was punished unless it just so happened to coincide with whatever was being taught in class at that moment. So, for example, if a student fell in love with studying the Civil War and would rather acquire some substantive, detailed knowledge about that period than quickly skim over the next 40 years of history in a shallow manner, she would be punished. Too much of our system simply caters to the lowest denominator and far too much emphasis is placed on quantity rather than quality.

  • Jude, I'd say that textbook resales give publishers a pretext for the practice of releasing new editions when there's nothing new or different to say. My point wasn't to excuse the practice, which is evil.

  • I actually had a professor that required that we pick up the 5th edition of a textbook (which is currently on its 8th), which I did for $5. The current edition is $116 new. The content of the book has apparently not changed.

    That is, by the way, my new favorite professor.

  • Has this thread died? We need to talk about high school education! I just heard a guy complaining that we are stupid to prosecute Roman Polanski because China and India are busy taking over the United States. Though I feel certain he just meant that "we have bigger fish to fry", I disagree with both ends of his statement. China owns us because we borrow from them, and we buy galaxy-sized loads of Hecho en China crap from Wal-Mart, etc. They don't see a dime off our criminal prosecutions — which, like Universal Health Care, cost a LOT, but it's worth it! It's an unreasonable cost for a reasonable need. And saying "Oh, we can't prosecute an admitted child rapist and fugitive from justice, the criminal court needs to be disbanded to pour money into the deficit and debt…which we are not corrected through budgetary means" is pure TeaBag math.

    Do they realize that if the Ayn Rand dream were realized, they (with their bad math, personal debt, and low income) would be troglodyte mine slaves to the uberwald John Galts? Poor people in poor health buy into the Rand fantasy because they dream of being strong and independent — not realizing that if they lived in a Randian universe, they would never have made it so far as they have. It's heartbreaking and infuriating.

  • Elizabeth Theiss Smith says:

    It's no accident that all those free textbooks that companies send me have no prices on them. I make a habit of looking up prices, gasping for breath and then looking for alternatives. My biggest beef about textbooks is that they imply that knowledge is a list of categorized theories and facts. The real joy of teaching and learning is in the discovery. So textbooks are a seldom-used last resort for me.

  • In some subjects (accounting) one can't avoid textbooks. My professors used to rant against all the unnecessary new editions, and encouraged us to buy used copies. But the publishers would make a point of changing/renumbering the problem sets at the end of each chapter, making no substantial changes, but ensuring that when the prof said "do problems 15-30 at the end of chapter 3", anyone with an old edition would wind up completing the wrong set of problems. We all knew this, it was pretty obvious, but aside from having multiple alternative homework sets, what to do about it?

  • Z, I think that you have it just right. I was at a talk given by the textbook company shills a few months ago and we heard a lot about how today's kids are tech-savvy digital natives with no attention span; the solution, we were told, was to buy the electronic gewgaws that they were selling for a fairly hefty price.

    And really, sales people have been doing this sort of thing for the last fifty years. How many schools have a ton of film projectors, VCRs, record players, tape players, etc. etc. gathering dust in a storage closet because they were the electronic devices to reach yesterday's Kids of Today?

  • Kids will try to meet the expectations you set. Of course, the kids who've been helicoptered through life will need to adjust, but you should teach your class however you want. After the first couple of D's and F's, they'll shape up and pay attention. If not, then they'll fail out and won't really be your problem.

    Slightly off topic, I think a cool assignment would be to join some sort of protest and write up a recap of what it was like.

  • I'm Just a Bill says:

    At least in college & possible high school, you don't have to worry about mom writing the report & making the diorama.

  • I'm going to say it again, for those of you who didn't hear the first time. Suggesting that those of us who are under 25 are stupid because we are under 25 or because we're brought up that way is simply ageist. Someone several comments back talked about how little understanding the demonstrably old Tea Party has of such documents as the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers. It's not that young people are dumb, its that the vast majority of the populace is.

    We tell everyone that they should go to college and then wonder why intro classes of three hundred are made up of 95% people who can't pay attention, follow the material, or bother to care. If you assigned something hard, yeah, I'd grumble about how I could instead be downtown getting drunk or something. But I'll get it done, and get it done well.

  • Hang in there. Things should get better when you start teaching upper-division courses. Quite a few less of your students will be total fucktards, and hopefully some will care enough about their chosen field to actually want to learn as much content as possible.

  • the RaptorMage says:

    I recently read Nicholas Carr's _The Shallows_ for a book club at work. (It was too long, but not due to Millenial attention deficit; it's a research article stretched to pay off as a hardback bestseller.) Yes, as some have posted, most people learn more effectively if we modify some of the traditions like reading a 50-page chapter and then listening to a 50-minute lecture.

    But Carr pulls together bio research that shows that it's two-way: how we read, talk, study, and otherwise behave affects our brain and therefore our future thinking and behavior. If we don't ever provide our brain a long-form experience, then the neurons optimize themselves for short-form input.

    The circle can be vicious or valuable, depending on which way we follow it. A mix is best. Read novels and short stories, textbook chapters and blog posts.

  • cmadler: The state ethics law applies to colleges and universities as well as K12. As a result, all faculty who make $50,000 or more a year have to fill out an ethics disclosure form ("Statement of Economic Interests") every year listing family members and sources of income.

  • I'm not sure if my school is some anomaly, but my intro to international relations class looks like 80 minutes of no visual aid lecturing with 2-3 dry on-topic jokes a class. Not so much "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".
    And it's compelling stuff, most friends in the class enjoy it. Not to mention political science is about the largest major on campus. Is this not normal? Are introductory IR courses way harder than American Gov courses? Are the differences across universities that large?

  • Paul W. Luscher says:

    Why, you sound like a grouchy old boomer like me!

    Guess there's a reason I still read real books, and don't Tweet, etc. Want substance–something that informs me and makes me think, rather than the intellectual equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal.

    But let's face it, there are those who are very happy with the idea of a dumbed-down populace….and they're in charge….

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