The most frustrating part about teaching at the college level, bar none, is that students rarely read what one assigns. If they don't do the reading then you have nothing to talk about, assuming the topic for that day is not one on which students are likely to have any information. Then you have to tell them what was in the readings, i.e. lecture, and then everyone is praying for the sweet release of death after about 30 minutes.

Don't worry, this isn't another "The damn kids these days" post. I sympathize with them, or at least I try. Textbooks are awful things, and they're getting worse. Even in the ~15 years since I was in Intro to Whatever classes with 700-page textbooks, the readability and ability to grab a student's interest have declined precipitously. Don't get me wrong, there are students who aren't reading because they're lazy or have no shits to give. But I legitimately sympathize with the ones who try to read and either quit or get nothing from it. The problem in this case is that textbooks are boring. Really boring. And that's not because the material isn't interesting.

I know a significantly older professor who assigns a textbook he wrote for his Intro to ____ course. This is not unusual. But he distributes it electronically for free. There is no publisher. It's just a short (~200 page) pdf he made. He has received offers to have it published and sold, which he has rejected. At first this stunned me. It was a red flag. No external review of the material? No editor? As I got to know him, however, I saw his logic. When submitting a textbook manuscript to a publisher, the first thing they do is bring in a group of reviewers who end up saying "You didn't say enough about X" and "Add a chapter on Y." Then the editor and publisher go to work ensuring that the textbook appeals to the broadest possible audience. Let me explain why these two things combine to produce such unreadable nonsense.

The problem with the "Add more about ____" process is that it effectively doubles (or worse) the length of a textbook. More is not better. There is a practical limit to what can be covered in 15 weeks. Have you ever seen an intro History textbook? American Government? Literature? Sociology? "Western Civilization"? These things are goddamn New York City phone books. They can exceed 1000 pages. In some cases they are broken into volumes, like encyclopedias. I assign a comparatively svelte American Gov textbook that still has four chapters we don't touch, even though I whip through topics at a chapter per week. Students hate paying for a textbook and not using all of it. That's what happens when 50 people get to add something to a textbook – you end up with a massive, information-packed volume that you can't possibly get all the way through.

Then, the publisher and editors make sure the tone of the book is sufficiently "neutral" to avoid offending or alienating…anyone, I guess. This is the single biggest problem with textbooks today, especially in fields like political science and history. The textbook tries to please everyone by eliminating any semblance of an actual argument by the author. Making an assertion or having a specific perspective on events or ideologies is a pedagogical technique. It's not "bias". It's giving the students something they can read, interpret, and rebut. If they agree with it they can be made to explain why. If they disagree with it, that generates a discussion. But our textbooks say nothing at all that students can agree or disagree with. They're just over-processed pap, the academic equivalent of Wonder Bread: bland, insubstantial, devoid of taste or nutritional value, and mostly hollow.

As state legislatures and massive state university systems increasingly dictate the content of textbooks, academic publishing is following in the footsteps of the media. Terrified of accusations of bias, every single topic in an American Government textbook is presented in the "Some people think this, but other people think that" style. Attempts to convey "debates" result in point-counterpoint style pro-and-con essays, the textual equivalent of the split screen from-the-left, from-the-right format on TV. The end result is that the students aren't exposed to an argument so much as they are given two options and told to pick which one they prefer. Way to get them engaged.

At the end of this process, publishers realize that they have created something incomprehensibly boring. Like a movie that tries to include something for everyone, it is an ungainly patchwork that ends up pleasing no one. So they attempt to make the books more interesting with superficial crap: lots of pictures, magazine-like layouts, fancy whiz-bang websites (er, "interactive portals"), and, in American Gov, dozens of sidebars about Jon Stewart. THE KIDS LIKE JON STEWART, RIGHT? The combined effect of all these tricks is to produce a textbook that is colorful, but still boring. It's a neutered, bloodless product that no one can relate to.

I have read through just about every damn Intro American textbook on the planet, and I receive free copies of new ones almost weekly. They are absolutely obsessed with presenting "controversies" to the reader. Some people say X, while others say Y. This is boring and teaches nothing. Conversely, making an actual argument or at least having an identifiable voice makes the readers figure out for themselves that there is a controversy by offering something that can be scrutinized, argued against, accepted, rejected, or derided. Yes, intro textbooks are saddled with the responsibility of teaching nuts and bolts – This is how Congress works. This is a gerund. The Protestant Reformation happened because XYZ. – but that does not imply that they have to be the academic equivalent of Sunday Morning political shows on which follow-up questions are verboten.

I know that some students don't care and never will care. But I wish the rest of them didn't have to spend so much time fighting boredom and wondering why the material is so dull. It's not. The way we write about it is.

43 thoughts on “PAP”

  • Speaking from experience, history texts aren't particularly bad at the college level (they usually get better the higher the course level is). The American history ones are usually the worst, at the intro level. Western Civ intro texts have improved significantly in the last five years or so, especially in readability.

    That said, nothing beats a monograph. This is my argument, fuckers. Enjoy it for the next 300+ pages.

  • Ugh, those controversy things sound awful. Like you said it makes people lazy but it also frames a debate in certain ways that inhibits people from coming up with their own ideas. I'm sure these controversies will sound as stupid 100 years from now as if they had done the same things in the 1800s with textbook controversies like: should we have gold currency or allow the free coinage of silver?

    I'm sure for a lot of those "controversies" both answers given are stupid and they're trying to answer the wrong question in any case.

  • nthing Danthelawyer, I went to a good-not-great college and in four years I never had a textbook. Granted, I was an English major so we read lots of novels and poetry anthologies, but textbooks are a high-school level thing, aren't they? Shouldn't they be?

  • Danthelawyer, as Ed notes, he goes through a topic per week. There is a good chance that one cannot cover as much ground when reading primary texts. At least in my experience, textbooks often have the benefit of hindsight: They can skip over arguments in the original texts that were bad or later disconfirmed, can use clearer, more economical presentations of the same argument, etc.

    Of course, that does not mean that students should not be exposed to primary texts, but one might want to do that either not in introductory courses or only as supplementary, excerpted reading.

  • wetcasements, there are clearly differences between the disciplines.
    In physics (as far as I know) one learns from textbooks basically until one starts working on one's master's thesis. In philosophy, there is a mixture of textbooks and original texts in many courses.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    As a prof in science, textbooks are preferred to lack thereof. The "lack" boils down to class notes for undergraduate studies and papers for graduate studies. It's very common to have long lectures with discussion limited to a dinner party of four of the lecturer and about three student. Lectures are downright counterproductive. In my field, many textbooks are excellent. The reason probably the absence of hands as in one hand and the other hand.

    The quality of a textbook is it's crispness, clarity of exposition, a balance between minimal to verbatim and, very important, good exercise. Some very good texts have awful exercises. Our textbooks come with powerpoint presentations.

    Writing textbooks does pay for me. Before I decided to lower my school activities to a defensible minimum, I could make out of school way more than in school. I did, however, review quite a few textbooks. (I see it as a community service.) Most of the texts I reviewed were alarmingly bad. Politely, I made that clear. Currently I use two textbooks for 4 different classes. One textbook is great while the other sucks. The latter is the best in its area.

  • Another factor contributing to the girth of books, which I learned when a friend and I put together an edited collection for a trade publisher–the fixed production costs (editorial staff, indexing, typesetting, etc) are the lion's share of the expense, and those are largely the same no matter the size of the book. So bigger (more expensive) books generate more profit because the fixed costs don't go up but the price does. We thought we'd keep our price down the keeping the book short, but our editor made us add chapters, extra front matter, etc just for the sake of "girth" so it would drive the cover price up.

  • Yeah, as a scientist I cannot say that this any of this is a problem for us. Of course a student will usually not see every single chapter of a textbook they bought covered in the relevant course, but that doesn't seem to bother anybody. They are still very useful for supplementary reading, cramming before exams and as a reference years after you have forgotten half the course material.

  • I say this as a luddite and w skin in the printing game: Say what you will, one of the great things about moving towards tablet-tech is in the area of manuals and text books.

    You dear Ed can now self publish, and with the right encoding make the hassle of cracking it less attractive than buying your text. In this area it's da bomb! No trees die for something that's got a less than 12 month revision stream (I'm looking at you Adobe).

    Yes it may loose the shelf readiness of a text book, as Alex mentions, but there are gains to be had. From adding multi-media, why include the transcript of Jon Stewart when you can go video?! During big campaign years you can link in media on the fly. When you find a error, no big whoop you can easily fix that annoying typo.* No need to wait for the next edition.

    More importantly Ed, you can pretty much say what you want.

    Email me, and I'll hook you up with the guy who's handling this for some ELT curriculum I know.

  • A few years back, Jon Stewart and company put out a couple of textbooks: America and Earth. We bought them for the entertainment value (the kids were middle-school age) but found them to be a good jumping-off point for further (meant-to-be-serious) reading and discussion. In other words, they were more useful than the typical school textbook.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I'm going to echo some of the earlier posters – why use textbooks, and not primary source books on the subject?

    There are some great writers on the subject of American history and government, why not use some books by them them instead of a textbook.
    Using counterfactual histories might also be interesting, by getting students to argue with, or against, the authors viewpoint.

    The problem with textbooks is the problem with most news and prime time TV shows – they try not to offend anyone, and by doint so, they neither inform nor entertain anyone.

    I feel your pain.

  • Rolling Barrels says:

    I took an intro to government class for my freshman year. The professor assigned a book called 'Viewpoints', I think it was. It did the two-sided debates of course, but it also added third opinions now and then. And the professor specifically encouraged students to find fault with every argument, rather than just agreeing with what they said. I wish I could've afforded more courses because at that point I was hooked (on political science, as it were.) Alas..

  • The late Issac Asimov expressed an opinion that most textbook writers would starve if they had to write for the paying market, but after reading your essay, I wonder if the work of a best selling author would survive the editorial process.

  • To answer the question of why secondary works (that is, textbooks and overview materials) are assigned:

    Depending on the discipline, you're fully expected to characterize primary sources with secondary ones. Picking up a primary source and making an argument that someone has already made (or shown to be fucking stupid) is irresponsible, lazy, and just not good scholarship. You're expected to use both.

    Which is why I wouldn't be surprised if in fact there is a number of primary sources assigned in this course.

  • It's still better than the K-12 textbook process – where a small group of Texas fundamentalists essentially get to pick the textbooks for the entire country.

  • I'm teaching an Intro to Operating Systems course this semester – the primary literature on the subject is generally pretty dry (with the exception of Djikstra's semaphores paper, wherein he spends the entire paper bitching about how he didn't have enough people working in his lab and semaphores are an afterthought he mentions in an appendix). Also, since most people coming into CS started in the subject in college, it makes sense to have things predigested a little bit, as opposed to something you'd see in History or English.

    The actual professor teaching the other class is using a $163 textbook that I'm sure half the students will never crack. Me, I'm using a free textbook that the guy I took the course from wrote and distributes as a PDF, and which contains lines like

    Von Neumann was one of the early pioneers of computing systems. He also did pioneering work on game theory and atomic bombs, and played in the NBA for six years. OK, one of those things isn’t true.

    It makes life so much more tolerable for *me*, to say nothing of how my students feel.

  • Sounds like you have a good role model:the 'significantly older professor' that you mentioned. You'll have control of the content, and you will save your students a couple of bucks.

    Original text: the US Constitution, I bought mine for 3 bucks on Amazon. Add a few newspaper/magazine/web articles and you'll have some rich content for class.

  • What I hated about the textbooks in college was the scam of it all. If you were lucky, there were used books you could buy that were much cheaper than the new ones. Here's how the scam worked. I'd buy a new book for say $80. I'd take good care of it then maybe be able to sell it back to the bookstore at the end of the semester fo half of what I paid, then they'd turn around and resell it again for $60! The same scam applied to used books, but on a smaller monetary scale. I always felt that the textbook racket at my U was a giant ripoff.

  • Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

    The history courses I took as an undergraduate faced a lot of the same issues that Ed's pointing to, not the least of these being the extreme time constraint. However, the added hurdle for my classes were that they were music history courses, which requires firm footing not just in social history and having a general idea of what was going on at any given time, but in musical theory as well. A lot of the time, this is where the textbook and our accompanying anthologies (score collections) filled in gaps for people who were still learning or struggling with understanding basic theory (read: singers).

    I was lucky enough to have a professor who believed in and understood the power of primary sources, and I had the time and inclination to take a few of his seminars. For these classes, there were no textbooks, only course packs choc-full of primary source documents that were often times shocking in the blatantly racist/misogynist/classist arguments they made (Wagner, anyone?) It was THESE READINGS, not the "neutered, blood-less animals" that Ed refers to that EVERYONE did, and about which EVERYONE then had an idea (luckily this prof was excellent at playing devil's advocate, which only egged people on). In today's age, students are nursed entirely on a diet of neutered bloodlessness, but the minute you see a true argument, someone asserting something that you strongly agree or disagree with, it's like a shot of adrenaline. It wakes you up and makes you care, because suddenly the stakes are higher, it applies directly to YOU, and not a bunch of old people who, like, lived a really long time ago.

    Text books have their place. You can't teach the entirety of Western music from antiquity to today in 30 weeks without one. But I hope there are enough teachers out there who given enough of a damn about their students to serve up some bloody steaks every once in a while (if I'm going to really beat that analogy to death). This is what college is really about — engaging minds, demanding them to think independently, to formulate arguments that are based on reason and not truthiness.

  • Great post, but unless it's extremely subtle, I was kinda hoping for some Monday morning quarterbacking, ya know?

  • I've started to rely more and more on popular press books that are written to be interesting and express a particular argument, that we can then debate in class. All the textbooky stuff I try to deliver in lecture. The challenge for me is always balance. Inevitably I tend to gravitate towards books that are slightly more progressive or left of center (at least as perceived by my students). Finding popular press books on relevant policy issues that lean right and aren't total drivel is a real challenge.

  • I hate textbooks. Since I work in Philosophy, I teach every class as a history of philosophy course. There are textbooks for that, too, but I pick a few key texts for students to buy, for much less than any textbook, and provide PDFs of everything else, including chapters of ebooks, which are easy to extract from the full ebook, which in turn are easy to find online. For some works, such as those in the public domain or those that aren't easy to scan or are fairly short, I typeset an anthology in LaTeX and painstakingly proofread them against standard editions. Finally, I make a lot of my notes available to students. All of this is a tremendous amount of work, and in some cases violates copyrights, but students save a lot of money, and I get maximum control over the content of the course.

  • I had a pathology professor in medical school who wrote his own textbook. He originally wrote it for the medical students he taught in Uganda. He updated it every year as well. It was a great textbook.

  • Nice discussion. Seems like a simple solution, though – write your own text, too. Cover what you think is important, write it as you see fit. I'm sure the administration won't mind. *snork*
    Actually, seriously, the good teachers I remember worked less from texts than from handouts with supplementary materials (including the text). That's a pretty labor-intensive effort, of course, and probably not something you'd need a few years of building to get working. Still, a few pages here and there, and pretty soon we're talking about real volumes.

  • Oh hell. Just assign the little buggers a decent sampling of Noam Chomsky and sit back and watch their heads explode.

  • Late to the party as usual, I just finished David Landes' Wealth & Poverty of Nations.

    Wow. Where have I been for 14 years.

    Certainly had me chewing the couch cushions.

    Brad DeLong is dead on:

    "His book is short enough to be readable, long enough to be comprehensive, analytical enough to teach lessons, opinionated enough to stimulate thought–and to make everyone angry at least once."

  • Mo: When I was taking a humanities course for engineering students, the professor assigned readings from Wealth & Poverty of Nations. Almost all of the class other than a few complained that it was dry and unreadable compared to the other book assigned, The Post-American World. It's hard for me to make any further commentary on my anecdote that doesn't involve disdain for the political beliefs of the vast majority of engineering students.

  • Bob D – maybe engineering students need to be dragged through more lit classes as well, if they think Fareed Zakaria [the Indian Thomas Friedman] is hot stuff.

    Teaching must be 39 flavors of Hell, better only than being a miner, who actually gets to visit Hell.

  • Hobbes… any chance you can post a link (or a full title) for that semaphores paper? It sounds interesting.

  • Belatedly: I agree with Ed from personal experience, from both reading and having to assign textbooks. I would love to have assigned primary source materials to my 20th c. art history class, but it would have entailed about 20 books and about $200 vs. $30 for one rather pedestrian text. Still I think I made a mistake. How could modern art NOT be intellectually and visually stimulating as hell? Sacrifice the comprehensive for the effective, for God's sake.

    In my own reading I've learned the hard way–this past year–to make sure the author is a good writer by first-hand perusal. There is so much crap out there by people who should know better. So stay away from anything written by Susan Jacoby, Robert N. Proctor ("Agnotology"), or Daniel J. Levitin ("This Is Your Brain on Music") if you like lucid, direct language. The scholarly air is full of cobwebs.

  • Are there actual facts you are trying to impart in these readings, or are they just "everyone should have read X by now for the enrichment of the soul" pieces? The reading for most of my classes amounts to about 100 pages per week, but two of my profs assign over 500 pages per week — a LOT of which is redundant, pointless, or just plain blather.

    I can read like the wind, but there is some literature out there that has only a few facts buried in a clay bank of narrative, like the three smidgens of fruit in a McDonald's cherry pie.

    The game is not worth the candle is not worth the eyestrain. And yet, back I go to Critical Theory of Theoretical Critiques.

  • Leeanne McManus says:

    Every single one of my Poly-Sci Intro texts were spork-your-eyes-out dreadful.

    Which is why I added an English major to keep my brain from rotting while I slogged through the rest of the lower-level classes.

    Luckily the upper-level classes usually assigned a few relevant books rather than one brain-killing text.

    And just for fun: Class with the best assigned reading? Southern Politics. Class with the worst assigned reading? Intro to International Politics.

  • Currently I'm in the midst of college learning. As someone in a general major (social science) I see a lot of survey materials in each term. They're pretty awful.

    I've amassed a collection of several comparative government texts, and it is sad to see that such a wide-ranging topic has produced several interchangeable textbooks. Every politics book seems to have the same first three chapters- some unhelpful diagrams of government structure, a chapter about socialization, and about two paragraphs of historical context. I feel that a lot of these textbooks exist outside of time, and there's a lack of why the present is like it is.

    A couple of things:

    -Websites, electronic materials, online flashcards are all useless bullshit that nobody uses. It seems to be a delusion of the publisher.

    -Just like we all hate new editions that just copy-paste some world leader names and call it a day, using a lot of popular culture is a bad idea if you have a slow turnaround. My sociology textbook had its most recent edition seven years ago- I get most of the culture described, but freshman who are four years younger than me will have to google it. The stuff that's supposed to be relatable.

    -I do recommend more primary sources. Given that in the case of politics a lot of stuff is in the public domain (foundational works, speeches, etc.) it's increasingly easy to just get that on webpage or a virtual classroom. I think students focus more when reading primary works when they're not embedded in their dry, unreadable textbook.

  • One of my favorite professors teaching Ancient History simply wrote some page numbers from the textbook on the board for each class, and that was all he would ever "teach" from the textbook. "Read it. We'll talk about the subject tomorrow." The lectures he gave were fascinating. If we were covering, say, Sumeria, he'd tell stories of what the people lived like – what they worshiped, what they ate, even how they fought wars and had sex – and his exams were all essays on those societies. He didn't care if you knew what date thus-and-such king came to power.

  • Here's something Jerry Brown's done right:

    "On September 27, California Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills into law to provide open access textbooks to students in the University of California university system. SB 1052, establishes the California Open Education Resources Council, which will guide the development of textbooks for fifty core college courses. The second bill, SB 1053, creates the California Digital Open Source Library where the free texts will be housed. The textbooks will be available for free online under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Students wishing to buy hard copies will be able to do so for around $20. "

  • In my high-school classes, I'm seeing the result of students being exposed to these sort of pro-and-con textbooks:

    1. They think everything is an opinion; there are no such things as facts. Therefore, any statement can (and should) be argued with.
    2. Every argument has the same weight, regardless of the opinion/background of the argument's proponent, and regardless of facts to the contrary.

    As a side note, they also think that having a goal and achieving it makes one a success — regardless of what the goal is, or what one has to do to achieve it. So, Hitler is a success story. If your goal is to get an A on a paper, and you cheat and don't get caught, that's a success. They say this without a hint of irony.

  • We noticed this when tutoring some high school geometry students. The text was huge and bloated with side bars, examples, personal profiles, applications and exercises to the point where we had to sympathize with our students. It was nearly impossible to find where the text book actually said anything (e.g. presented a particular proof or method) without knowing exactly what to look for. There was no way we could simply say "read the book". We would have had to specified page N, paragraphs 2-4, then page N+1, paragraphs 1 and 3, then page N+3, and so on. The book was essentially unreadable either as narrative or for reference.

    Worse, the book missed the entire point of teaching high school geometry. The whole point of teaching high school geometry is to present geometry as an elegant edifice built from a handful of postulates using simple logic to describe a broad subject area. This was completely lost in the applications oriented narrative. There were a handful of proofs in the primary flow of the text, but most were buried as home work problems. If you weren't assigned a particular problem, you missed the entire reasoning on which one or more chapters might rest.

    I do remember, and still have, some well written textbooks, but I remember most of my undergraduate courses simply had us buy note packages prepared by our professors. Most of them were quite good.

    As an engineering student I do remember laboring through Wealth of Nations. The primary problem was what we engineers considered the "intuitively obvious problem". It was like reading Newton or Maxwell. Of course, gravity attracts with a force blah blah blah. Of course, the magnetic field and electric field interact to allow traveling waves that blah blah blah. Why waste so much time on the obvious when the important stuff is all since then and where we are trying to go? In retrospect, belaboring the obvious is how one does move into the future, except that it wasn't obvious at the time.

  • Very late here, but one more vote for getting rid of college textbooks. Not all of them – math and science students need to master a discreet set of concepts to move to the next level, and they may as well be aggregated in one place. But in the arts and humanities? Seriously, this is supposed to be **higher** education, not high school on steroids.

    You want to learn about Federalism? Don't read a chapter in a textbook about it, read the damn Federalist Papers. You want to learn about cubism? Look at the paintings, already. For context, read contemporary and modern criticism. And then THINK ABOUT IT. Form an opinion and be prepared to defend it.

    Higher education is supposed to be about developing critical thinking skills, not memorizing factoids. My daughter started college this semester, and I was shocked to learn that she needed a bunch of Scantron sheets, but won't be required to write a single research paper.

    Life isn't multiple choice. We need to expect more from our college students and from our colleges.

  • Ed,

    I know I am late to the party here. My son (a regular reader) brought this piece to my attention and asked my opinion. I was a teacher for 21 years (including Freshman level Psychology and History) and for the past 16 years, have been in sales and marketing with a major college publisher (mostly in the sciences).

    You are correct that there has been an escalation in the size of the book to cover any topic a professor might deem important (as an aside, I wonder if you have ever chosen a text that was missing something you consider vital in the teaching of your course). But those are market realities. Many professors have no idea about market forces shaping what publishers create. I have had many conversations with professors about how publishing is a market-driven entity. We supply what is demanded. So you are right that your self-publishing colleague would have to drastically change his book if he wanted it marketable. He obviously spent a lot of time putting his content together and he did it out of a sense of dedication and wanted to share it with his students at no cost. That is admirable. But it is also unrealistic that there would be many professors who have the time, energy, or inclination to take that on.

    What I have learned in dealing exclusively with the sciences for the past few years is that the whimsical approach any professor might take in creating his or her own material just would not cut it. Science curricula (even for general education courses) require certain topics be covered and assessed. Otherwise, you could just send students to Wikipedia. Science also differs from the humanities or social sciences in that it is not interpretive (in most cases). So, again, you are correct that many of the books you look at in your area of expertise take great pains to not offend anyone. They don’t take a point of view. I like to think one of the things that has allowed my company to have market leading books in many of these areas is that we have tried to stay away from spewing out pablum to the masses. We have stayed away from those glossy magazine books that show college students having a ball and talking on their iPhones. But professors adopt them because they think students will relate to it.

    While you are not ready to throw those “damn kids” under the bus (at least in this piece), you have to admit that attention spans are shorter and thinking is shallower. Maybe if textbooks were more stimulating, that would all change. But I don’t think so. Students are bored because they are part of a media-centric society and they want to be entertained. They need to be challenged and need to defend ideas and points of view as early as in the elementary schools and certainly in the secondary schools. By the time they get to your class, they have already been set on the road to boredom. No inanimate object can change that. Textbooks reflect society, they don’t shape it.

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