We’re just past mid-summer. This means that most professors have just put in their book orders with bookstores for their fall courses if they haven’t already done so months ago. Enterprising students are either looking online for what those fall textbooks will be, or contacting their professors for booklists so they can begin pre-reading material.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker Blog recently published an article by Erin Templeton entitled “Read Ahead to Get Ahead? Not so Fast” in which she stated a philosophy in which reading ahead might not be such a good idea. I certainly understand the point of view of withholding a reading list for the reasons mentioned particularly for fiction classes, though I would personally tend to use her spectacular advice given in the last paragraph. Unfortunately, for the broader topic of textbooks, I think it’s disingenuous to take such a narrow view as fiction (and similar) classes are a small segment of the market. If nothing, the headline certainly makes for excellent link-bait as the blogosphere would define it.
From the broader perspective, it is generally a good idea to get copies of the reading list early and get a jump start on the material. But more than this, there is actually a better way of approaching the idea of textbooks, particularly for the dedicated student.
It’s more than once been my experience that the professor chooses the worst text available for a particular course – perhaps because she doesn’t care, because it was the cheapest, because she liked the textbook salesperson, because it’s the “standard” text used by everyone in the field despite its obvious flaws, because it’s the legacy text prescribed by the department, because it’s the text she used in graduate school, because she wrote it, or simply because the deadline for ordering for the bookstore was looming and wanted the task out of the way. Maybe she actually put in a great deal of work and research choosing the book six years ago but hasn’t compared any texts since then and there are two new books on the market and her previous second choice has been significantly updated and all of them may be better choices now.
Historically, it used to be the case that the first job the student faced was to do some research to choose their own textbook! Sadly — especially as most courses have dozens of excellent potential texts available for use — this concept has long since disappeared. How can this travesty be remedied?
The first step is realizing that when the course guide says that a book is “required” it really means that it’s recommended. Occasionally, for some courses or in-class work (think literature classes where everyone is reading the same text because absolutely no alternates are available), actually having the required text may be very beneficial, but more often than not, not having the particular text really isn’t a big issue. One can always borrow a classmate’s text for a moment or consult a copy from a local library or from the library reserves as most colleges put their required textbooks aside for just such a use.
When taking a course myself, I’ll visit the library, local bookstores, and even browse online and pull every text I can get my hands on as well as some supplemental texts about a particular topic. I’ll cull through recommended reading lists for similar courses at other universities. Then I’ll spend a day or two browsing through them to judge their general level of sophistication, the soundness of their didactic presentation, the amount of information they contain, what other texts they cite, are there excessive typos, are they well edited, do the graphs, charts, or diagrams assist in learning, find out if the third edition is really better than the second to justify the eighty dollar price differential, and a variety of other criteria depending on the text, the class, and the level of difficulty. In short, I do what I would hope any other professor would do herself, as one can’t always trust that they’ve done their own homework.
Naturally I’m not able to do this research from the same perspective as the professor, and this is something that I take into account when choosing my own textbook. More often than not many professors are thrilled to engage in a discussion about the available textbooks and what they like and dislike about each and which alternates might be more suitable for individual students depending on what they hope to get out of the class. But doing this research certainly gives me a much broader perspective on what I’m about to learn: what are the general topics? what are the differing perspectives? what do alternate presentations look like? what might I be missing? how do the tables of contents differ? how has the level of the material progressed in the past decade or the last century? Finally I choose my own textbook for personal learning throughout the semester. I may occasionally supplement it with those I’ve researched or the one recommended (aka “required”) by the professor or may read library reserve copies or take the requisite homework problems/questions from them. I find that in doing this type of research greatly enhances what I’m about to learn and is far more useful than simply taking the required text and bargain hunting for the best price among five online retailers. In fact, one might argue that forcing students to choose their own textbooks will not only help draw them into the topic, but it will also tend to enhance their ability to think, rationalize, and make better decisions not only as it relates to the coursework at hand but later on in life itself.
Often textbooks will cover things from drastically different perspectives. As a simple example, let’s take the topic of statistics. There are dozens of broad-based statistics texts which try to be everything for everybody, but what if, as a student, I know I’m more interested in a directed area of application for my statistics study? I could easily find several textbooks geared specifically towards biology, economics, business, electrical engineering and even psychology. Even within the subcategory of electrical engineering there are probability and statistics books aimed at the beginner, the more advanced student, and even texts which are geared very specifically toward the budding information theorist. Perhaps as a student I might be better off using texts from writers like Pfeiffer, Leon-Garcia, or one of Renyi’s textbooks instead of a more broadly based engineering text like that of Walpole, Myers, Myers, and Ye? And even in this very small subsection of four books there is a fairly broad group of presentations made.
I think it’s entirely likely that a student studying a given topic will be much better motivated if she’s better engaged by the range of applications and subtopics which appeal more to her interests and future studies than being forced into using one of the more generic textbooks which try to cover 20 different applications. Naturally I’ll agree that having exposure to these other topics can be useful within the context of a broader liberal arts setting, but won’t the student who’s compared 20 different textbooks have naturally absorbed some of this in the process or get it from the professors lectures on the subject?
For the student, doing this type of choose-your-own-textbook research also has the lovely side effect of showing them where they stand in a particular subject. If they need remedial help, they’re already aware of what books they can turn to. Or, alternately, if they’re bored, they can jump ahead or use an alternate and more advanced text. The enterprising student may realize that the professor requires text A, but uses text B to draw from for lectures, and text C for formulating (often read: stealing) quiz and test material. Perhaps while using an alternate text they’ll become aware of subtopics and applications to which they might not have otherwise been privy.
Finally and fortuitously, it also doesn’t take more than a few moments to realize what wonderful and profound effects that such a competitive book choosing strategy will have on the textbook industry if it were widely adopted! I’d imagine there would be a much larger amount of direct competition in the textbook market which would almost necessitate newer and better textbooks at significantly reduced prices.
If you’re a student, I hope you’ll take the time for one of your upcoming classes to try this method and select your own “required” textbook as well as one or two recommended texts. I’m sure you’ll not only be more engaged by the subject, but that you’ll find the small amount of additional work well worth the effort. If you’re a professor, I hope you might not require a particular textbook for your next course, but might rather suggest a broad handful of interesting textbooks based on your own experience and spend 15 minutes of class time discussing the texts before making the student’s first assignment to choose their own textbook (and possibly subsequently asking them why they chose it.)