My best classes didn't have textbooks. The worst classes needed textbooks. The determining factor is the students themselves.
I strongly considered doing away with the anthology for my lit class and having the students get everything from Project Gutenberg while buying a few small paperbacks, but my department chair was having none of it.
I tried dispensing with a textbook about a decade ago in a Japanese history class, using the Encyclopedia Britannica (which we had online) for basic background. Students hated it; I guess it was too early for that kind of move. My problem is that if I dispense with a textbook in something like a World History survey, then I become more responsible for covering as many topics as possible in as basic a way as possible in my lectures. I've toyed with the idea of going to a "no-textbook but lots of scholarly stuff" model, but honestly our students don't have the background to read and frame arguments effectively. I kind of like using textbooks, in a way: they present a 'master narrative' against which I can argue, which I can complicate, etc. I tell them up front that a textbook is no different from any other book: produced by humans, for human reasons, and that it has to be read critically with the understanding that the authors made (mostly informed) choices in writing it. Some of my upper division textbooks have fairly aggressive theses driving them, which is fun.That said, I switched textbooks this year, partially because I'm a little tired of the one I'd been using, but mostly because it was grossly overpriced, and I could get a reasonably equivalent Oxford UP text for about 1/3rd less.
The third paragraph was a wonderful description of how a textook can be used. Thank you. I'm pasting that into my electronic scrapbook.The "no-textbook but lots of scholarly stuff" model is pretty advanced. I've been subjected to it in grad school and used it in teaching grad school, but as you point out, it requires background to read and frame the arguments effectively. So, the "lots" has to be sacrificed somewhat in favor of "some" scholarly stuff, with the first part of each learning session given to providing the background glossed over in the papers, whose introduction sections are far too short for novices to the field. It is a case where "before we can understand X, we must first understand W" has some validity.
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My field has a reputation for lectures in which the professor fills board after board with equations and graphs, determined to cover every topic in the text in mind-numbering—if desperately rushed—detail before the end of the term. That's how I was taught and it worked for me, which would tempt me to consider the book optional, except that the pedagogical research suggest that few teachers are actually any good at that approach and it really only serves the future professors in the room, anyway.So I've poured myself an itty-bitty, taster-sized cup of the kool aid and introduced reading assurance quizzes and a couple of other features of the ``active classroom'' to my approach. However, that means that I am counting on the book to convey the details well because I spend my class time skimming over the course at high altitude. I challenge their conceptual biases with cleverly probing set-piece questions (almost all shamelessly stolen from other people) and get them to discuss their understanding of them with their neighbors. I illuminate the historical context and importance of the material. I engage them in interactive demos and mini-activities that are suppose to make them believe the things the math tells them. I explain the large-scale progress of the course, so that the digressions we must make are explicated rather than inexplicable. And, of course, I have to leave a lot of material out of the lecture. The book and the homework are all they get for those bits. So the book matters. Really matters. However, this is only my around my third year of teaching (depending on how you count) and I'm second in seniority in my discipline. My school uses rental books which means that we're stuck with anything we choose for at least three years. So, though we have three texts up for reconsideration, we do nothing: paralyzed by fear and indecision; all too aware of our inexperience and the risks we'd be taking. Better to stick with the not-so-horrible book we've got for one more year.
You may be only three years in front of the classroom, but you are making me think that my years of teaching have all been the same first year, repeated many times. It's OK; I'll stop thinking I can do better when I die.
I find a relevant textbook that somewhere, on someone's site on a 'legit' domain (i.e. .com, .ca, .uk, not, say, whatever domain KickAssTorrents is currently located on) has a .pdf link to it, I download that whole badboy, and post it on my (only-classlist-accessible, password-protected, hidden from any search engine) course's LMS site, and thus ignore many of the directives that the uni's legal counsel has ever sent around with regards to copyright issues. The alternative is to have the campus bookstore charge $190 for it, which I think is utter madness, because every one of the 5-6 textbooks that I would choose from has something wrong with it such that I don't want to actually choose it as the required textbook, and for some reason this country's copyright laws, "modernized" in 2012, makes it nigh impossible for me to receive bookstore approval to offer a single coursepack consisting of chapters cherrypicked from various textbooks.
I don't know how, but my joint's library scored subscriptions to some of the most kickass textbooks in my field, accessible in electronic form from all computers connected to the campus network. I'd known that they'd subscribed to some e-book versions of the printed texts we proffies had specified in our syllabi, but I was trawling their offerings the other day and found that they'd added even more, some of which I'd never seen in print. I'm updating my reading assignments as a result. I will no longer be as frustrated at how a book that is so good at presenting one thing is also so shitty at another thing. I can indeed cherrypick a little of this book, a little of that book, and because they don't have to buy the books there's a non-zero chance that the class will actually READ the fucking assignments. I am pretty excited about this. This calls for a thank-you note.
That does, indeed, sound like a step in the right direction. Is there any limit to how many users can access a book at once? That would be my only concern.
Ogre, prompted by your post I went and asked the uni science librarian about this - no dice, in our neck of the woods; only one student at a time would be able to access the ebook version of the textbook; but, I did learn that I should be able to cherrypick some chapters from a textbook here, other chapters from a textbook there, and get a coursepack assembled without a fatal dose of hassle.
Prompted by your posts, I'm going to check with our library regarding simultaneous accesses. I should have thought of that, but quite glad that you did and that you mentioned it.
I still use one, but also point students to equivalent online resources, because I know many of them won't actually buy the book. And I'm sympathetic to that, since textbooks seem to be another one of those domains where some publisher is making a lot of money, and the academics involved aren't making much at all (okay; maybe a very few are in the case of textbooks). I'd like to see a move to open-source, peer-reviewed, textbooks (or, more likely, textbook chapters, so one could do the sort of mix-and-match Prof P describes), with appropriate tenure/promotion/retention credit given for people who make substantial contributions to same. But that assumes the survival of tenure, or at least the availability of time for something other than teaching all the time, for a substantial proportion of the faculty (or at least the faculty who do most of the actual teaching), so it may be a pipe dream. In the meantime, students keep resisting buying the book at all, or (in lit classes) read whatever edition is available free on the internet, or. . . . Part of that may be our fault, because we don't make reading the book truly mandatory in the ways that Pissed Pumpkin describes, but part of it is also the fault of the predatory publishers, who are determined to wring every penny possible out of the student "market" (and who will reap their just reward when they lose it entirely. . . .which is one reason they're now focused on selling whole packages and even platforms for online classes, because students can't avoid buying those. . . .at least not if the proffies -- or, more likely, the administrators who "partner" with them -- insist).