Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Paula the Provost With an Early Thirsty on Textbooks and Teaching "Naked."

Two of my favorite "proffies" have started teaching their humanities classes without textbooks (what they call "teaching naked"!) It's a bit of a sensation at this little college in the Midwest, and then today I saw this article:


Professors rethink need for textbooks
by Keith Uhlig
Wausau Daily Herald

When biology professor Paul Whitaker was deciding which textbook to use in a first-year seminar course, he chose to use no book at all.Plenty of books would help the University of Wisconsin Marathon County professor teach the seminar, a college-success course that helps students develop time-management and study skills.

"But they typically run $50 or something and are 300 to 350 pages," Whitaker said. "There are just gobs of materials online and plenty of articles. I can tailor (education materials) a lot more for our students and save them a whole heap of money."

With technology offering so many other resources and with ever-increasing tuition prices, college professors across the country are deciding that the once ubiquitous textbook might not be needed for every class after all, said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Professors.

Curtis said he didn't know whether any studies have been done on the declining use of textbooks, but he said he thinks more professors than ever are moving away from their use. "I think one of the reasons for it is that there has been a lot of talk about the cost of textbooks," he said.


Q: Are there any of your classes that you could teach naked (without textbooks). If you could and you don't, why not? Are there some disciplines where this might work? Are there some where it might?


  1. Introductory science courses can't be taught naked unless you write your own textbook. I've done that, for one of my general-education classes; more specifically, I've provided extensive materials (still under development) that are sold for about $15, as supplements for a $15 paperback. This $30 bundle is an alternative to a $125 textbook that most of them wouldn't buy anyhow. I get a lot more textbook compliance this way.

    I used to use an online textbook for this course, a good one, but it is written at a majors level and that's too much for their little math-and-science-phobic minds. Plus, the darned thing is a portrait-orientation, double-column PDF and so not terribly readable on anything other than a 10-inch tablet or a giant monitor screen.

    The course Paula uses as an example is one where the available textbooks aren't any better than what's available online. Believe me, if that were true for the courses I teach I would switch in a heartbeat.

  2. I can see (sort of) why one might argue that certain kinds of introductory courses require some kind of textbook. But if memory serves, over at that second-rate diploma-mill MIT they've been teaching some sections of the mandatory physics sequence without a textbook for a while now with pretty good results.

    That said, I haven't used a textbook for any of my courses in, oh, more than fifteen years. I don't see what the big fucking deal is. Hell, in my lecture courses I don't assign any secondary readings at all, just primary sources, and it works great. Put that in your crack pipe.

    My sense is that you can have them read some dense boring-ass article about Galileo, or whoever, or you can make them read Galileo, and then walk them through some arguments about Galileo in class. I'm not a huge fan of some of the more touchy-feely aspects of active learning--I'm definitely the sage on the stage in lecture classes--but I am a real believer in the idea that if you want them to give a rat's smelly ass about what scholars do, then you'd better show them how they do it and not just force-feed them the products of scholarship.

  3. In English, we don't use textbooks -- anthologies sometimes, but that's it. I waver on anthologies, which are expensive and overstuffed, but often contain material that's otherwise out of print.

    For what it's worth, the expensive private high schools around here all tout "reading the original texts" and not making students drag through textbooks. You'd think colleges would do that automatically, at least in the humanities and some social sciences.

  4. I believe Paula the Provost and the article noted above are actually talking about classes with NO books, textbooks, anthos, or primary sources. If it's got pages (or Kindle screens, etc.) and you buy it for $XXX, then it's out - at least in this early thirsty and accompanying article.

    Online sources are assigned instead.

  5. Oh, I love the "primary source" guy above.

    A general rule at any college: if anyone puffs his/her chest out and says, "I only use primary sources," that's someone to avoid.

    They're not worth engaging or saving.

    Costs being what they are, many of my colleagues use a combination of inexpensive editions and online supplements to help students out.

  6. PP cracks me up, and he's right about the primary source thing.

    Everyone I know uses primarily primary sources, but only the handful who think they've reinvented teaching announce it regularly.

    It's not like you brought Galileo to class, or you used to have beers with him.

    Though I was taught brilliantly for a while by a friend of Penn Warren and John Ransom...that was fucking cool!

  7. My favorite group - roughly along these lines - is the one that has this has their motto:

    I only use chalk! I must have a blackboard in my classroom!

  8. I don't use single text-books, partly because I have to team teach a lot (stupid department policy) and have never yet been in a team that could agree on ONE book, or agree on several reasonably priced ones and get our students to buy them (or the library to buy enough copies... the UK has less of a buy-the-book culture than North America in my observations). I'm in a STEM field, and I use a couple of texts which are available as e-books (no-one can say the book was out of the library then!) and I use a lot of on-line-accessible journal articles - in lower levels, mostly review articles written for non-specialists but in the peer-reviewed literature (e.g. 'Cell' has 'primer' articles, or the various 'Trends in...' journals have great material), and in higher levels mostly research articles. Yes, I compile a lot of stuff myself, but I actually rather enjoy doing that especially when it works well.

    But I don't see what's so unusual about this - this is how the majority of my higher level undergrad courses were taught anyway, and that was (ouch) over 20 years ago.

  9. I wasn't actually puffing my chest out, nor was I claiming to have reinvented anything. I was noting that it seemed strange to me that the notion of not using textbooks was novel to the OP.

    However, it seems that I misunderstood the OP, which was about teaching without texts of any kind except online ones that are available for free. The use of the term "textbook" confused me there, which in my discipline would refer only to a small subset of texts one might plausibly assign.

    At any rate, if the question is would/could I teach only with freely available interweb sources? Well, then my answer would be hell no, I couldn't do it. That is to say, since the sources for what I teach were written in either archaic versions of modern languages that the students can't read, or in dead languages they almost certainly don't know, then I can't really pull up some free version (even if one existed) and have them read it. I need the translations, and those (mostly) cost money. There are some out of print ones that I have photocopies of and either post on a course management portal or distribute as handouts, but that represents a tiny fraction of the material I assign. Money must be fed to the machine, in the end, but I try hard not to feed it to the textbook machine, which is truly shameful and exploitative.

    Interestingly, those MIT physics classes would still qualify, since they are done mostly through in-class hands-on exercises, and use problem sets devised by the faculty (grad students more likely) rather than found in a book. But that's a huge task for someone who doesn't have MIT's resources.

  10. Archie, the MIT physics guys have a lot of things going for them: division of labor, for one. They have grad students who can be assigned to do all the extra work. People who teach naked need to find enough practice activities (problem sets and others), and supervise at least some of them; textbooks provide a lot of those.

    MIT has average students that my colleagues and I can only dream about having and they don't have any repercussions for flunking students who can't make the grade. IIRC, their "no-text" physics courses are only some sections.

    And if I taught history, I too would have primary literature that the grasshoppers could comprehend, assuming they are capable of finding their asses with both hands.

    On the other hand, a substantial majority of kids in my gen-ed courses are unable to comprehend Scientific American, much less anything from the peer-reviewed literature.

    That said, I'm gonna have to re-think my sophomore majors course and see whether it's capable of being taught with review articles. The major task is providing practice, but I can steal problem sets from old textbooks. I teach the damned course significantly out-of-conventional-order, anyhow, so they're jumping around in the textbook like Peter Rabbit on meth.

  11. Archie, my post crossed with yours. You make most of the points that I was throwing at you.

  12. intovert: Yup, lots of things are easier when you have inexhaustible resources and good students. I can confirm that.

    As for those who mocked me as the primary source guy to avoid, I'll pose this question: do you have the guts to teach a 350 student, gen-ed, survey in your discipline without using one of the execrable textbooks that provide the "background", or any secondary lit of any kind--no journal articles, no texts written by scholars in your field, and no anthologies that do the work of picking your readings for you while offering a little intro to each text? If not, then can it. I've done it, and it works quite well. It doesn't meet the threshold of teaching naked, I guess, but it can be done. It requires a little extra work and creativity, but it can be done.

    And, no, I'm obviously not old enough to have had a beer with Galileo. Do beers with Habermas or Kuhn count? Or does it have to be someone whose company you actually might enjoy?

  13. We are being "encouraged" to do this, and by encouraged, I mean that our textbook choices are being so severely restricted that academic freedom is in jeopardy. We're not quite down to one text per course yet, but it's damned close. However, if we can find freebies on the web, we can use anything we want as long as it's approved by our course committees.

    In English this causes numerous problems. Freshman comp can be taught in several ways, yet we are restricted to a total of three books. For lit classes, we have anthologies. Some have better translations than others of certain works; others have better background material. And if we want to teach a work not in one of the approved anthologies, we must all agree on which book it is, who publishes it, and (if applicable) which translation will be used unless it's open source.

    One colleague has prided himself on never making students buy a textbook, but it's because he's King Photocopier. The students may never have had to pay for a book, but the taxpayers sure have in the tens of thousands of dollars he's spent on copying his materials. That's coming to an end too as we're now in a paper-saving initiative and all copies made are directly tied to our employee id numbers. He could make a course pack to be sent to the print shop for which students would have to pay, but that goes against his philosophy. So now he's turned into the ultimate copy grubber, like a druggie on the street corner begging for a fix: "How many copies do you have left this month? Would you let me have them?"

    I hate that all this has become about cost savings over academics. Admins counter that a "good" teacher can teach with any materials, but why would we not want the best ones chosen by professionals with expertise in their field. I agree textbook prices are outrageous. Other solutions exist besides forcing us into volume discounts or making us use substandard materials online. But no one wants to talk about those because they would mean giving control back to the faculty.

  14. I teach English comp, both transfer-level courses and remedial courses. I haven't used a composition textbook in decades.

    If students could learn to write by reading a book about how to write, then all they'd need to do is read it, and they'd become good writers.

    If that were possible, I'd write the damn book, and I'd be rich and retired, drinking a cold beer on some warm beach right now.

    Of course, it doesn't work that way. The first step in learning to write is to read. Because most students resist reading, because most students don't read for their own pleasure every day, they'll never--ever--become good, competent writers.

  15. "do you have the guts to teach a 350 student, gen-ed, survey in your discipline without using one of the execrable textbooks that provide the "background", or any secondary lit of any kind--no journal articles, no texts written by scholars in your field, and no anthologies that do the work of picking your readings for you while offering a little intro to each text?"

    I've never done anything but that in lower-divison classes. I assign journal articles only to upper-division students. Of course, my gen-end intro classes top out at 120, but I don't know if numbers make a difference after the first 75 or so.

    But I don't use online texts. I want them to buy hard-copy books, underline, mark them up with notes, etc. This is what reading IS. And I choose decent scholarly or "world's classics" editions because online and print-on-demand texts are sometimes riddled with errors.

  16. I wish I could use only primary sources. My college department dictates the book and even the syllabus and test and assignment questions.

    I also teach an Advanced Placement high school class. AP Hamster Fur History from 1450 to the present in 7 months, not including vacations. The textbook, the best one I could find, is soul-crushing. But the F***ing test dictates that I "cover" nearly 700 years of the social, political, cultural, and artistic facets of the history of Hamster Fur. It is a death march. My students are bright and highly motivated, and they do well on the test, but ask them in August what they remember about Hamster Fur History and you'll likely get some big ol' blank stares.

    Why not ditch this ridiculous course? Because the college admissions office insists on it. College is the holy grail, and apparently only this bullshit, poorly designed, drill-and-kill humanities "curriculum" can prove to the all-powerful admissions committees that they are S M A R T.

  17. I teach mostly history and I had this idea years ago. School won't let me do it, though. Textbook is required.

    Now, I don't mean I wouldn't have books. I would. But they would be real history books, not books written for college courses "as textbooks."

  18. Heh, I've hung out with a guy who's hung out with Habermas. Does that count? I think we made a joke about Habermas being me a beer by proxy....

    ....whatever. I'm teaching naked next term. I'll let you know how it goes.


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