One in the eye for Big Textbook?

Well, back to teaching issues. Textbooks. I know the following is illegal, but I will admit to being hopeful that this will supply a much needed kick in the rear end for the “textbook industry”. (The very term makes me a bit ill sometimes.) In teaching the big courses at freshman or sophomore level to classes that have a couple of hundred students (broken into sections – we don’t like super huge classes here at USC) enrolled, it is hard not to notice that there’s something slightly insidious about aspects of the textbook game. Despite the fact that we are teaching subjects (Newtonian physics, thermodynamics and a brief bit of “modern physics” that is mostly from no later than 1905) at levels that have not significantly changed for over a century (in some parts, several centuries), the Industry (shall we call it “Big Textbook”?) keeps finding new excuses to come up with new editions. These editions get more and more expensive, and heavier and heavier to carry around. I don’t know why this is necessary, except to force new students to buy the books all over again.

Additionally, the new hook is to combine the book with an access code for further online resources (such as animations, homework sites, and so on) that you cannot get to if you buy a used copy of the book. (You can buy the online ID for a princely sum if you already have a used copy… but it is last year’s edition – all acceleration vectors in diagrams are now in gold, not red!) It does not seem entirely right to me, this business. Should we really be burdening our students in this way? I have several of the textbooks I used as an undergraduate. I bought at least half of them from used bookstores in London at the time I was an undergraduate, and they are still useful now. That basic science has just not changed. Regular changes to textbooks will not improve how much our students learn science.

This is all a bit like the complaints about certain practices of the music industry in its packaging and marketing of music. The solution (not one I completely agree with since it hurts the artists so much) that the typical individual arrives at is to go for bootleg copies. Enter the file-swapping sites. Discuss. Anyway, the upshot of all this babble is that there’s a big file-swapping site for textbooks now, apparently. I heard this on NPR last week. You can get downloads of entire textbooks, saving yourself $100s. Is this is a good or bad thing? I don’t know. What is the analogue of “the artists” here. The textbook writers? Newton and others who are (to continue the analogy) the artists being “sampled” by the textbook writers? How happy about this would I be if my own book, D-branes, (lots of “sampling” in there, to be sure) was being bandied about the web like this, denying me the annual haul of millions of dollars to which I’ve become accustomed? (Oh, wait…decimal place way too far over to the right…) My feeling is that something about the textbook industry is broken, and maybe something like this is needed to kick them into rethinking exactly where is located the tradeoff point between education and making an easy buck. It isn’t really about popular level books or highly technical books like mine (although I argued a lot with my publisher to lower the price of mine for graduate students to have access), but rather the mass-market textbooks the undergraduates are forced to buy by the system (a system that we professors at the institutions essentially endorse by going along with adopting unnecessary new editions and so forth). What are your thoughts?

Strangely, when I went to NPR’s website to get the story and the link to the file-swapping site that they’d usually put…. no link to a story. It is as though it never existed. Did I just make it up, miss it, or did Big Textbook get to NPR? Put the link in the comments if you know about it. I’m curious to have a look.

-cvj

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