Tona Hangen

The Paperless Textbook Option

[Cross-posted to TUSH.0, the Teaching United States History blog, 7/19/12]

Following up on Ed’s recent post about balancing a book’s beauty with its gee-whiz visual aesthetics, I wanted to continue the conversation about survey textbooks and formats. I’ve also been thinking about Gail Collins’ article that appeared in the NY Review of Books (which I finally got around to reading using Pocket last week) about how Texas’s odd textbook politics affect the whole nation, and about the quirks of the US survey textbook market. In my historical methods class I’ve often used this clip to illustrate this for my students (from PBS Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, April 2010).

On our campus, every professor makes her or his own decision about what book to use. We don’t adopt survey textbooks department-wide. Of course there are very good arguments for and against departmental adoption; that’s not really what this post is about (although I’d love to hear from people who have managed to reach departmental consensus on a survey text and why). But in the absence of being told what book to teach from, how does one go about choosing from the dizzying array of possibilities?

I’d be curious to know how this works out in your departments and how you think through the selection process — and what role the economics of textbook pricing play in your calculus… because it’s not just political slant or identity politics that we have to worry about. Textbook prices are a big deal on our campus. Maybe they are everywhere. Where I previously taught (a private liberal arts kind of place), I thought nothing of assigning a textbook and a reader and a couple of monographs and some scholarly articles on course reserve. But since coming to a public university I’ve had to rethink my strategy, the reading load, and the overall price tag of my selections. I remember in my first year teaching where I am now employed, I had a young woman who was a very recent immigrant from West Africa struggling towards a pharmacy degree. Within a few weeks it was very clear that she didn’t own the textbook and was really having a hard time following what was happening in class. I was new to the university and didn’t know what all her possible resources were or where to direct her for help, so I walked her over to the bookstore and bought her the book. It was just easier.

This is obviously not a scalable solution.

So I was intrigued by the advertising for Flat World Knowledge’s free online textbook, A History of the United States (David Trowbridge). It actually is free, if you only plan to read it online, but there are other price points too: about $15 for online study aids, $35 for an “access pass” which lets you download/print chapters or read it on mobile devices as a PDF or eBook, about $40 for a black-and-white printed text and about $130 for the full-color printed version. I ordered a preview copy and in a quick review it doesn’t look better or worse than the ones I’ve been using, so I thought I’d experiment with giving students the option to go free & paperless if they want to. I wonder how many will. I’ll keep you posted during the upcoming fall semester with the results of my experiment.

Anyone else tried going text-less or with a free, fully online book? How did it work out?

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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