Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed 12/10/2003 5:51 AM
Random Thought: Why Don't They Read The Textbook

Well, the semester is over. I'm in an impish mood that's going to get me in trouble. And, talking about trouble, there's a riot brewing over by the bookstore. Students are lining up in moody hordes to sell their textbooks as fast as they can even to find to their displeasure and anger they're being offered a penny on the dollar. It's beginning to look like the storming of the Bastille.

Let me let you in on a well-kept secret. The conspiring military-industrial complex has nothing on the academic-publishing complex. So, let's make proverbial hamburger from an academic sacred cow: the textbook, that tome whose sacredness on collegiate campuses rivals that of Scripture and the Koran. Digesting it may give us some food for thought. It most certianly will give us indigestion and clouds of gas.

So, here is one of my questions: why do the overwhelming majority of us academics assign textbooks for the students in our classes? That question I'll let you answer.

I have another question. Why don't the students generally read the textbook? Sure they use them as coasters, not to mention as proverbial door stoppers and paper weights. Put two each at the end of a bar and they make for good--though not cheap--weightlifting. Lug them around on your back and it builds up the muscular and cardio-vasular system. That's why collegiate gyms are empty. The students get their workouts carrying around their ton of textbooks. But, why don't the students generally read them unless they are under threat of execution. And then, they still don't read them. For that question, I have a bunch of answers.

Several months ago, I had been pouring over textbooks for next year. What a ripoff! It seems the textbook I use, as well as its compatriots, usually goes through a new edition every 63 hours. But, don't get me into this uneducational commercialization of education that borders on thievery and extortion. I've decided that to wade through this ponderous textual swamp is the ultimate act of academic masochism. At best, it's a very second only to grading. Reading each text is like taking a cup of Nytol. I've had to slap my face and pinch myself more than once to bring me back from wherever I was driting off to. And, I was interested! Slowly, as my eyelids leadened, eyes strained, my muscles stiffened, my attention fluttered, and my head bobbed, I began to understand once again why students read as little of the textbook as they can get away with. Aside from the fact few teachers have taught students the difference between reading and highlighting and going back in a fit of cramming memorization for a test on one hand, and studying and understanding on the other. Most professors don't know what SQ4R is. Most professors don't help students learn how to study from a textbook. It's one of those "it's not my responsibility" things. No, students don't read the textbook not because they're slackers. Having gone through the tortures of writing a textbook and struggling to get it by the editors and then running into a wall of marketers, I understand that the answers are simpler than that. The textbook publishing business has nothing to do with the students' education!

At the rising prices--21$ increase just this year--I wonder if these weighty tomes are really worth their intellectual weight beyond added income for professors from book buyers crawling over campuses like ants. Here are a few, a very few, of my many objections:

1. Most textbooks, written years before they are pushed, are often obsolete by the time they hit the desks. They may have been up-to-date when they left the authors' hands, but so often they are out-of-date by the time they're in the student's hands and certainly are useless by the time the students graduate years later. Morever, the supposed up-dated new editions are still more often than not behind the information curve.

2. Yeah, I know the arguments about students needing a structured reference, although I thought that was one of our major tasks. So, I'm not sure who or what is ancillary to whom or what. Anyway, we're up on the material more than is the textbook. Most textbooks' cutting edge is as dull as the proverbial doornail. They come wrapped in a condom. Everything has to be safe. They have to be so politically correct, so up on the latest fads, so totally uncontroversial, so inoffensive, that it's hard to tell one from the other. Uniformity and conformity, not originality, is the order of the day for any hope of profitable book orders. That's why textbooks won't stand up! They're published to lay down.

3. Most authors are selected on the basis of their scholarship, not whether they are master teachers or master writers. Here is a replay of the the old adage, if you know it,you can teach it. In the publishing game, if you've got a long scholarly resume, you know the material. And, if you know the material, you can write it for students. The problem is that writing an article for a professional journal or writing a book for interested fellow-professionals is a far cry from writing a teaching textbook for a novice, uninterested or disinterested student. Readability is never a true requirement. In my field, most of the first year survey textbook writers haven't seen an undergraduate, much less a first year student, since they were one a millenium ago.

4. The textbook contributes to the illusion that we've met the requirement of having "covered the material" and having offered the students the opportunity to "master the material." After all, all we have to do is assign chapters 40 through 66 on the next to last day of class to pat ourselves on the back.

5. Contrary to righteous self-proclamations, the publishers are adopter-oriented, not reader-oriented. I haven't read a textbook that is written for the students who supposedly have to read it. I haven't read a textbook that isn't written for the professor who has to adopt it. The publishers will use every merchandizing trick in the book, even devious and bribing ones, to grab the professor and will devote very little time to grabing a student. Test banks, CDs, DVDs, instructor manuals, websites, powerpoint presentations may be tasty to professors. Nevertheless, the textbook remains tasteless to the students and hard to swallow much less digest.

6. So, I can't remember the last textbook I read, either as a student or professor, in any subject, that was readable. And, God forbid a textbook should be enjoyable. After all, getting an education is serious business. These textbooks aren't exactly attention holders, eye catchers, spell binders, cliff hangers, or heart throbbers. They're not exactly going to make the NY TIMES best-seller list. Hemmingway these authors are not however they may pride themselves and publishers tout them to be. The textbook is not a book students or most anyone else would read under the covers. The textbook isn't a "you gotta read it" book. The textbook isn't a book that will bring a tear to a student's eye and a pang in his or her heart and a heave in his or her chest and a sigh in his or her throat. The textbook is never a peak or memorable experience that will be life changing and stay with you throughout your life. In fact, in some educational circles readability is the antithesis of scholarship; readability is condemned as amateurishly "popular." No, the textbook is as an exciting read as the legalese of a warranty or a credit-card contract.

7. And finally, most of us use a textbook because it is the thing we academics have always done and had done to us. The students have figured out that while many professors require them to spend an outrageous amount of money either because it's the traditional thing to do or a department requirement (same difference), so many professors spend outrageously little time using or referring to it. Or, if they do, their lectures are virtual carbon copies of the textbook. How many students do you know who have aced a course without ever having buying the text? How many professors' lectures consist of reading from the textbook? To be honest, I know a bunch.

8. And finally, dare I talk about the financial investment collegiate institutions have in the survival and profitability of their bookstores? Administrators revile off-campus competition and do eveyrthing within their power to stifle if not eliminate it, some going so far as to forbid faculty from handing over reading lists to off-campus competitors. Publically they discount the internet, but privately they pull their hair out when students buy books on the internet at discount. So much for red, white, and blue American capitalistic free enterprise and free competition. They want to hold up the students by not having to hold down the prices. They sell the books at outrageous sums and then demand they be in pristine, unmarked, almost unread shape before they buy them back at outrageiously little sums. This selling and buying is such a money making business that it almost makes the business of football and basketball seem penny-ante.

The textbook glitz is fool's gold. Professors may be lured, but the textbook is not alluring for a student. Oh sure, we can require them to purchase the textbook. We can demand they bring their purchase slip to class as proof they have obeyed us. Yes, some do. Some academics even engage in the questionable activity of requiring their own texts. We can threaten the students to read the text with a "there will be six questions from the textbook on the test." We can plead and bribe students by saying "if you include material from the textbook in your test essay you'll get extra points." We can be devious and ask trick questions, as I know one professor had done in a freshman English class, from the backnotes.

We can do all this. All this, however, begs the issues. Putting unthinking, stagnating "it's always been done that way" tradition aside, after due honest reflection, what makes the textbook educationally sound?.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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