In the academic world, professors and faculty often meet with representatives of textbook publishers. These book reps like to stop by, or send an email, every so often to ask what my colleagues and I are using. My university uses a textbook rental system, which locks us into a particular book for a few years. When a book comes up for new adoption, you will surely see a book rep encouraging you to pick one of their textbooks.
Let me be up front and say I like these book reps. They are nice people and I enjoy talking to them. Even after adopting a publisher’s textbook, book reps often help out with extra material (like online supplemental material or instructor resources).
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Textbook adoptions are a weird business. The physics faculty selects the textbook, but the students are the ones responsible for buying (or renting) it. I’m not really the consumer, but I am making the buying decisions.
The biggest problem in this three-party system (publisher-student-faculty) is that it’s difficult for the faculty to consider textbook cost. If you haven’t noticed, textbooks can be quite expensive. If I was buying a book for myself, I absolutely would consider the price—and many faculty do take this into consideration. But you could see how students could end up with a pricier textbook because that’s what the instructor picked.
Another crazy part of this textbook adoption is that the publishers must market to instructors. This means that they must include things that teachers like, not necessarily stuff that students want. Ideally, the instructor should be able to choose what’s best for the student—but clearly this doesn’t always work.
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They bring in a fancy new textbook and argue that I should use it because it’s better. I respond that textbook A and textbook B are nearly the same. “Oh no!” the rep will say. “Ours is different! We have life science applications built right into the book!” OK, that might be true. That might even be different than other books. However, the core of the textbook is the same as other textbooks.
Part of the problem might be that instructors choose textbooks, not students. Often, professors will use a line like, “Well, when I took physics we had sound and waves, so this textbook should have sound and waves.” Yes, sound and waves are great topics—but you can only do so much in a one-semester course. You could of course skip that part of the book, but it does add to “book bloat.”
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Yes, book rep, your book is different. Your book has:
- Real world applications and examples in the sidebar.
- Connections to other courses and preparation for the MCAT.
- Worked out examples in the sidebar.
- Summaries at the end of each chapter.
- Great online material students can interact with.
I’m still waiting for a pre-highlighted textbook (perhaps it already exists) so students won’t have to waste time finding the best parts to highlight.
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A textbook isn’t the answer to understanding physics, it’s simply a tool for learning. Students still need to do physics in order to learn physics. Could you imagine if publishers offered textbooks about riding a bike? Students would just open the book to memorize the bike-riding formula, but wouldn’t actually ride a bike. That’s occasionally how a classroom feels.
Link to the rest at Wired
When PG was in college, he bought used textbooks whenever possible. He always looked for books that appeared to be well-underlined. And not just for the first couple of chapters. He often wished the previous owner had written the grade he/she received inside the front cover.
If PG ever ran a university bookstore, he would group the used texts according to the grades their previous owners received. He thinks students would pay more for a used textbook than a new one if they knew the prior owner got an A.