The Role of Textbooks

Inside Higher Ed has an op-ed piece up urging faculty to abandon textbooks:

Here’s a statement with which everyone can agree: College instructors cannot assume that students come to their classes in possession of basic knowledge. Now here’s one sure to generate some controversy: In many cases textbooks deter the pursuit of knowledge more than they help it. The sciences may be different, but at least in the case of the humanities, most of us would be better off not assigning a textbook.

He goes on to make a strong case for abandoning history textbooks in favor of monographs, based on both the high cost to students and the fact that most history texts are deadly boring.

Both of those arguments apply to a lot of science textbooks– they’re usually hard to read, and always expensive– but it’s hard to see how to get away with abandoning textbooks in science.

For one thing, hardly anybody publishes monographs in the sciences. This is a recurring issue in discussions of how to measure scholarly productivity (how many Physical Review Letters equal one book?), but more important for this discussion is the fact that there simply aren’t any more readable scholarly works out there that are accessible to students. If you want to abandon traditional textbooks, you’re pretty much on your own.

The bigger issue, though, is that textbooks have an important place in the sciences. A good textbook will have step-by-step derivations of important results, presented at a level of detail that’s hard to match in a lecture. There are very few things in this world that are more soul-crushingly boring than watching somebody do algebra on a blackboard, and lecture time is better spent on working through the implications of the important results than going through fiddly details of algebra.

A properly written science textbook will serve as a valuable reference work in a way that a history textbook probably will not. Science textbooks contain additional examples and detailed derivations that go beyond what can easily be covered in class, and those can come in handy down the road. I still have all of my graduate textbooks in physics, and many of my undergrtaduate books, and when I’m prepping a new class or considering a new research problem, I make frequent use of them.

(Sadly, many students don’t really understand this point, and sell their textbooks back to the bookstore before the ink is dry on their final exams. This is a horrible, horrible idea for anybody who seriously plans to pursue a career in science– those books will come in handy down the line.)

Of course, following a textbook too closely creates its own set of problems. The single worst class I had in graduate school was taught by a professor who basically read Shankar’s quantum mechanics textbook to us– one of my classmates used to “take notes” by putting a check mark in the margin next to each equation as she wrote it on the board. Not only was this the dullest possible way to lecture, it was horrible when it came time to do problems, because the lectures and the book were absolutely identical. There was nothing presented in the lecture that you couldn’t find in the book, which meant that the book could not be used to shed additional light on the lectures, and the lectures did nothing to illuminate the discussion in the book.

When I teach, I try to avoid following the textbook treatment too closely, in large part because of that experience. If anything, I probably go too far in the other direction– my lecture notes often bear very little resemblance to the treatment presented in the textbook, and I’ll often cover topics in an entirely different order than you see in the book. I try to explain this to the students, pointing out that if they don’t like my version, they may find the discussion in the book more helpful, but I’m not sure that it gets through.

(I also end up doing a lot of jumping around because of our weird academic calendar– we’re on trimesters, which means we’re supposed to try to cover a semester’s worth of material in only ten weeks of class. In practice, this requires us to pick and choose topics, and occasionally skip whole chapters worth of material.)

I have taught without a traditional textbook once, for the Quantum Optics class I did last spring (you can find a lot of my lecture notes here). I couldn’t find a good traditional textbook at the level I wanted, so I had the students read a more conceptually oriented book, and covered a lot of the mathematical treatment in my lectures. It wasn’t all that bad, but I wasn’t entirely happy with the experience. Since the class ended, a textbook at the right level has been released (Quantum Optics by Mark Fox, from Oxford University Press, part of their Masters Series), and when I teach the class again, I’ll use that instead.

The Inside Higher Ed piece suggests that a lot of history material is available online, and that those free resources can serve as an alternative to expensive textbooks. I have a hard time imagining using something like hyperphysics in lieu of a textbook, though, so I think we’re pretty much stuck with heavy and expensive textbooks in the sciences.


  1. #1 a cornellian
    March 7, 2007

    As senior physics/math major I can attest that not all students sell back all their books…only the useless ones. I’ve even stolen my fathers text books from when he was in grad school.

  2. #2 KevinQ
    March 7, 2007

    I’m a law student, and I think the reasons for abandoning (or not) textbooks there are the same as for the sciences – they’re heavy and expensive, but going through the steps is easier in a textbook, the textbook offers the material in a different way than the lecture, etc. But I think that in both cases, it’s not that there needs to be a move away from textbooks, but a move toward something different.

    There are classes, as you mentioned, where the professor doesn’t use a textbook. Usually, in law as in science, this requires the professor to create their own material and distribute it to the class. This extra work lessens the possibility that most professors will try something different. But if somebody could design a new way to distribute the necessary information (possibly utilizing these new-fangled computer-things that all the students are carrying now), then textbooks, 10 pounds of bound paper, would be a thing of the past.


  3. #3 meerasedai
    March 7, 2007

    Looking back, the only books that I’ve kept from my biology major were the introductory books (Intro to Cell Bio, Immunology, etc) for two reasons:

    -The textbook played an important role in the course
    -The explanations and diagrams were great.

    In more advanced classes, that was rarely true for me.

  4. #4 Moshe
    March 7, 2007

    Textbooks ought to be another place where we cut the middle man. Free textbooks are starting to be available online, and some of them are fairly good. There really is no justification for the outrageous prices of textbooks, I am not sure precisely what the role of academia should be, but it has to go beyond just making publishers rich…

  5. #5 John Novak
    March 7, 2007

    I like the idea of open source textbooks, too, at least for lower level, undergrad-type courses. The low level stuff in electronics, for instance, simply does not change. Smith and Sedra or Horowitz and Hill have been serving undergrads in microelectronics for a good long time, just like Hayt and Kemmerly have been serving basic circuit theory needs.

    I think the model tends to break down at the advanced undergrad and grad student level, but still, it’s better than nothing.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    March 7, 2007

    Free-as-in-free-beer textbooks for math and science at the freshman and sophomore levels would be a really good thing. Unfortunately, contributing to WikiBooks gets you exactly zero credit with the tenure committee.

  7. #7 Brian Postow
    March 7, 2007

    I often chose a text book to be one that follows the opposite strategy to my own. For example, in a Theory of Computation class, I tend to teach it from a very abstract, math/proof level. I don’t do a lot of examples because I think that class time can be better spent on things that are more difficult.

    However, since I acknowledge that examples are important, I chose a text book that had lots of examples in it. Poof! the best of both worlds.

    I also have taken 3 classes where the prof used his own text book. They were awful for the reasons you described. This has made me swear that I will never teach a class from a text book that I wrote. (If I ever write a text book)

  8. #8 Moshe
    March 7, 2007

    Just to clarify, what I mean by online textbooks is exactly that- traditional textbooks are still necessary in my opinion to teach lower level classes and probably cannot be replaced by wiki or some such thing (perhaps for advanced graduate classes different models can be used). The only difference is replacing paper with electronic storage, and saving huge amounts of money in the process.

  9. #9 yagwara
    March 7, 2007

    I agree with Moshe: textbooks are essential in math and sciences, but why do we have to make these publishers rich in the process? I recently taught a precalculus course whose textbook (not chosen by me) cost ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY DOLLARS.

    It’s a nice enough book, but come on. It’s precalculus. There are perfectly good alternatives published in Schaum’s outlines, or by Dover. We have to stop feeding our students to the textbook publishing machine.

    One exception might be at higher levels, where there really is only one Jackson or Peskin and Schroeder, and we just have to put up with it. But longer term, I’d like to see those who are writing textbooks moving towards self publishing or low cost publishers.

    (The ideal model here is Allen Hatcher, who has his (excellent) algebraic topology book available for free on line, and at low cost through Cambridge UP. The best of both worlds.)

  10. #10 Ponder Stibbons
    March 7, 2007

    There are very few things in this world that are more soul-crushingly boring than watching somebody do algebra on a blackboard, and lecture time is better spent on working through the implications of the important results than going through fiddly details of algebra.

    I wish most of my physics professors realised that. About 80% of my [undergrad] physics classes bored me to tears because they were essentially lessons in mathematical methods rather than physics.

    The professor for my undergrad QM class followed Griffiths page for page, which I submit is much, much worse than following Shankar page for page. I’d much rather watch state vectors being shifted about on the blackboard than watch monster integrals being computed.

    At the other end of the spectrum, the best physics class I ever had had no official textbooks. The extra time I spent in the libraries sourcing out textbooks on my own was well worth the additional insight from having a professor who actually approached several topics in a way that can’t be found in any textbook. It was also a good way to train myself to take notes. Sadly, the professor concerned has received complaints from unappreciative students about not taking a conventional approach.

  11. #11 yagwara
    March 7, 2007

    Yeah, my second undergrad course in E&M, and my second undergrad course in QM, were both essentially classes on solving boundary value problems. No physics at all.

    When my undergrad GR course was starting to look like a (badly done) differential geometry course, I dropped it and took GR in the applied math department. There, it was assumed we all knew the math, so all we talked about was physics.

    Although the worst case I experienced of details at the blackboard was in an undergrad real analysis class. The professor literally wrote the text of the book in longhand on the board. I do not exaggerate.

  12. #12 John Dilick
    March 7, 2007

    Sadly, many students don’t really understand this point, and sell their textbooks back to the bookstore before the ink is dry on their final exams. This is a horrible, horrible idea for anybody who seriously plans to pursue a career in science– those books will come in handy down the line.


    I made that mistake with my copy of MTW’s Gravitation, and have regretted it until today (my father just gave me a copy for my birthday).

  13. #13 Natalie
    March 7, 2007

    Do you think it matters if its something like a biology class where there are no problems to be worked out, only facts that are layed out in an orderly progression (that I then proceed to take out of order)?

    I always feel bad asking my students to plunk down $100 for a text, so I try to incorporate it into my class as much as possible for homework assignments and such, but it really isn’t that necessary

    In fact, for a “survey of the sciences” course I teach, I don’t use a text book. I just tell my students to go to wikipedia if they need some background information and use quality articles from the popular press to cover some of the concepts. Seems to work, and saves paper!

  14. #14 Ponder Stibbons
    March 8, 2007

    A good collection of online physics (and maths) textbooks and lecture notes can be found here. There’s probably tonnes of other lecture notes online as well (MIT’s OpenCourseWare comes to mind). There’s really no need for buying overpriced official texts.

  15. #15 andy.s
    March 8, 2007

    Hear hear!!! MTW is now $120 bucks! And it hasn’t changed a bit since the original printing in 1973.

    Students get reamed with textbook prices.

  16. #16 Jonathan
    March 8, 2007

    I’m a senior physics major, and my professors have occasionally selected textbooks for the sake of the problems they contain. This motivation is usually at complete odds with what I want from the textbook. I want a textbook to be there for me when the problems go beyond the scope of the lectures (which should happen often): I want methods, proofs, and plenty of examples. When the class is over, I want it to be a reference book. Books that have the student work out many important results are of very little use to me once the class is over.

  17. #17 James Steinberg
    March 10, 2007

    Personally, I have yet to sell back a textbook, period. They are often useful as references, and can often offer an explanation on a topic that, taking a different approach, makes it far easier to understand what another textbook or the professor was trying to explain. Right now I have four different textbooks on microbiology alone – some more useful than others.

    What bothers me is when professors assign a textbook they -know- isn’t up to snuff, despite the fact that another textbook for the same money will (a) cover the material, (b) be required for another course down the road. Right now I’m studying cellular bio out of Alberts, Bray, Hopkin, et al., despite the professor’s description of the book being: “it’s good enough for this course,” it’s $100+ cost, and the fact that the professor knows full well we’re going to have to get Campbell & Reece for the next course in the Bio series anyway, which covers the same material and in better depth.

    I use that just for an example: he’s not the first (and probably not the last) professor to do this, which I see as just a whimsical abuse of my wallet.

    What I have liked was the way my Chemistry professor teaches: he uses mathematics in class to either (A) explain visually what the chemistry actually is, and (B) prepare us for problem-solving on examinations. He hews closely to the topics in the textbook, but not the actual wording: the two echo one another with sufficient resemblance that one reinforces the other, but without being a mind-blanking repetition. The textbook offers more depth, and more problem-solving. I know I’m probably not describing it that well, but the two do a great job of reinforcing one another without becoming boring or repetitive.

    I submit that the most important element in how boring/entertaining a class is (since the discussion has veered that way) is class participation. Regardless how dry the topic is, I find it to always be much more engaging when the teacher involves the class, and gives students a chance to participate and be recognized for their efforts. I enjoy my chemistry class more than my film class (despite the fact that I’m more inclined to liberal arts than sciences) specifically because the chemistry professor involves us in the learning process, while the film professor regards us as blank vessels to be filled by his great and expansive knowledge.

  18. #18 Ato Essuman
    July 1, 2008

    can i get infomation on textbook publishing process fro my thesis

  19. #19 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 1, 2008

    Re #12: “I made that mistake with my copy of MTW’s Gravitation”

    But now it’s too late to have it autographed by W.

    Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ (at the Vatican Observatory) contrasts The Bible with the equally thick GRAVITATION by Thorne, Misner, Wheeler. One is 2,000 years old and still worth reading. The other is 25 years old, and already out of date.

    See also Guy’s:

    “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion”,
    # Hardcover: 256 pages
    # Publisher: Jossey-Bass (October 19, 2007)
    # Language: English
    # ISBN-10: 0787994669
    # ISBN-13: 978-0787994662

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