We are supposed to put in our textbook orders for the fall of 2015 by the 15th of March. Buying textbooks was one of the things I enjoyed most as an undergraduate. I would stand in line to get the opportunity to go into the bookstore (it was a very small store and only 10 or 20 people were allowed to go in at a time for fire code reasons, and also because you couldn't claw your way through the store if they let in everyone who wanted to be in there), take a basket and load up with the new, sweet-smelling, crisp-paged textbooks, dictionaries, maps, pocket folders and the obligatory pens and pencils. I would then take out the much-cherished parental credit card, sign the paper receipt, and then trek back to my dorm room to arrange the books carefully upon the shelf, in the order of the course meetings through the week. I then would wait until the price of the phone call went down (after 7 pm or 11 pm for the best rates, for those of you who don't remember when there was only Ma Bell), and call home to warn my parents of the bill that was to come. They would usually be horrified that I had spent so much, and one time, when I spent $100 for the semester's haul because I bought both a French and a German dictionary that were not strictly absolutely needed, they were very angry with me.
Of course, that was more than 30 years ago, and you are lucky these days to get away with $100 for a single class, and in some classes, it is less than a third or a quarter of a single textbook. There was an item on NPR this week about how the more expensive the textbooks get, the more students are likely to rent them or buy used or do without, and thus the publishers find themselves raising the price to cover the cost of production, and thus we are into a death spiral of costs. This has led publishers to push online textbooks (not Ebooks) which have all sorts of bells and whistles and are designed so that students cannot share (you buy access to an online test and quiz section as well), and that have a built in expiration date. While our students are fine with (and in many cases, prefer) Ebooks, the other stuff they are less thrilled with, as it is difficult to limit costs, which is exactly why textbook publishers are pushing those options.
So what am I to do, to limit costs, still provide students with the best instruction possible, and get my orders in on time? Follow me below the orange on-ramp of doom for some thoughts, and please add your own thoughts in the comments. I really would like to have an idea of what you do in your classes?
In one of my classes, I use three relatively cheap books that don't update on a regular schedule. By now there are lots of copies of the used volumes circulating, and if students want they can buy nice new copies from the bookstores or on line. Because I teach art history, the quality of reproductions matters, and some Ereaders will not provide good enough images to study from. So even when there are copies available the students may not want to buy things that are available electronically. I do give them as much choice in that as possible.
My other larger class is one in which we have spent the last year fighting to get supporting instructional materials from the publisher. And there is that annoying problem of the publishers producing a new edition at the last minute, just in time for the fall semester (the fourth edition now, I think, or perhaps the fifth? there are very few changes, and not the ones that need to be changed -- there are still factual mistakes in it, which have been pointed out to the publishers on a repeated basis). But of course, the fall semester start date varies from school to school, and there are several different options for purchasing a large textbook, and so the version that our students prefer, the split-into-halves paperback (which is still about $150/volume), which is the cheaper option if you want to share or keep a copy after the class (the online access is less than that)... This split version was not ready available for purchase until several weeks into the semester. Maybe it was available in a larger city, or with a different vendor, or on the east or west coasts, but our students were stuck. And there were never any sets of images that we could teach from in our classes. They were supposed to be online, I guess, but there was no online resource for us, even in the teachers' section of the online version of the textbook. So how were we supposed to use the books for our brick-and-mortar classes? There were several other issues we had, and it has led the people in my program (it is not a university-wide thing, but it is agreed upon among the four of us who teach our discipline) to abandon any books that this publisher provides. It helps that they are more expensive and more regularly updated than other publishers, and the updating (which are often more aesthetic changes than content ones) leads to increased costs.
So the other main prof in the program and I went to the national conference to talk with publishers about their textbooks. And we have found two publishers that we like who are working on potential textbooks that will work, if they get them done. But they are a few years away. We gave them our cards, and hope they will contact us and ask us for our feedback, which they indicated they would do. In the meantime we are considering our options, and may be moving to a stop-gap alternative from a different publisher, one that has many of the same issues as the one we have had problems with recently, but at least perhaps the book doesn't have mistakes that remain uncorrected from one edition to the next? We can hope so.
I am also teaching an upper-level class in my area of specialization (Egypt) that may not have a textbook at all. I surveyed students about the textbook I used last time (among other questions) and they almost all complained that it was painfully dull to read. And yes, I knew it was going in. But it was a comprehensive survey with good up-to-date history and images and was a bit stronger in the content than the other, more enjoyable-to-read (and, it must be said, prettier) text that was an option. I also revised the order of things, and made it more thematic and less exclusively chronological. This is in part a response to the question I try to ask myself -- "What do I want students to remember from this class in five years?" That question has answers in knowledge, although straight facts that people remember in five years are pretty limited unless they continue studying the material, in skills, which is where I think I am able to make the biggest impact, and attitudes. I think I may structure the class next time much more as a series of units, with a historical framework at the forefront, and groups of readings for discussion and application as the majority of the activity. The historical framework would be accompanied by a textbook, but a short straightforward (haha) history of Egypt, for which there are several good options. would be significantly cheaper than a comprehensive art of ancient Egypt text. Then I could provide sets of readings from online resources and journals so that students would have specific experiences with particular periods and questions. It leads me back to the online quizzes on readings that we discussed last week and that I am still mulling over. But it is probably time to try. The research and writing assignments (it is a "writing enhanced" class, which means a certain minimum requirement for length and revision practice) will have to be examined but I think pedagogically I am ready for trying a new approach. I am sure I will let you know how it goes as I fight my way through it!
So the art book gets replaced by a history book, and the rest of the readings will not cost my students anything. I hope it works. It sets me up as more of the authority, making the connections that my students will not have a published source to provide, but it requires them to make the connections themselves, as well. It may be a really productive experience for them. If there are a few students who can think this way, it has the potential for a really strong group dynamic and a successful class. Maybe I will chicken out? But the textbook cost, the "boring" assigned reading, and the content that I might be able to cover and the transferability of knowledge and skill development are pushing me in that direction.
Have you tried this? Did it work?
What is the most expensive textbook you ever bought? What is the most expensive one you ever assigned? What were its strengths and weaknesses? Did you think it was worth the money?
I look forward to your input.