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Friday, 1 July 2016

Textbooks

A few weeks ago, I sat down at a computer, turned to Minding the Campus, as I often do, and noticed a link "College courses without textbooks? These schools are giving it a shot." Ah, the kind of link that means I return to Minding the Campus as often as I do. However, because the link (not mine), went to the wrong place, I was also familiar with this nice opening paragraph from another article by the Washington Post:
EVERY YEAR, college students shell out thousands of dollars for tuition. Then they face an additional cost: textbooks. Students spend as much as $1,300 over their college careers on books alone — a burden that falls most heavily on those who have to take out loans to pay. A pilot program from a community college reform group just outside Washington, D.C., could help.
I'm not sure if that interpretation is correct. If it is, then that means that you spend pretty much the same amount on textbooks if you do a two year programme as you do if you are enrolled in a four year one. That really would be insane. After all, assuming two semesters a year (and $1300 exactly), the former is paying $325 a semester whereas the latter a "mere" $162.5. I have seen just two textbooks (admittedly in NZD and we'd expect to pay more here, in general) fetch around about this latter mark... in fact, I think they exceeded it. The following line from the full report made by the College Board suggests that this $1300 is annual:
The prices reported in Trends in College Pricing are for one year of full-time study
$1300 a year? On textbooks?! That is, quite simply, mad. Mind you, if we contextualise with the insanity of the average annual figure for private non-profits exceeding my current loan total accumulated over three years, it seems less so. Think of how you'd find it strange if your neighbour kept a bull-dog in a large goldfish bowl, but how that'd be just another thing if your neighbour also lived in a large goldfish bowl instead of a house. That's what I mean. This little example should also tell you something about where this post is going. That is, if I find $1300 insane, my neighbour clearly doesn't live in a goldfish bowl.

The University of Auckland has several associated (but unaffiliated) Facebook groups. The one I have talked about before is Overheard. However, there is also Lost and Found and, of relevance here, the Second Hand Textbook group. If there are others (course specific ones aside), I do not know of them. I didn't know about this group in my first semester (in fact, I believe, I remained unaware until late last year), which possibly would've been useful as that was the only semester where I really did buy textbooks. Let's see, there was History 103, Business 101 (two of them), Maths 150 (also two) and I could've bought one for Economics 101 as well. Second Semester First Year saw me purchase fewer books. After all, Stats 108 had a recommended text, History 106 had a supplementary former textbook and my other courses reused some of the ones from my first semester. Infosys 110 also had a textbook so I bought that. If the mentality underlying this behaviour seems strange to you, perhaps the Facebook group's introductory post will help (written Luke Revell, 9 Nov 2014):

It is up to you to find out what exact textbooks you need for each of your papers from your coursebook which will be available from the book shops in your respective facilities.

For compulsory textbooks: They're compulsory for a reason, it will be near impossible to get a good grade without them. If you want to save your money, not buy them and settle for a C, that's cool, somebody has to work at McDonald's.

For recommended text books: Attend lectures for around two weeks or so before deciding if you really need it, everyone's learning style is different, you may need it, you may not.

[...]

ALL (or at least most) text books are available at short loan in Kate Edger if you do not have the money to buy the books, or would rather spend it on piss (do not advise if you're taking a degree like med or law, if you're arts, go hard).

I didn't get the textbook for Economics because I was familiar with the material. After all, everyone knows that Stage One and Level Three overlap a lot. I have several books from my failed attempt at Scholarship Economics regarding Stage Three. Also, it was recommended, which was probably the case for Maths 150. Economics 111 (which I took last year) had a prescribed textbook, which I didn't get for much the same reasons. Also, I knew about Short Loan (now sadly gutted by its move to the General Library: shocking decision) and exploited that when I thought I needed to. The basic model for these courses was definitely supplementary. That is, you read the textbook when you needed another resource. This was despite the slides for both economics courses clearly being lifted from a textbook (this is true of 4/5 economics papers done by me... and I'm not sure about the 5th: it seems highly likely).

This supplementary model can be contrasted with a core part of course approach. Business 101 and 102 cannot be completed without the textbooks. History 103 used its one extensively for readings (and, apparently, these are now assessed but they weren't when I did it: and it seemed like much of my tutorial didn't do the readings as a matter of course). I include 103 here, even though my tutorial seemed to do well enough without reading the book, because the course was clearly built with the textbook in mind. That is, all/most weeks our tutorial content was based on the textbook + something else (generally from the coursebook). The Business courses took this further: all learning was in the textbooks (but maybe you'd get away with just the webcasts). Do you really expect anything else from a flipped classroom pedagogy?

The University of Auckland also has a third approach: no textbook whatsoever. I suggest three models here. One is similar to, say, Stats 330: absolutely nothing. Two, have a list of useful general texts (every History course I've had since 103). Three, have a specific text that you may want to look at. Stats 10x has a general one, Stats 301 has one to help with the coding. These courses don't seem to have any particular connection to textbooks in the way that they are delivered. Naturally, textbooks can be read by history students for essays and the like, but courses will generally just have a list of readings and make those individual readings available to students (possibly digitally or physically only). This often happens with courses that have textbooks too. These readings will be things like journal articles, book chapters or primary sources: whatever really.

The point being made here is that courses without textbooks are no strange thing to me. Indeed, courses with textbooks can be terribly confusing. For every History 103 or Business 101, there are five courses that have no clear relationship between the lectures, textbook (and/or other readings) and assessment. This lack of certainty is killer. Economics 221, for instance, didn't look like a course that needed the textbook. I only bought the textbook because I thought it'd be nice to have one that covered regression and to potentially fill in some holes for other topics I have encountered at university. When the first assignment rolled around, it turned out the textbook was actually pretty important because I swear one of the questions was never part of the lectures. Not ever.

Auckland's approach to textbooks is really well described by that Facebook quote. Lecturers are so aware of the wait and see approach that a course with a textbook will generally open with something like "If you're wondering about the textbook..." And by open I mean in the first lecture, not the first bloody sentence. However, I daresay a decent portion of the student body is of the mindset that textbooks are never worth it (I'm not sure the quote goes this far). To be fair, for a lot of students the concept of readings is entirely foreign and many courses seem comprehensive enough without them. This, of course, just makes the confusion worse.

As a final word, some courses make things even more troublesome. Comlaw 101 had a textbook when I did it. That was a useless book. I regret buying it. At least with Accounting 101's textbook I used it for the first few topics. Other textbooks I have actually felt the urge to consult and/or ultimately regretted not referring to more often (looking at you, Maths). This one? I read a little on the way home the day I bought it, and I don't think I looked at it again for more than five minutes. Crap resale too. The old textbook for Comlaw 101 available in several different libraries? Now that was a textbook. I spent a lot of time using that during my exam study.

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