The “Textbooks” Misnomer

The other day I explained to a student that the “cc” field in emails is a holdover from the days of typewriters, when a “carbon copy” was literally a copy made with carbon paper. Similarly, “dialing” a telephone number (and then “hanging up”) or “taping” a show. And of course the common symbol for saving a file on a computer: the 3.5 inch floppy disk, a format that has been effectively dead for more than a decade.

The word “textbook” is entering similar territory.

I’m writing this during Open Education Week, and so there’s a lot of talk right now about the high cost of textbooks for students. A few days ago, Vox ran a substantial article on the topic. (See Michelle Reed’s excellent presentation slides on Open Educational Resources for more information.) It’s an important topic.

But the more I hear people talk about textbooks, the more I keep thinking we’re talking about a lot of things other than textbooks. Or more than textbooks. Which is good. We need to talk about these things. The problem, for me, comes from our using the word “textbooks” as a catch-all term, because I worry about what it does to our perception and valuing of books.

As I’ve said before, I like books. I feel protective of books as objects and as a concept, particularly within education. I value books in an economic sense, and I wish more people did. I am concerned about the forces that make it ever more difficult for writers to make any sort of money — never mind a living — from books. Part of that comes from an “everything wants to be free!” ethos that sets a gift economy motto into a relentlessly exploitative late capitalist ecology, unleashing nothing but the worst of what the gig economy has to offer.

By teaching students to expect that books ought to be free, we are teaching them to be bad citizens. To help them become better citizens, we can’t just moan about the price of textbooks, we need to help our students (and ourselves) think critically both about the political economy of book publishing (academic and trade) and, further, about the economy of the society of which we’re all a part. If we want a gift economy, then we need to make that gift economy both functional and visible, and we must guard fiercely against exploitation and against the ideas that, like invasive plant species, wreak havoc when they escape their niche.

Beyond economics, though, and beyond the pleasure and/or knowledge contained in the text, a well-made book is a beautiful object unto itself. I’m all for teachers using open resources (I use and make them myself), but maybe those of us who do so should also bring some real books that we value into the classroom and share our love of those with our students, too.

Over the years of familiarizing myself with the various worlds of Openness (Open Source, Open Education, Open Pedagogy), I have sometimes had to grit my teeth and sit on my hands and swallow the bile creeping up my esophagus as people seemed so enthusiastically to devalue books. Teachers who advocate for Open so often speak of textbooks as an affliction. Students pick up this habit, too. I vividly remember a panel discussion in which a student said it was galling to have to buy a novel for an English class when the PDF is out there for free. It was all I could do not to stand up and scream, “Who taught this person that pirating books is a good thing! There are a thousand starving writers you have to answer for, you cretin! Also, PDFs are ugly and books are divine!”

I think, too, about the various textbooks I’ve kept from my many years of schooling, some of which are among the books I’ve owned the longest in my life. And I think of some of the truly beautiful textbooks I know — for instance, Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, a book I have significant differences of opinion with but which I nonetheless frequently recommend to people because it’s just such a beautiful object to page through.

But these days when we say “textbook” we seldom mean textbook. We mean course materials. As the Vox article makes clear, the book is not always (not usually?) the hideously expensive part of the deal — the online access codes and other ancillary materials are. Certainly, there are amazingly expensive books out there that get assigned in classes (I hear law books are hundreds of dollars, I know some economics books are, some science books, etc. Even in Literature, a relatively inexpensive field, big anthologies can be pricey). But often — and maybe even usually — when we complain about the cost of books, we’re complaining about the cost of supplemental media, password-protected websites, and other items that may include text but are certainly not books.

The term “Open Educational Resources” recognizes this. It’s a strange habit of language that has kept us from parallelism, though: What OERs oppose is not textbooks, but CERs, Closed Educational Resources.

In my Interdisciplinary Studies courses, we use an open “textbook”, but I always feel funny telling the students to read an article in “our textbook” because it’s not a textbook, it’s a website. If I teach these courses again, I’m going to change the language on the syllabus and in my everyday use, because it feels distorting, even dishonest.

Books may be an old form of tech, but they’re far from obsolete. Their virtues shouldn’t be erased by sloppy language. I know books aren’t quite a perfect technology (this becomes clearer as I get older and my eyes get worse and worse), but they’re as close to perfect as I can imagine a technology being. They also remind us to value the tactile, the physical. A world so saturated in the electronic, digital, and ephemeral needs to value its actual objects. For one thing, books last. I still have some of my better textbooks from college, but most of the computer files from my college years are, for all intents and purposes, inaccessible, trapped on old disks for which I have neither hardware nor software anymore.

floppy disks

Much as I like books, though, I’m not here to spit on the digital world. When so many fields need frequently-updated information, it makes sense to move away from textbooks toward other types of resources. Arguably, most courses shouldn’t even use textbooks in the literal sense, and I wonder if so many continue to do so out of habit more than anything. (Our teachers used textbooks, and their teachers before them, so here you go kids: a textbook!) The power of the internet has opened up tremendous possibilities for education. We can still value books in such a world, and we can probably value books better if we admit that books-as-books are less important to schooling now than they were in the past. Thus, we shouldn’t use “textbooks” as a synonym for “course materials”. I’m not usually a person to get hung up on definitions, but sometimes imprecise language and muddy concepts do real harm.

There are big problems in higher education with the pricing of course materials. (Heck, I think there are also big problems with the pricing of academic books — books that are, more often than not, just books. The forces affecting those prices are somewhat different, though, so I’ve kept them to a different discussion.) These problems don’t really raise questions about books-as-books, though. The problems raise questions about accessibility.

If course materials are expensive, and that expense is placed outside the other expenses of attending college so that it functions as a significant, and often unpredictable, fee (frequently not covered by various forms of aid), then students with more financial means will have more access to a course than students on a more severe budget. Unless we work at a school for the wealthy, we are likely to have at least a few students each term for whom a little bit of money is a really big deal if that money isn’t already accounted for in school budgeting. And when it comes to course materials, we’re sometimes talking about quite a bit more than a little bit of money. I remember students a few years ago telling me about a course for which they had to pay hundreds of dollars for an access code to a website which the professor then barely used. (I have reason to believe this information was accurate, though sometimes such stories are apocryphal or hyperbolic — one of my students once complained on an anonymous course evaluation about a $50 textbook I assigned and we supposedly never used; I knew exactly who the student was: the one I kept telling to go back to the textbook for information for our quizzes and papers. It was a big, beautiful textbook that I thought was something of a bargain for $50, but I was highly aware of the price, so made a point of integrating it deeply into the course.) The problem with that many-hundreds-of-dollars access code was at least as much with a professor who was oblivious to the burden he was passing on to his students as it was with the resource itself.

The problem with the resource itself is a problem of how labor is valued and remunerated. It can be expensive to produce good materials, and while some publishers are probably engaging in price gouging, that isn’t necessarily the case every time — they’re just stuck in a system where risks and costs are passed on to the consumer. The Open movement shifts that, trying to account for labor differently so that materials become inexpensive or even free to use. They may still be expensive to produce, but the expense is covered by something other than the selling of the materials. As much as I worry about exploitation, I know that the more careful advocates of Open are really trying to figure out how to create a gift economy that doesn’t contribute to the miseries of our general economy.

So yes, there is much to say about the costs, prices, values, and expenses of course materials — and the implications of those costs, prices, values, and expenses. There is even more to say about how we make education accessible to people other than the rich. The costs of course materials don’t exist in a problem-vacuum of their own; they are part of a system of problems, obstacles, and challenges both to higher ed and to broader society.

We have a lot to talk about, a lot to work through. We need to have conversations about college expenses, conversations about what we value, and how and why we value it. But I am less and less convinced that these are conversations about books, and I think the more we try to avoid the words “textbooks” and “books” in these conversations, the more accurate — and more effective — we will be.

Image: “El Ateneo” by Ana Carmen Foschini is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

3 thoughts on “The “Textbooks” Misnomer

  1. I absolutely love this. I find “open” to be a really useful way of thinking about new structural approaches to knowledge and to learning, but I think the foundation in textbooks, licensing, and costs is myopic (or *are* myopic, as these are sometimes positioned as separate or competing or distinct foundations). And that myopia is not just short-sighted; it also obscures larger systemic issues that hinder much of the vision that animates at least my own work in open. So thank you for this! It lays out really eloquently stuff that I have wanted to clarify for a long time. Very grateful for this contribution.

  2. Agreed. Books are not evil. Gouging students to get access to course materials is. If schools started including course materials in the cost of attendance and provided them as a part of tuition, we would see more movement to make them more affordable. And the cost of attendance would be more predictable to the students, who could also use their student aid to pay for access to the entire course, not just the part that is in the LMS.

  3. We-based resources are pretty great: they allow for instant linking to other resources, instant bibliography delving, customized selections. Very useful for course purposes.

    But for reference purposes I far prefer textbooks. The internet allows one to instantly find information, but textbooks provide structure and context for the details that it’s very easy to ignore with an online search or quick lit search. And as someone who’s been a student off an on from the age of card catalogs and paper grade reports to the present, it’s a little distressing that students now, at least in my current program, expect all the information they need about something to be embedded in the course notes and don’t have a lot of experience using reference books or building a reference library.

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