1. 22

  2. 7

    This rang true to me both as someone who has done quite a bit of higher education, and as someone who teaches (albeit only occasionally) at a public university.

    I can’t even count the number of courses I took in college that covered only a fraction of the material covered in the textbook. And the textbooks were often dry or otherwise miserable to read. There were exceptions (as much as I loathe him as a human being, Gregory Mankiw’s economics textbooks are very well-written) but by and large, I came to view textbooks as references, not as prose to be read.

    The last couple semesters that I’ve taught I decided to lecture directly from the textbook. I read it, and highlighted key passages. Then I put the book on the overhead projector and jumped from passage to passage, discussing each in turn. For whatever it is worth, the students absolutely hated it. I don’t know whether to blame the book, the students, myself, or some combination.

    1. 2

      I am currently teaching a class about programming languages at CSU, San Bernardino. The textbook is “Programming Languages: Application and Interpretation” by Shriram Krishnamurthi. The entire book is available for free in both HTML and PDF formats. The book is written in a conversational style, and is very approachable. The book uses two custom Racket dialects (plai and plai-typed), both written specifically for the book, and code in the book is accompanied by written explanations.

      Some students have had difficulty with Racket, as they didn’t know it going in. If I do the class again, I would spend a lecture at the beginning going over enough Racket for them to understand the book, but it otherwise meets (I think) the criteria laid out here, and the class is structured such that we go through the book in order, and discuss each and every part of it. I would definitely do it this way again.

    2. 6

      Professors: Choose books your students can read and understand. If you can’t find one, write one. It’s not that hard. Then require students to read, and check whether they understand.

      I’d like to point out here that all of the best textbooks I’ve laid hands upon were written and developed in the course of teaching a class. So it seems to have been demonstrated repeatedly that you can write the textbook concurrently with teaching it and that this produces excellent results.

      1. 3

        Exactly! That’s the beginning of another great post from Downey: Free Books, Why Not?

        In 1998 I wrote a short textbook for one of my classes and released it under a free license

      2. 4

        I used to think this was primarily a problem from the university level onward. Now that I am an administrator on the junior high level I see this phenomenon has crept down even to that level. Some of these books are appallingly huge, and teachers lament that there’s almost no way to connect the content to the students.

        1. 3

          I would always regard text books as supplementary material to a course, and this was how my professors at a german university surely treated text books. The best lectures I had were by professors who did not follow a textbook chapter by chapter, but who authored their lectures independently, lecture by lecture.

          We had problem series accompagniying the lectures, and it was with these problem series, that I started consulting the text books, often reading about a topic in two or more textbooks, and often I found some topics explained better in one textbook than the other, but it could be different with the next topic (or for my fellow students).

          I would actually consider myself an avid textbook reader. But I am very picky about which book to use.

          Being German gives you the opportunity to encounter text books for various roots. There are enough German speakers so you have reading material originally written in German, you have translations of American textbooks (or you can read the original), and then there is also a tradition of “canonical” russian text books. By comparison, american textbooks were the thickest, at times I felt like I would have to read for hours until I got to the point, endless repetition of the same points would get me tired really quickly (and sometimes would let me miss new points). In comparison, German textbooks (*) were often much more succinct and to the point. In those books, I sometimes would have to read a paragraph several times, or read a chapter a second time. But in the end I knew I gained knowledge. Russian textbooks seemed to be at the other end of the spectrum. Really dense, often not giving intermediate results at all, you could spend hours on a single page - even though I wouldn’t consider them to be optimal text books (they are better references) I would still prefer them over the excessive texts.

          (*) there are other examples of such textbooks which are not german, Sakurai comes to my mind.

          PS: I studied physics, so the situation might be specific to physics, math and chemistry.