Monday, March 28, 2005

Library Content Instead of a Textbook

Is there a difference in how students read if they are assigned articles from journals rather than textbook chapters? Do those students who tend to read the textbook (recognizing that many don't open it even when it is required) try to memorize what they read? Do the "serious students" who do memorize ever abandon that crutch in the search of a more fulfilling way to learn?

The last time I taught, the honors course in economic principles, I didn't use a textbook. I wish I could claim now that was to address the questions above. The reality, however, is that my motives were less noble. By and large the content of that course I can teach in my sleep. I know it inside out and have a definite view on how to teach it. I want to do it my way and not be constrained by the approach in the book. I did that in the past but had a textbook that was required so the students could have an alternative approach if they didn't like mine. That, however, didn't go over well. The students wanted me to follow the book. No way, Jose. Abandoning the requirement altogether was a more honest approach (and I did make sure the students were aware of possible textbooks if any of them wanted to consult one).

I did have a noble reason as well and this is the one I'd like to emphasize here. I think that to learn economics students should read the writing of many different economists, preferably those who are well regarded for their research or their writing for the general public. It is much better to get this diversity of voice to see where economists think in common and where they differ than to get on steady voice, no matter how good the writing. Mankiw is an excellent economist and his textbook is deservedly the market leader, but the students would be far better off if they read from a variety of sources, whether this is Krugman writing his Op-ed piece for the New York Times, Becker writing in his blog with Posner, or papers from the AEA proceedings that have been pre-chosen for their importance and because they are accessible at an intellectual level by intelligent undergraduates who don't have a prior economics background.

Moreover, and this is another thing my experimenting with teaching approach has shown me, it is far more instructive to have changes in pace in the reading and the way that is discussed afterwards in class. The textbook encourages a cookie cutter approach. At one level, that is its appeal. But at another it is a curse. It dulls the senses and discourages inquiry. If, however, one bounces from scholary articles to pieces meant for broad public consumption and from one economist who as a specific world view to another who has quite a different approach, the diversity helps to maintain a freshness in the course and keep the students engaged.

I'll admit that for certain courses, I'm thinking of some Math analysis courses I took, one at the undergrad level and another at the grad level, the textbook approach might have been appropriate. But my recollection is also that those texts were extremely spartan when it came to story telling. And its that which is my focus. In courses for which the story is an important component of what students should be reading (and I believe most courses are in this category) it is hard for me to see how the students benefit from the textbook approach. Sure it provides them with comfort, because most of their other courses had a textbook. But does it open their eyes? I don't think so.

Since textbooks still are predominant in many courses, just go into the Union bookstore at the start of the semester to get a look see, one must ask why?

Coming up with a suitable reading list and keeping that current is a lot harder than choosing a textbook. And without a textbook the instructors has to come up with alternative methods of assessment. This is yet more work for the instructor. My conclusion is that the textbook has traditionally solved the issue of wasteful duplication of effort. The textbook author(s) and those who write the ancillary materials do the work so the instructors don't have to.

Can we get the best of both possible worlds? And if so, should we view the textbook publishers as our friend or our enemy in trying to get there?

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