Tag Archives: books

Sunday reading: Editorial on high textbook prices

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette has this article today by Karen Francisco which is an excellent, if troubling, survey of the problem of rising textbook costs and the things people are doing to offset those costs. I was interviewed by Ms. Francisco last week for this article, and I am happy to say that unlike in my previous newspaper interview experience, she got my comments exactly right (and asked if my name and position could appear in the interview). Here’s what I had to say, although you should read the whole thing:

Robert Talbert, an associate professor of mathematics and computing science at Indiana’s Franklin College, is one of several hundred U.S. college faculty members who have signed on to PIRG’s online pledge to help control textbook costs. He’s passionate about the issue.

“Many of my students are either first-generation college students, students from middle- to lower-income families, or both. They are struggling to afford college as it is – often having to work off campus, which then affects their class performance – and it really pains me to see textbook companies charge more and more for a less and less useful product,” he said in an e-mail.

Talbert said he’s bothered not just by the cost, but by the quality of the books, which he said are often “poorly written, chaotically organized and full of so many irrelevant graphical elements and sidebars” that the information students need is difficult to find. If he can avoid it, Talbert doesn’t require a textbook or directs his students to an inexpensive one.

“In my abstract algebra course last fall, I used no textbook but rather homemade course notes and a handful of helpful Web sites,” he wrote.

Of course this is all old news to Casting Out Nines readers!

Later, after discussing Rice University’s adoption of an open source textbook for their introductory statistics class, she went on to quote me about the potential for open source textbooks:

“Imagine having a calculus textbook, the contributors to which are some of the best calculus professors in practice today, and which includes not only text material but also links to Web sites, embedded video, interactive applets for visual/kinesthetic learners, and user-contributed problem sets – for free,” he wrote.

“There’s a stigma against such things now, just as there is a continuing stigma against Wikipedia in academia (because academicians have a hard time accepting the legitimacy of something that is not peer-reviewed), but I think once students start learning and getting engaged with material through these things, that stigma will go away quickly,” he wrote.

Actually I think the stigma isn’t so much against Wikipedia itself as it is the notion of putting Wikipedia on the same level of authority as, say, a peer-reviewed monograph or a published encyclopedia. But a lot of academic types let their stigma start there and pretty soon the entire concept of an open-source informational source is stigmatized. That’s just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Again, go read the whole article, especially for the stories from students about what they are made to buy at a high price that can be had elsewhere for next to nothing, comparatively. It’s shocking.

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Filed under Education, Teaching, Textbook-free, Textbooks, Web 2.0

Lifetime reading list for geeks

Here’s a list of 50 Books Every Geek Should Read from InsideTech. I thought this list might go well with my request for basic reading in educational technology from a few days ago, and in fact there could probably be some overlap.

Of the books on the list, I’ve read:

For math geeks, and perhaps for general geeks, I’d add G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. For higher education geeks, add on The Shadow University by Kors and Silverglate.

I think Longitude is going to go in my personal queue next.

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Filed under books, Geekhood, Math, Technology

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russian novelist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature, died yesterday at the age of 89.

I have for a long time considered Solzhenitsyn to be one of my intellectual heroes. His novels moved me deeply, particularly One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which at a slim 200 pages packs a more devastating  punch than most novels three times its length and has a place on my list of 10 Books that Changed My Life. His novel The First Circle is another favorite for its brutal clarity about life as an intellectual political prisoner in Stalinist Russia. All of his novels lead me into a deep appreciation of the freedoms which I too often take for granted today.

He combined his powerful writing with an authentic faith and moral courage which enabled him not only to stand up to the soul-crushing effects of political imprisonment but also to look Western culture in the eye and criticize, in an unflinching but somehow non-adversarial way, our loss of moral direction. Here’s an excerpt from his commencement speech at Harvard in 1978 which says it well:

We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. […]

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.

All of us who work in education would do well to think about that.

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Filed under Academic freedom, books, Free speech, Life in academia

Outlines for textbook affordability

Via Vlorbik, here’s a letter to the editor (PDF) of the AMS Notices by Seymour Lipschutz extolling the virtues of Schaum’s Outlines as course texts and giving some suggestions for those choosing textbooks.

I agree with Lipschutz’ feelings about Schaum’s Outlines, up to a point. I’m a big fan of Schaum’s Outlines; they cost less than $20 and are loaded with precise, succint summaries of course material and worked-out problems. I
survived college physics and advanced calculus largely because of my now-battered Schaum’s Outlines for those subjects. I ordered the latest edition of the differential equations Outlines as I was considering using it for my DE course next semester, and I liked what I saw very much; and the publisher sent me a gratis copy of the beginning calculus Outlines and it was very good as well. I will be suggesting these outlines strongly to the students in those courses.

But to use them as the textbook for a course? I’m a little skeptical.  They are, after all, outlines. I think that students in the lower-level courses like calculus, and to some extent mid-level courses like DE’s or linear algebra, would benefit from having a more fully-featured textbook.

On the other hand, a carefully-written set of course notes made up by the professor, augmented by Schaum’s Outlines and hand-picked resources from the web, make up a pretty good blueprint for a cheap, portable, and effective package of course materials that I think students would get a lot more out of than a single monolithic textbook that they can’t carry around easily and never read.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Textbook-free, Textbooks