Thinking about textbooks

I’m not a big fan of textbooks. Which is kind of odd, because I love both reading and learning. But textbooks themselves… they’re usually dull, boring, uninspiring, and hard to learn from.

I have had the occasional good textbook. You know, the one you wanted to keep either as a resource or because you actually enjoyed reading it? For resource ones, I’ve had decent ones on Perl and C that I’ve actually used since I originally bought them for a course. And I had a textbook, that I can’t find right now and so can’t share the name of, for a “computers and society” class that was actually a really interesting and engaging read.

One of my grad classes required a couple of the “a very short introduction” books, which are easy reads and informative. They were used as a way to help students get some of the necessary background information, as we were coming into the class with various backgrounds. At some point, I’d actually like to take the time and read more books from this series.

In one of the first grad courses I took, we were given the opportunity to review a chapter from an upcoming textbook. The goal (for extra credit) was to give feedback on what we liked/disliked as well as any errors we found. It was definitely an interesting experience to be on the ‘other side’ of textbooks for a change. It’s much different reading a textbook with a critical eye on how it was written and is it correct then when you normally read one and just expect everything to be good (even if they often aren’t).

Today, through an article at The Chronicle, I was introduced to Thanks, Textbooks on tumblr. All the posts are pictures of bizarre problems and images that have managed to get published in textbooks over the years. Such as how to do the donkey calf raise and learning probability based on the likelihood a guy will cheat on his wife. I’d call it a time waster, but there really aren’t a lot of posts yet, so it doesn’t actually take much time to make it through them all. But I did burst out laughing from a bunch of them.

As I am no longer taking classes, and rarely get the chance to TA (:(), I don’t get to interact with textbooks much anymore, besides ones I pick out myself or already have on my shelves. I am interesting the e-textbook movement, especially with the idea of building books like the iBooks which allow for interactive media to be embedded within. But, I’m not sure if making textbooks “flashier” will actually solve the larger problem of how do you get students to actually read an entire chapter.

For most of my classes, I preferred attending the lectures over reading the textbooks (although I usually did both). However, there was the odd class where the textbook ended up being way better than the class, but that was usually more a comment on the instructor’s teaching style then the textbook actually being all that great.

I do wonder how much better teachers and learners many of us would be, if we were required to spend some time writing part of a textbook (whether or not it was every published). But more for the experience of having to figure out a good way to explain information to someone else, in a setting where they can’t ask you questions to clarify what you meant, and having to really think about how you can practice the skill you are trying to teach and test if it is known. It’d probably also make many of us much more sympathetic to some of the teachers of our pasts.

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