Hacking the textbook

According to U.S. PIRG, the average college student spends about $900 a year on his or her textbooks, and the price of new editions of college textbooks is rising at twice the rate of inflation.  In the time of waning physical books (e.g. recent news that Borders is turning the page to Chapter 11), textbooks represent a huge and stable market, estimated at around $10.2 billion.   As in most other sectors of the culture industry, the textbook market is increasingly oligopolistic (i.e. dominated by a few players): five companies (Thomson, McGraw-Hill, Wiley, Houghton-Mifflin, and Pearson) dominate textbook production; four wholesalers dominate college textbook distribution (including Follett and Barnes and Noble).  You don’t need an economics degree from the University of Chicago to understand what this means for the end-users of college textbooks: students represent a “captive market” for the textbook industry, subject to inelastic pricing and limited choice.

Long before tech transfer and business incubators and intellectual property flipping, the old-fashioned college textbook has been a trusty, remunerative vehicle for the commodification of knowledge within higher education.

There is, however, a strange paradox at the heart of the college textbook: textbooks – – by definition – – lay out the basic, conventional knowledge within a discipline, field, or topic; yet, this common knowledge  – – what every biologist or historian of ancient Rome or multimedia author should know – – is also the most highly profitable knowledge for publishers and booksellers.  If textbooks spin gold out of dross – – where does the surplus value come from?

First, textbooks codify and standardize knowledge.  When five million students purchase the 10th edition of “Marketing Principles for Budding Entrepreneurs,” business professors can rest assured that – – regardless of the local contexts of institution, curriculum, and professor – – these five million student have access to the common sense of a discipline and field.  Corollary: these five million students will also have access to a common pedagogy.  Every textbook implies a pedagogy – -through the way it organizes knowledge and instruction via chapters, text, pages, etc.  A literature anthology organized by “periods,” for instance, encourages teachers to “teach” literature as part of a particular narrative and implies much about the meaning of fundamental critical categories like the “author,” the “text,” genre, form, etc.

Second, textbooks make academic labor more “efficient.” Textbooks help to structure and organize syllabi.  They save professors the time and work of collecting and presenting texts, ideas, and problems.  They optimize control of knowledge, e.g. if I assign an essay from a textbook, I know that all of the students are working with the same version of that text, down to a common pagination.  Corollary: textbooks help us to make the work of teaching and learning less visible.  By using textbooks to handle tasks like organizing, representing, and controlling information, we avoid having to deal with some very basic questions, questions like: is the “periodic” structure of literary history  really the best way to teach literary texts? or even to teach “literary history”?

In short, textbooks turn dross into gold by routinizing, standardizing, and alienating (in the sense of objectifying) our pedagogical and academic labor.  Publishers create surplus value by exploiting academic labor.

If we resent publishers’ exploitation of students, and we feel a bit uneasy about oligopolies and captive markets, and we have an intuitive sense that what is common should be what is free, what can we do about textbooks?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about how digital textbooks are going to wipe out the physical textbook.  Established publishers like Macmillan are  moving aggressively into the new digital media.  And, a new bunch of startups – – like Inkling, CourseSmart, and Flatworld – – are trying to “appify” the college textbook.  States like California are launching “digital textbook initiatives” to encourage the availability and use of digital textbooks.  All of these efforts approach the textbook from a corporate and administrative perspective: the goal is to lower the cost of textbook production.  The “digital textbook” buzz operates under the two-word mantra that always seems to herald the diffusion of new technologies: cheaper and better.  (In education, neither word has proven accurate.)

The problem so far with digital textbooks is that they merely imitate the physical textbook.  If you take a look at some of the very limited number of “enhanced titles” put out by Inkling, what you’ll find is your basic, text-centered book gussied up with some animation and annotation tools.  The Inkling “books” are a good example of stalled “remediation” – – the partial overhaul of an existing form by new media forms.  Like conventional textbooks, they continue to routinize pedagogy and mystify academic labor.


Given the really fundamental and exciting ways in which new media are redefining reading, writing, and creativity, can digital textbooks do more than imitate the traditional textbook?  They can – – but only if we approach the problem of the textbook not from the profit perspective, but from the perspective of academic labor.  In other words, the death of the textbook depends not on technology, per se, but more fundamentally on rethinking pedagogy and labor.

The day grows long, the fingers grow weary.  So, a few basic guidelines to euthanizing the textbook:

1) what is common is free.  Much of the knowledge represented by textbooks is already freely available – – whether through open source sites like MerlotConnexions, and others, or simply through public domain copyright (for literature and texts published before 1923).

2) submerge textbook publication in remix culture. “Content” is readily available.  What teachers need now to remake the textbook are platforms that allow them to remix texts, ideas, problems, and any and all other elements of common knowledge.  Open source platforms like Omeka and MediaWiki are good starting points, but we need to develop better and more flexible tools for teachers and students to assemble, re-assemble, elaborate, and annotate the materials of common knowledge.  Teachers and students can and should be able to “author” their own textbooks.

3) disrupt the relationship between textbooks and pedagogy.  The new generation of “digital textbooks” repeats the pedagogical model of the old textbook: students learn content by imitating.  New media proposes that people learn by doing and creating.  Digital textbooks will remake education when they abandon the textbook as a collection of information plus apparatus (e.g. a book of essays with some discussion questions and author biography).  Thinking of the textbook as a learning environment – – a space of knowledge-making, rather than knowledge-aping – – means that teachers have to be more, not less, self-reflexive and that students learn to “own” knowledge rather than just renting it.

All of this by way of saying: I’m not using a textbook this semester.  Instead, my students and I will be creating our own textbook.



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