Should Minnesota colleges restrict professors' choice of textbooks?

It's been a while since I've looked at textbooks -- so much else is going on -- so I decided to mine the results of a survey I did of professors and their views on textbooks and what could be done to lower their cost to students.

Two suggestions have been raised by a state report on textbooks:

  • Adopt one text that would be standard in all introductory-level courses in that subject; and

  • Allow faculty to change textbooks only once every two years to keep the used-textbook market stable, and thus prices for such texts down.

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Faculty seem fairly split. Many support the ideas without giving much comment, or support one but not the other.

In any case control of the teaching material -- or academic freedom and personal style -- are of great importance to a number of professors who responded. Some had the message: We'll consider it. but don't force anything on us.

Here are just a few highlights from the dozens of responses:

Normandale Community College German instructor Deb Kellogg agreed with both proposals:

In my department that's really a non sequitur since we teach 5 different languages, but for other departments like English or math, it makes good sense. ... I use my textbook for at least 3 years & only change when a new edition is the only thing available.

Lake Superior College humanities instructor Jody Ondich agreed on the first point:

I do think that, for some courses, the basic information is the basic information. How one teaches is very personal, but in some fields, the difference is in the teacher, not the material.

Gustavus Adolphus College philosophy professor Lisa Heldke, however, disagreed with that for her field:

The design of a philosophy course is utterly driven by the texts. These aren't textbooks; they are primary source materials. Each of us teaches a unique intro, designed to attract different sets of students.

St. Catherine University linguistics professor Jill Jepson was blunt:

This is a ridiculous and untenable suggestion. How a professor teaches is highly individual and tied to her/his skills, academic history, and teaching style. A textbook that works wonderfully for one professor may not work at all well for another. Restricting professors' options and creativity is absolutely not the solution to this problem.

And University of Minnesota anthropology professor William O. Beeman warned:

Such mass marketing can lead to corruption.

Professor Roopali Phadke of environmental studies at Macalester College supported the first idea, but not the second:

Information changes - and we need to keep up with that.

Giving specifics, University of Minnesota communication studies professor Ascan Koerner wrote:

I revise about between 10%-50% of the course material every time I teach and sometimes that means a different text.

St. Cloud State music professor Scott Miller said the proposals would be OK only if they were for a course that was part of a department's core curriculum for majors:

Otherwise, no, not if it is a general education course for non-majors. Individual faculty are hired for their unique expertise and ability to teach, and need to be free to use the materials that make them most effective. This includes NOT using a textbook, in which case, such a policy would cause students to needlessly purchase a text.

And Southwest Minnesota State University history professor Jeffrey Kolnick, like many of the faculty surveyed, seemed to chafe at the thought of a mandate:

(A department-wide text) will limit innovation in teaching. It is a bad idea to mandate it. Faculty should talk and see if this is possible, but it should not be mandated. ... What if the book you try does not work? Would you use a failed text twice to save money on the next year of students even if it does not work? Teaching is craft work -- not an assembly line production.

Yet Dale Wolf, who teaches courses in juvenile justice and child-abuse protection at the University of Minnesota - Duluth, says the proposals don't have to constrict professors:

A careful selection of good basic text can stay in place for a number of years and be supplemented by each professor if they want a slightly different approach or emphasis in their own class, and certainly use such handouts and supplements to keep the text "current" for a longer period of time.

And University of Minnesota physics professor Marvin Marshak, along with professors from Hamline University and College of St. Benedict / St. John's University, said his department already follows one or both proposals.

Others were neutral or skeptical.

Concordia College (Moorhead) political science professor Ken Foster said the proposal to allow switching of texts every two years:

... Sounds good, but probably not worth the effort to try to implement. Education about how to keep costs down and importance of doing this is better than trying to mandate something.

And would the proposals make any difference, anyway? Mark Friedman, a faculty member in economics at both South Central College and Minnesota State University - Mankato, didn't think so:

I doubt that would have a big cost impact. Textbooks are priced in a national market, not a local market. I want to be able to select the books for my courses to ensure that they conform to the class objectives and to ensure quality. Price is part of the consideration.