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Don't Touch My Textbook

April 6, 2012

A Texas community college district's move toward standardized and electronic textbooks has raised the hackles of faculty members, who say the process threatens academic freedom and instructor autonomy because individual sections will be limited in their ability to have individual book requirements.

Professors in the Tarrant County College District weren’t willing to speak on the record with Inside Higher Ed, citing concern about their job security, but the faculty association recently passed a resolution by a vote of 714-54 that called on administrators to scrap the standardized textbook plan. That resolution also expressed doubts about any cost savings, and said the plan reinforces the “widely held perception among faculty that their expertise, experience and professional experience” aren’t valued.

David Wells, Tarrant County’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the fear of being fired is unfounded, but that the plan to standardize texts starting in fall 2013 is sound.

Here’s how it will work. Instructors in each department will select a common text or e-text for each course that will be used across Tarrant County College’s five campuses. The hope is that textbook costs will go down and students will learn more as the college buys books in bulk, encourages cheaper options and pushes open-source and other online materials.

Departments are free to select any text from any publisher, Wells said, but the expectation is that they’ll choose books that save students money or are accessible online. The college’s board asked the college to institute the switch, and Wells said administrators are simply following orders. Administrators don't know how much money the plan will save.

The push for cheaper textbooks isn’t new, and the spat in Tarrant County frames larger debates about the use of open-source texts and the best way to increase student learning while controlling costs. Some community colleges have saved money by working with publishers to create custom books for widespread adoption. Some textbook writers have started making their materials free on the Web, and a recent Rice University effort expanded that medium. Tarrant County administrators hope that using a common textbook in every class will help push costs down, which will allow more students to buy the books and in turn perform better in the classroom.

But some professors aren’t convinced. The faculty resolution expressed agreement with the goal of reducing textbook costs, but questioned whether this was the best way to do it. We "ask that the 'common course textbook' plan be suspended and that the college faculty be allowed to develop meaningful, realistic strategies for reducing student textbook costs to be implemented by the fall semester of 2014," the resolution reads.

One faculty member, who spoke to Inside Higher Ed on the condition of anonymity, suggested some instructors might already be using books that are less expensive than the one their departments will select, thus increasing costs for some students. (Wells acknowledged that was possible.) But even more pressing, the faculty member said, is the breach of professorial discretion.

An English professor might want to teach composition a different way than her colleague, that faculty member said, while historians might disagree on whether to emphasize political history or social history in their introductory classes. To ask instructors to use a text that may not play to their strengths in the classroom does everyone a disservice, that faculty member said.

“The problem is, especially if you have an online class, you as an instructor want a book that covers the material you want covered,” the faculty member said. “If the book that you prefer to use is not being used, that can really shape what your class looks like.

“You’re being forced to teach in a way that is counter to what you believe.”

Nicole Allen, an affordable textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, said common course materials can be part of the solution to reducing costs, but cautions that it's "not a silver bullet."

"This isn’t a sufficient answer to solve the problem of textbook affordability," Allen said. "It can be an effective strategy, but it’s not in itself the only solution. I think faculty can have a much greater impact on textbook costs by considering lower-cost alternatives" such as open-source materials.

Wells mentioned previous success in selecting common textbooks in a limited number of courses at Tarrant County, and believes it’s possible to replicate those changes. But a faculty member disagreed, suggesting common texts might be appropriate in a science class but that prescribing one text in a humanities course effectively shuts out competing but equally valid opinions.

“[There’s] fear of standardization in fields where there is no real standard and a belief that there shouldn’t be one,” the faculty member said.

Wells said some opposition to the plan was to be expected, and that the tenure-granting institution in Fort Worth is doing its best to address instructor concerns.  The original goal was to implement the change this fall, but that was pushed back a year because of objections that there wasn’t enough time for departments to choose a new book.

The vice chancellor also disputed concern among faculty that their jobs were at risk if they spoke out publicly. Faculty representatives are on a council that makes governance decision with administrators, and he said individual professors are welcome to their own opinions. In fact, he said, campus presidents have held meetings in which instructors were allowed to air their views.

And in more than three decades at Tarrant County, Wells said he’s never heard of someone being dismissed for a dissenting opinion. In the end, he said, the disagreement over the textbooks is a healthy one between two groups with the same goals but different ideas about to accomplish them.

“We know the faculty at TCCD are dedicated to student success,” Wells said. “We have a disagreement over process.”

 

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