Monday, August 13, 2012

Textbooks


As usual, Frances Woolley has focused on an important issue in an interesting manner. Namely, the issue of textbooks and their ever exploding prices. She discusses economics texts and the ever expanding number of editions at ever increasing prices with little if any new material or insight.

Now she touches on an even more significant issue, how teaching has changed. In the 60s I was a user of chalk, and a blackboard. Large moveable boards, large chalk pieces, and lectures which were well rehearsed like that of a good, if not great, Shakespeare theatre. I always admired several professors, Dick Dudley in Math and Harry Van Trees in Engineering, who would just step up to the board and commence lecturing, chalk in hand, creating art quality presentations. In Dudley’s case sans text, just one Theorem, Definition, Proof after another, it was like an opera, it flower in an errorless manner and you sat transfixed recording each and every detail, hand and brain coordinating, knowing full well that soon you would spend hours going over each page, seeing his brilliance just flow as one would see the notes on paper written by Mozart.

But alas many of those days are gone. Enter PowerPoint, the bane of many. Faculty just walk in with pre-prepared PowerPoint slide, coordinated with the large exorbitantly priced text, filled with endless pictures of no known value but justifying the costs. The faculty no longer prepares, they just pop the presentation in and “read” the teleprompter. The students then type stuff into their iPads or surf the web and wait till the exam. Does anyone do problem sets anymore?

Last year I decided to re-take Organic Chemistry after some 50 years duration. Did it change? Yes, the text by Smith is highly readable and the question and answer book is quite useful. It helped me better understand details which I had long forgotten, if ever I had learned them in the first place. The book was much better now than 50 years ago. Yet it was like a 3rd Grade math work book, problem after problem, so that the student was drilled. Did it help memorizing the 150 reactions, not really? Also it was at a Community College and the Instructor, good but obviously overworked, missed, in my opinion, the opportunity to convey the √©lan of the material.  The text and work book were, at market, in excess of $300! That was more than my tuition! Was the book worth that amount, clearly the author did a massive job, and remuneration was well worth the effort. But really, that is a lot of money.

Now, to examine macro-economics. Macroeconomics is fundamentally two things; first, it is understanding the tautological collection of numbers we measure as an economy, namely GDP and its components, and the players who try to effect changes. Second, and most importantly, it is a part of political science, not really a science but a catch phrase for how people view the economy and what we hold near and dear. Conservatives versus Liberals, Individualists versus Progressives. They are belief sets, and each side attempts to use equations to explain them, nay, to justify their positions. Yet the justification falls all too short. Just look at Romer and her unemployment projections. Her projections never even got close to reality. She espoused a political theory which seems at best to have failed and at worst may cause the collapse of our society. Yet we all too often fail to have students understand the philosophy, the mindset, and the anthropological underpinnings of macroeconomics.

Thus the challenge of macroeconomics is unlike many others. Consider Skinner versus Wood, the latter a self-proclaimed Marxist, each have their view of the development of a political world, and in turn an economic one as well. How do we deal with these world views ab initio, rather than go into a Samuelson, not understanding that much of what he espouses is as political in viewpoint as any politician. That the “truth” he espouses is itself a point of view. My first economics text was I believe a second edition of Samuelson. It was very light on math and just as light on his descriptive curves. However when I read his classic text, Foundations of Economic Analysis, I was at first impressed. Yet after a while I caught on to the trick. His economic models were created to fit the solutions to differential equations models we had done for real systems in Electrical Engineering. Thus unlike the engineer who modeled reality and then analyzed it, the economist often finds a model which he can analyze and fits reality to that model.

Now to books. A good course in macroeconomics should consist of a selection of readings, many of them from classics and many culled from the many existing texts out there on the used market. If we need something new then it is never too early for the student to access the primary sources, yes the journals or even better the draft writings which are still works in progress. After all that is what we do later in our careers. The professor should list out the topics and suggested readings and the student should find out how to access them.

Now why does this not happen. Money. Plain and simple. At a 15% sales commission, then for each $200 book the Professor gets $30. Sell 1,000, get $30,000, sell 5,000, and get $150,000. It pays for that house on the Vineyard, that trip to Bali. It also is a massive “takings” from the students, and placing the economy further in debt. It is not cost effective; it is punitive, and nonproductive. Part of any macroeconomics course should be the understanding of this takings process.

Now frankly it gets even worse in say physics and math. Calculus has not changed in almost 300 some years. I can use a text from 100 years ago and do as well as if I used a recent version. Same with physics, same with Latin, French. Etc.

Now Frances bemoans the whole process saying:

Professors generally assign readings by chapter, for example, "Week 2: chapter 4, consumer theory." But chapter 3 in the current edition might be chapter 2 or chapter 4 in the old edition. Professors often require students to complete end-of-chapter problems, and problem numbering or wording may differ across editions. When a professor says "Study Figure 3.4 carefully, I'll be asking a question about it in the final exam", the student with an older edition of the text, where Figure 3.4 is labelled 2.4, may end up studying the wrong thing. 

It's just like software upgrades - an old version of Microsoft Word might do everything the user needs, but if Microsoft introduces a new .docx file format, old versions are rendered useless, because they are unable to read files generated by other users.

The whole process disgusts me. New editions destroy value, by making old editions worth less. They hurt students, who face high prices for texts. Any pedagogical benefit from having a slightly more updated text is more than offset by the increase in the number of students who decide to save money by reading Wikipedia instead of a textbook. Ultimately, it is a colossal waste of resources - all the effort that goes into producing a new edition that differs little from the old one; all of the perfectly good older textbooks that end in the recycling bin.
But what is the alternative? One possibility is banning new editions - or limiting publishers to one every six years.

I never assigned Chapters. I assigned topics, and that was in the Dark Ages before on-line systems. Use the Library, it worked. But now it is even easier. The ease and ability to gain access should change the way we teach, it should free us from text books totally. Assigning topics, not chapters, allowing students to learn the topics via what is available, it is essential. When I studied under Dudley, I amassed a library of texts on analysis; I even wrote my first book to know the material better. Perhaps a new path, sans texts, is not only possible but better.

Yet there is another option regarding books, namely the Internet and electronic versions. In my first two books published by Wiley, I spent months perfecting the drafts, the galleys, and the final proofs, so that almost 75% of my time was on process, and correcting introduced errors. In the past several years I have posted 10 draft books, all of which I modify as I discuss them with others. I have one on Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes which download over 100 per week and well over 5,000 per year. Yes it is free, yes it is not peer reviewed, yes I change it from time to time, and yes I get comments. But somehow there is great consumption, knowing it is draft, knowing it may contain errors, and knowing it is subject to change. Why then cannot academics do the same? It appears that it is less ego and more greed, getting students to pay outlandish prices so that they can enrich their pockets. This is a prime example of what is wrong with the Academy. Unless managed it will result in a bubble like collapse.