Makeovers for the guides to essential reading

January 20, 2006

Booklists are at the heart of the academic experience. In the first of a four-part series, Harriet Swain investigates how they have changed in the new environment of a wired world and working students

Booklists have always been at the academic core of the relationship between lecturer and student. The best, having been honed over many years, offer a key to a lecturer's personality, work and enthusiasms and are generous attempts to share what he or she has found particularly illuminating from a lifetime's research. The worst, neglected for decades, stop with an academic's own key work - their length a reflection of ego rather than enthusiasm.

"It is tempting sometimes for academics to use the length of their reading lists as a measure of their expertise," says Brian Chalkley, director of the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. "They are a public demonstration of how well-versed staff are in their subject."

And if booklists reveal plenty about the academics who set them, how they are used can tell lecturers a lot about their students. Some will read few books but think about them deeply, others will skim through most of the list; yet others will ignore it completely and find their own texts - or not.

It was the Quality Assurance Agency that first helped to expose where this relationship was not working - lecturers who had relied on blowing the dust off the same old lists for each fresh intake of students had to spring-clean their recommendations.

But it was the digital revolution that really threw the relationship into disarray. Students no longer put up with faint photocopies of a list and scribbled changes copied from the board. Most expect - and receive - booklists online, with up-to-date amendments following fast on the publication of new texts. Nor are they so willing to run to the library to grab the only copy of a key volume or wait until it is returned. Many will start their research with Google and expect booklists to include links that take them straight to the recommended text.

Although this is still relatively rare - many lecturers lack IT expertise and the number of digitised texts is still low - it could soon become the norm thanks to a flurry of activity in digital publishing last year, including the controversial decision by Google Print for Libraries to scan the content of university libraries without seeking permission for copyright and Amazon's announcement that it would allow readers to buy digital chapters and entire books online.

Such developments are likely to shake up the relationship between universities and booksellers and publishers. Rita Ricketts, head of public affairs for the publisher Blackwells, says the company is already contemplating a radical rethink of its bookshops. She suggests that they will become cultural centres, where students can go not only to read books and download texts but also to listen to music and hang out with their friends. She insists that books are still what matter and that printed works may even benefit from the explosion in other sources of information.

"There is no evidence to show that if people look things up on the internet they won't then go and look at the real book," she says. But she adds that academics, schools and booksellers will need to work together to foster students' interaction with books in the web era.

So much for how students access recommended texts. What about the texts themselves? These too are changing, thanks in part to the internet. In some cases, the web's effect is direct - textbooks are expected to provide supplementary web material and booklists carry website URLs as standard.

Jonathan Wolff, professor of philosophy at University College London and secretary of the British Philosophical Association, warns of the temptation to include some texts on booklists simply because they are available online. "There is a feeling that some people may be distorting what they are teaching by doing only things they can link to," he says.

There are also more subtle effects. Students now have so many sources of information available to them that most lecturers do not expect them to read as many books as their predecessors did. And they don't. Dominic Knight, managing director of the publisher Palgrave Macmillan, says that although UK student numbers have risen, the market for textbooks has remained static. This is part of a wider trend. A poll by the Spanish Federation of Publishers last November found that Spanish university students bought an average of 1.9 books a year and that 42 per cent bought none at all.

Chalkley suggests that UK students' reluctance to buy books is partly because the web tempts them to try to get by with simply reading highlights, summaries and extracts rather than whole academic volumes.

"Busy students, especially those with part-time jobs, may see it as a way of producing an essay that looks up to date without being grounded in the scholarly literature."

It is not just the web that is changing student reading habits. It is also the rise of new student lifestyles - and new sorts of students. Knight says textbooks have had to adjust to the fact that students now come from many different backgrounds and through different entry routes. "The pedagogy of textbooks has had to get better," he says. He has noted that books on study skills have shot up the recent Palgrave Macmillan bestseller lists.

The rise in the number of students working part-time has also had an effect. Chalkley says that the increase in term-time paid work among students means "one has to be a bit realistic about the extent to which they can engage with the literature".

Jon Tonge, chair of the Political Studies Association, refers to a growing tendency to "try to wing it". He says he has been shocked to find second and third-year students citing texts set for A-level students. "Nowadays, a booklist is compiled more in hope than in expectation," he says.

His explanation is not only lack of time but lack of money. Tonge argues that lecturers cannot expect students to buy books in the way they once did and that library provision is more crucial than ever if students are not to turn up to seminars with the excuse that they could not read a text because no library copies were available. Like many academics now, he is reluctant to recommend a book costing more than £20.

But Knight argues that this view is misguided. He says students' annual spending on books amounts to about £150 million and that libraries cannot be expected to fill the gap if this stops, especially as many have already been reducing the number of research monographs they take in favour of undergraduate texts.

Knight wants lecturers to give students more guidance on what they really need to read, on what books are worth buying, and to see more help in getting the books on booklists to students, libraries and university bookshops. A recent study by The Publishers Association finds that 80 per cent of students are likely to buy a book given a strong recommendation from a tutor. He accuses lecturers of treating the struggle to find books as all part of the discipline. In fact, he argues, what students want is clarity.

Wolff says that this is nothing new: students have always wanted a bit more guidance on how to study, it is just that computerisation has made this guidance easier to deliver. Take the slim volume published by the UCL philosophy department comprising a reading list for the entire course, including a complete list of everything students can expect to find in examination questions. Last year, for the first time, it published this on the web, and it will update it every year.

Wolff says he would expect a student writing a third-year dissertation to read between five and ten books and 20 papers, although he suspects that many students read fewer than seven. Generally, undergraduates would be expected to read three articles or half a book a week, and graduates two chapters of a book a day or two articles a week. But Wolff stresses that this will vary hugely from tutor to tutor and student to student.

Booklists themselves are just as varied. What appears on a list, its length, format and eccentricities, depends entirely on the individuals compiling it, and what happens to have landed on their desks, or in their inboxes, in the previous weeks. The difference now, says Knight, is that compiling a booklist is a lot more complicated than it once was. Hence his call for better communication between everyone involved.

Certainly, academics must put more work into the booklist relationship than they once did. An encyclopaedic knowledge of the top books in their subject is no longer enough. They also need to keep up to date with copyright laws, advancements in technology and agreements affecting access to the web by university libraries, not to mention new websites. All this, of course, is likely to demand many more hours trawling through Google than sitting down with a book.

Next week, the psychology booklist

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