In defence of the textbook

November 27, 1998

The writing of textbooks needs to be encouraged, argues Steven Kennedy

Thomas Kuhn in his classic 1962 text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , highlighted the role of textbooks in sustaining and reproducing what he calls "normal science". The American publisher Bob Worth, who launched his highly innovative textbook publishing company a few years later, made the point more directly: "In the absence of a nationally accepted syllabus, introductory textbooks define, to a great extent, what sociology or economics or botany is."

In the intervening years, textbooks have become increasingly sophisticated - a particularly impressive achievement given the huge broadening of access to higher education in the same period and the greater accessibility demanded by today's students. In the sciences particularly, textbooks have been transformed both in design and in the range of ancillary teaching and learning materials that accompany them.

But it is striking that despite the much-vaunted information revolution, these ancillaries have supplemented rather than substituted for books. No new technology yet surpasses the textbook in providing structured syllabus coverage British academics, especially in the humanities and in "old" universities, have traditionally been unenthusiastic about prescribed texts, preferring to supply a long list of relevant titles so that students can "read around" the subject.

It is clear, however, from bookshop and publisher experience and sales figures, that students are less likely to buy a range of books for a given course. The expansion of access to higher education and the requirement to take more, shorter, self-contained modular courses has bred an increasingly utilitarian attitude to book buying.

In the face of student recalcitrance - and bookshops' unwillingness to stock titles that have been less than wholeheartedly recommended - many lecturers have concluded that a recommended reading list is better regarded as a supplement to a core text than a substitute for one. And the increasing size and diminishing frequency of seminar groups has, in many cases, brought home the importance of a good textbook.

Why then, when textbooks should be coming into their own, are they in fact, in many disciplines, becoming something of an endangered species? At the heart of the problem is a mismatch of supply and demand brought about, like much else in the today's universities, as an unintended consequence of government policy. While academics as teachers are increasingly looking for good texts, the same academics as potential authors have less time to write because of increased workloads.

The research assessment exercise has put a new premium on getting published, but the exclusion of "teaching materials" in its basic rubric has been interpreted variably by different subject panels, with some disregarding even advanced textbooks when grading departments. Even in subjects whose panels have taken the more enlightened view that they should be assessing intellectual added value irrespective of how a particular book is categorised in relation to its market, many heads of department have been known to discourage textbook writing in favour of articles for journals.

In addition, the teaching quality assessment restricts its review of learning resources to assessing what materials are readily available for students and gives no credit for the development of teaching and learning resources and materials by members of departments under review.

As well as falling between the stools of various government initiatives, textbook writing has not traditionally been a high-status activity. If student demands are to be met, attitudes and policies need to change.

First, publishers need to do more to persuade academics that their interests as teachers and researchers need not conflict in the way the prevailing wisdom suggests. I believe this is feasible for several reasons:

• My experience is that, despite RAE and TQA criteria, writing textbooks - especially innovative paradigm-shaping ones - is far from a barrier to promotion and academic advancement. A successful textbook is seen more widely and more frequently by its author's peers than a journal article or scholarly monograph. I observe that writing "value adding" textbooks is much more positively correlated with early promotion to a chair than most academics imagine.

• Despite the pressures in the new world of higher education, what motivates most academics is the desire to communicate ideas and to contribute to, and make a mark on, the development of their fields of study. Students - and, with increasing division of labour between lecturing and research, often their teachers - do not have the vested interest in "old" intellectual capital of academic researchers. A textbook is an ideal medium for "selling" ideas - provided their time has come sufficiently for the ideas to be adopted on courses - to tomorrow's academics.

• Last but not least, a successful text can mean several thousand pounds a year of extra income for the author.

Second, university teachers (along with publishers) need to persuade government that the remit of higher education funding must avoid unintentionally discriminating against the provision of good teaching materials. The good news here is that there is awareness of the problem among the various agencies involved; that research and teaching assessments are likely to be simplified; and impact of the new Institute of Learning and Teaching is likely to be positive.

I welcome this THES supplement as timely in providing extra visibility for textbooks and subjecting them to the independent and searching peer review that they deserve but have generally hitherto been denied.

Steven Kennedy is director of college publishing, Macmillan Press.

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