Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Textbook prices and other delights

There's a wonderful discussion over at Crooked Timber about the economics of textbooks, which is worth a read if you're in the higher ed biz. The issues are real, but the solutions are not obvious.

Over the past 40 years or so (since I entered college), textbooks have changed a lot. My textbook for introductory economics, written by Jay Wiley and published by Richard D. Irwin (now a piece of the McGraw-Hill octopus) had about a dozen graphs and maybe two dozen tables. In the mid-1960s, including graphs and tables in a text was quite expensive; you needed a graphic artist to do the graphs and special typesetting for the tables. It also meant that getting a grip on the meaning of something like the marginal product of labor in a Cobb-Douglas production function was a bit tricky.

Wiley's book came with no study guide and, of course, with no on-line study materials. For the instructor, there were no teaching materials (including no test banks; personally I don't use test banks, because I don't like the questions. They can be valuable, however, in suggesting things to write questions about). While the study guides can be sold, all the rest of that, which are now commonplace pieces of a textbook package, is usually some form of free...but it's not costless.

Some of the comments at Crooked Timber point our, correctly, that reading a textbook is different from reading other materials, and may work less well on line than ofther forms of text. I think that's true. Another comment (Marcus Pivato, comment #42) points out how difficult it is to prepare a finished textbook. Having written a study guide, I can certainly agree with that. The first draft was pretty painless, maybe 10 - 15 hours per chapter for a 16-chapter book. But the rewites-and-edit took forever, easily 25 - 30 hours per chapter. And this was for a book without any interactive features, without anything much in the way of graphics. A textbook takes exponentially more time. (I have some colleagues who have written textbooks. All of them say it was the most difficut, most time consuming, and least rewarding thing they have ever done professionally.)

Anyone who thinks it'd be easy to put together a textbook online or as a .pdf is mistaken. It's a job, it's difficult, and at all the places I've taught, it gets you relatively little credit (or money, inthe form of salary increases). You have to do it because it's something you feel is important. And then you hve to hope it makes a difference.


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