Academic Texts

It seems to me…

There has been so much recent talk of progress in the areas of curriculum innovation and textbook revision that few people outside the field of teaching understand how bad most of our elementary school materials still are.” ~ Jonathan Kozol.

I occasionally have considered how to classify my personal preferences concerning writing style. It is doubtful if many (or if today – any) authors give any thought as to whether their formal style of writing is considered classical (emphasizing form and restraint along with the intellectual and universal), romantic (with emphasis on the individual, shifting perspective, nature, idealistic, exaggeration), realism (with its emphasis on the factual, objective, and attention to detail), or any of the myriad other literary methods of classifications. I hope my ramblings, as is true for my thoughts, are free of such artificial restraints that attempt to categorize all of life’s details into a somewhat structured organization.

Any attempt to so simply classify most written work can at best be only minimally successful as few willingly oblige to be so easily categorized under a single style. Even an attempt to organize all the material in a library using the now archaic Dewey Decimal System was less than satisfactory as most of the contents on the library shelves easily could be just as correctly located in a number of shelf locations.

This is not to minimalize what might represent a life’s labor by some professor of literature as I also attempt to organize everything in some orderly manner. Every year there is a new overpriced anthology that students enrolled in English Literature 101 are required to purchase but out of which students actually will read less than a quarter of the contents (and remember even less). The student then has a text which they in all probability never will look at again nor be able to re-sell the following semester as it will have been replaced by a newer text.

It isn’t fair to single out literature as this same scenario basically is true for most other subject areas. Has Introduction to Calculus changed sufficiently in the last fifty years to necessitate replacing last semester’s text? Some subject material; e.g., Political Science; does require frequent updates to remain current (or at least no less than a year out of date). The half-life of material in some science or engineering disciplines is only 2-4 years. Still, most subject material does not change that rapidly.

Undergraduate professors do not typically write texts used by their students. Not until graduate school does one meet the authors of those texts. It is not unusual in graduate level classes to have the professor distribute lecture notes instead of a text, which actually are the drafts for that professor’s next text. Ph.D. candidates frequently contribute material for those texts or are cited as co-authors for published papers or conference presentations then cited in the text.

But if undergraduate professors are not the authors of the texts they use, why are they so willing to replace the old with a new text that requires them to become familiar with a slightly different arrangement of material and prepare lecture notes based on the new text? They haven’t any alternative. Companies selling textbooks realize there isn’t any profit in used texts being resold by students. Publishers only profit from the sale of original texts. When sales decline below a minimum margin, the text will be withdrawn from sale requiring replacement the following semester.

Professors do not receive any remuneration based on textbook sales (unless it is their own text) and frequently are not even aware of a text’s cost to the student until they see it stacked in the college bookstore prior to the start of the semester. While it always is tempting to use an updated version of a previous text, most professors attempt to select the text they believe to be the best for their students enrolled in their classes.

Teaching methods are the general principles, pedagogy, and management strategies used for classroom instruction. After perusing the latest crop of texts, it is obvious that essentially all texts fail to incorporate the latest learning recommendations from education researchers: vary teaching method, divide material into short segments, question then present…. Authors continue to write and professors continue to lecture the way they were taught when they were students. Though updates in teaching/learning methodologies have long been advocated, there are very few classes where those recommendations actually have been adopted.

It is not totally appropriate for me to be overly critical as while I attempted to incorporate the latest technology available into my lectures, I basically also adhered to traditional presentation styles. It is much easier to be the “sage on the stage” rather than the “guide on the side”. Similar to most other professors, I routinely put in 60-80 hour weeks. Non-academics rarely appreciate there is much more to “teaching” than standing in front of a class 9-12 hours a week. Admittedly, I enjoyed the time spent with students or never would have done it for substantially less financially than I previously had earned in private industry. Still, I compromised knowing I was less effective teaching than I believed to what students were entitled.

I guess my writing style, as in teaching, is try to do the best you can, given what you have, while accepting there always remains much to improve.

That’s what I think, what about you?

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Academia, Books, Classical, Dewey Decimal System, Education, English, Library, Professor, Realism, Romantic, Style, Teach, Textbook, Writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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