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Textbooks and Syllabi (#1206)

Topics/tags: Rants

Faculty encounter many challenges when they design classes. One such challenge is to choose the appropriate textbook to support student learning. Some of us eschew textbooks and provide our own handouts or encourage students to pick up whichever one of a few textbooks we suggest. Some find a reliable book and use it semester after semester. Others rotate textbooks regularly. And some faculty even teach in disciplines that are not naturally amenable to textbooks.

It may not surprise you to hear that students don’t particularly like buying textbooks. There are many reasons. The cost has always been one obstacle. At times, textbook pricing feels like a racket. I know a lot of work goes into creating a good textbook, but (a) not all textbooks are good and (b) pricing often appears excessive. I know that my offspring had courses that required a few hundred dollars worth of textbooks. I realize that many textbooks get resold, but I still don’t understand why a popular, use once and discard lab manual for a language class should cost more than $100.

These days, many students seem to find electronic versions of textbooks online. It makes sense; it’s much easier to carry something that adds no physical weight to your laptop or tablet than to lug a giant book. Unfortunately, the desire for easy to carry often combines with the desire to save money, and some students end up with questionably legal PDF copies.

When I see students using a questionably legal PDF, I tend to go into rant mode. The sermon I give often goes something like this.

I chose this textbook rather than giving you a set of my notes because I firmly believe you will learn better from the text. You will also benefit from having it on your shelf; it’s an amazing reference.

Creating a textbook requires an enormous amount of work. It requires intellectual labor, time, revision, re-revision. I had the office next door to Tom Cormen’s when he was making the index for CLRS [1,2]. Tom wanted to make the index as comprehensive and as useful as possible, which meant that he manually indexed all thousand or so pages rather than relying on automatic software or giving the task to someone with less expertise than him. As I recall, it required at least a month of full-time work.

Especially as someone whose profession will involve creating virtual objects (software), you should care that people who want or need to receive compensation for their effort get that compensation. I realize that the book may be moderately expensive, but stealing is not the appropriate response to excessive costs. You could share a book with a classmate. You could rely on one of the copies in the CS library [4]. Please make the legal choice; it’s also the ethical one.

Why do I use Tom Cormen as my example, rather than, say, Henry Walker [5], my mother [6], or myself [7]? I’m not sure. Perhaps because students know CLRS and can understand the work involved.

When I drop out of rant mode, I also admit that there are times that I consider it ethical, if not strictly legal, to use an electronic textbook that you found on the Interweb. For example, you might own the physical version, which you keep on your desk, and carry the electronic version for convenience [8]. I also consider it reasonable to use an electronic version to check an alternative perspective on one or two small issues; others may not. But if you plan to use a textbook for the semester, you should either pay for it or use a library copy.

Amazingly, I intended all of the preceding to serve as the background to another rant. I could also muse or rant more about textbook choices, but my muse says that those should be tasks for the future. In any case …

The other day, I was looking at a website for an algorithms course. Here’s what the syllabus says.

There is no required textbook. Lecture notes will be posted after every lecture. However, the material is mostly going to be from the following two books, and I will give pointers to them as well.

  • (DPV) Algorithms by Dasgupta, Papadimitriou, Vazirani
  • (CLRS) Introduction to Algorithms by Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, Stein

Students don’t have to buy any of the above books. Indeed, if you Google, you may find pdf copies on the web. You are, however, not allowed to look at or refer to the solutions manuals for these books [9].

And the course is at Dartmouth, where Tom Cormen spent his career and Cliff Stein taught for many years. All I find myself doing is asking about Whiskey Dances [10,11]. More precisely,

  • Why is a faculty member suggesting that others bootleg their colleague’s book? Or any book? [Y]ou may find pdf copies on the web should be followed immediately by something like It is unethical to use those PDFs unless you have paid for legitimate copies.
  • Why would an instructor expect students to follow the third sentence of the paragraph when they’ve already told students to discard ethics in the second sentence?

I shouldn’t complain about someone else’s syllabus. I’m sure that there are endless flaws in my syllabi.

Nonetheless … Whiskey Dances? [14]

Postscript: Feel free to deride my syllabi. Feel free to Derrida-ide my syllabi [15], for that matter. The musings are also fair game. Rants, too.

[1] Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, Stein. Introduction to Algorithms. MIT Press.

[2] The first CLRS, which makes it the 2nd edition. I think. [3]

[3] The first edition was just CLR.

[4] I realize that authors make the same additional money from the questionably legal copy and the copy in the library. However, we did purchase the copy in the library, so they received some compensation.

[5] Henry has written a dozen or so textbooks.

[6] Mom wrote a few textbooks on Child Psych.

[7] I wrote one mediocre lab manual on Java. I think I got $2,000 for it.

[8] I am not alone in this perspective. The Ethicist column in The New York Times says much the same thing.

[9] Link elided to protect the [fill in the blank].

[10] The dances are the Foxtrot and the Tango, although not in that order.

[11] Someday I’ll memorize the NATO Phoenetic Alphabet [12].

[12] I just learned that at least one version of the NATO Phoenetic Alphabet suggests that Victor should be pronounced Vik Tah. The influence of Bostonians appears to range widely.

[14] I considered writing Still … Whiskey Dances?, which provides additional opportunities for puns. However, I could not fire myself up for the task. I also remain unsure whether Whiskey Dances was the appropriate alternate to WTF. Is it too obscure?

[15] Deride-a?

Version 1.0 of 2022-09-26.