Do’s and don’ts for teaching from your own textbook

Q: “I’m interested in some do’s and don’ts related to teaching a college course using one’s own textbook. I’m used to expanding on material and offer things “left out” of others’ texts. Using my own, I find myself ‘teaching from the text’ more than I’d like (or more than what is interesting to the students). Any advice from those of you who have dealt with this?”

 A: Rebecca Plante, PhD, Assistant Professor & Chair, Personnel Committee, Sociology Department, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY:

“I teach with two of my texts – I have to, as long as they’re in print, or it would look really bad (‘You don’t use your own books!!?’). My editor would have a hard time working with me if I refused to assign the text I wrote on sex…in my sexualities class. If I don’t believe in the text enough to adopt it, why would anyone else?

In my case, my books will be OOP soon enough, and then it will be back to the drawing board and some other author will earn their $2.50 a copy for the books I assign! I guess I see the ethical issue differently – from my end, as a person in a kind of relationship with my editors (and the publisher, ultimately). Then again, I’ve never had a student express qualms to me…who knows what they’re saying otherwise or elsewhere, when I’m not around!

I’ve found that my arguments and ideas have continued to expand past what’s in the texts. One of the books is an edited reader, so it’s easy to use because the articles are from a variety of sources. My textbook was completed in late 2005, so I definitely have continued to evolve my ideas on what’s been printed there.

I try to supplement with others’ statistics, updated studies, newer pop culture references & items; TV and film clips; refocused discussion topics and Socratic questioning for the students. I also supplement all my teaching with a very specific method of teaching critical thinking skills, so I can always reframe a discussion or presentation around students doing close reading and analysis (using these critical thinking skills). I teach sexuality and gender though, so all of the above is not just possible – it is vital.

I would have qualms about assigning my book in a peripherally- related course, requiring it, and then using only one chapter of it. (This happened to me in grad school and seemed like a patently obvious attempt to increase sales.)

I’d be happy to share with my students what I earn for each book. They are shocked to know that I get less than $2.50 for each new book and $0 for their used copies. The advance was three big fat figures. They have no idea how piddling the $$ really is, at least for my kind of textbook publishing.”

A: Kevin Patton, Ph.D., Professor of Life Science, St. Charles Community College, Cottleville, MO:

“For my text, there is no way that I can fit everything in that I’d like. So my classes give me an opportunity to expand on a topic. Also, my text (anatomy and physiology) often focuses on the mainstream theories–but I’d like to bring up some of the more interesting (and sometimes more plausible) alternate theories. Especially as a counterpoint to get the students thinking for themselves. That’s not something that would always be appropriate in a text that must be usable in a broad market. Nor could I include in my text the latest breakthrough from that week’s issue of Nature or Science. However, I can bring those newer things into my class for discussion.

My students often appreciate the fact that reading their textbook ‘sounds like I’m talking to them’ because I guess my voice carries through in both media. Although I’m somewhat amazed that they are in fact reading the book! And of course, I know the book more thoroughly than if it was someone else’s book so I can more effectively use it as a teaching tool.

Another way teaching from your own text can be useful is to bring up those examples of how you may have struggled to find a way to present a topic. That is, explaining how you solved a writing or content-choice dilemma may be a good starting point for a class discussion of that topic. For example, ‘most texts explain this concept that way but I think this other approach works better–what do you think?’ Or, ‘given limited space (and a limited budget), which view of an organ (only being able to use one view) best portrays the characteristics of this organ?’

Often my students DO find out that their teacher ‘wrote the book’ before they come to the first class. And I hear (directly or indirectly) that they think that I’m going be especially tough on them. Sometimes, they bring it up on the first day of class. In their minds, if I wrote the book I must be astoundingly brilliant and that I must demand that my students also be as brilliant and prolific as I must certainly be. It intimidates them.

Luckily, I’ve developed some skills at reassuring them early on that I’m there to help them along, not trip them up, and I expect introductory level work in an introductory level course. I patiently explain that their original assumptions are not accurate, nor is their logic sound. And enough of them have heard enough positive stuff from former students about my course that it helps balance out their fears.

The issue of ‘teaching from your own text’ came up in a recent sabbatical proposal that I submitted in which I was to address potential conflict of interest if I use my sabbatical to write a new textbook that could be potentially be used in a class I teach.

My statement cites an AAUP position that stipulates that such activity is not considered a conflict of interest, as long as adoption decisions allow for some level of departmental voice or approval.

See: AAUP. (2004). On Professors Assigning Their Own Texts to Students . Retrieved Sep 12, 2007, from American Association of University Professors: http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/comm/rep/owntexts.htm

It would have been great to have another ‘expert body’ to give witness to the ethical considerations . . . I wonder if TAA should have a published opinion on the matter that we could use in defense of the practice [See TAA’s Position Statement on the Academic Value of Textbooks: Click here].”

A: Gary Musser, Professor Emeritus, Department of Mathematics, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR:

“Although I am retired now, I taught using my mathematics for elementary teachers textbook for many editions and many years. It was clearly the best textbook available – that’s why we wrote it – so I would be remiss if I chose a lesser book. Using my textbook was NEVER a problem with my students, the department, or the administration. One way I and my students had fun was that I paid anyone who found a typographical error in the book – it was many years ago and I paid them a quarter, but now I would give them a buck. I currently make an annual contribution to my former mathematics department to allow folks teaching this course to buy special materials for in-class work.

I always felt that I humanized my book and hence students bonded more with the book, the course, and me. Since I did a lot of research for the book, I always had many interesting ideas that I could share with the class that were not in the book. Teaching from one’s book is the only way to go in my opinion.”

A: Steven E. Barkan, Department of Sociology, University of Maine, Orono, ME:

“To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest when I’ve used my texts in my own courses, I tell the students on the first day that I will be donating my total royalties from the copies they buy to my department’s gift account, which is used for student needs–travel, awards, etc.”

A: Seth Maislin, Managing Partner, Potomac Indexing (www.potomacindexing.com):

“I think calling this an ethical question is, in some ways, a hostile interpretation. This could just as easily be interpreted as a business opportunity for some individuals — usually those who are not faculty, or at least are not teachers above all other careers.

As an adjunct professor (one who teaches in academia only ‘on the side’), using my own materials is often viewed as insightful. I am fond of bringing in examples from my working life, and in fact asking students to attempt to reproduce things that I have done in my business — sometimes with better results, too, which is a joy. I always make it clear that the examples are my own, and give any history to clarify that (a) I’m not using the students as resources in my business, and/or (b) that my own work is just as suspect as anyone else’s here. This latter is a valuable point, in that it shows the lack of a right answer, and opens up discussion. Students appreciate seeing ‘the real thing,’ and I appreciate being able to use my job as a jumping-off point for education.

As an adjunct, teaching from my own materials is a wholly positive experience for everyone involved. The ‘ethics’ that Richard [Hull, TAA’s Executive Director] talks about seems to be something that affects full professors only. It might be an extension of how we think of professors in general, in our culture. In fact, I’d like to hear if these biases are more prominent in certain kinds of academic settings — universities vs. community colleges, or United States vs. abroad.”

A: Kimberly Ann Davies, Chair & Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Augusta State University, Augusta, GA:

“I told my class what I make on each book and told them that was all that I was being paid for the class since I am teaching the class as a FREE overload. Not sure how I’ll handle it in future if/when I don’t teach it as an overload but I look forward to hearing what all of you do.”