I got into a discussion on Twitter last night with @RuthFT and @BoneGirlPhD about required texts and their role in syllabi. Ruth expressed shock that a US student might be expected to shell out $100+ for their required books for each course each semester, Kristina wondered how UK students all kept doing the same thing without a required text, and the conversation went from there.
What is very clear to me, as someone who has worked in both the UK and the US systems, is that there’s a really big culture difference here. The fact that UK students are studying a single subject and US students are studying cross a broad range makes a real difference to the expectations courses have of how students will use textbooks and secondary literature. In the US, for first year courses, you assume your students know nothing. Not a thing. You begin from a base point of nul point and build up from there – and, what do you know, there’s a whole market of textbooks that will help you teach Word Power 101 or World History 101 or Chemistry 101, and will essentially write your syllabus for you, and provide all the information and structure that your course needs, and of course your student needs that textbook (in the current edition, naturally) because that’s what the assignments and the readings are going to come from, and it essentially serves as the liferaft for the whole course.
In the UK, the assumptions are very different. We give students a list of recommended reading – proper secondary literature, journal articles, books and chapters of books – and expect them to bring the quality of their work up to speed. There’s a much smaller market for textbooks written specifically for the university market, because university lecturers here tend to assume that the best way of getting undergrads comfortable with secondary literature is to plunge them in at the deep end and see if they swim. The base-line of the A-level gives us a guarantee that this material won’t be completely unfamiliar, so a university’s job is to move the dialogue beyond that point. We give our students some direction on how to do independent research, point them in the direction of a library, and see how they do. The thing is that in the UK, we can get away with it. The A-level system means there’s a knowledge base we can take for granted. We are also teaching students the norms of reading and writing in a single field – once you have got the hang of the conventions in, for instance, Roman poetry, you’ll probably be more or less alright in Greek prose. The skills you spend building up during that first rather anxious term are going to serve you in good stead for the rest of your undergraduate degree.
Students in the US, however, aren’t building up that kind of a depth in a field. Over their college careers, they will take one course in classics/physics/geology, to fulfill whatever core requirement that needs its box ticked, and then they will never look at the subject again. I know that if I have to navigate secondary literature in different fields, it takes me quite a while to work out the conventions of (for instance) sociological research as I go – and that’s for an article that I want to read, and that should have at least one point of contact with material I’m already familiar with. For US students to be dealing with courses that essentially pull them in three (or four, or five) different disciplinary directions each term would be an absolute intellectual nightmare. When your attention is spread over very diverse fields rather than concentrated in one, suddenly the attraction of a course that’s taught to the textbook becomes very clear indeed.