Classically Inclined

August 24, 2011

The trouble with required texts

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 8:45 am
Tags: , ,

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.


  1. Interesting post. I teach an intro anthro course at foundation level in the UK, which may lie between the two extremes you outline as our students take a range of courses, many of which they won’t be taking further.

    As a student some of my courses had reading packs, which were almost a halfway house between a textbook, but consisted of photocopies of book chapters and papers etc. I’ve recently put together one for my course (and blogged about it here )

    of course my reading pack will be available for 8 quid, not 100 dollars!

    Comment by Nick P — August 24, 2011 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  2. The UK system you’re describing sounds a bit Oxbridge-centric to me, in two respects.

    First, when students have access to both College libraries and, if need be, copyright deposit libraries–the Bodleian and the UL–you can make the British system you describe work pretty well. Outside places like these, course-designers need to be much more sensitive to resources that are available online, and often enough to build their courses around a single textbook of some kind.

    Second, the American system works very well for classroom teaching, where everyone in the room can be expected to have studied the same thing. The UK system you describe fits much better with an Oxford tutorial / Cambridge supervision system, where the fact that the various students have been reading very different stuff doesn’t threaten to destabilise the course in the same way.

    Comment by Chris Brooke — August 24, 2011 @ 9:40 am | Reply

    • Certainly as far as classics is concerned, a great deal of the journal material now is available online, so students still have a similar range of access to the literature. I also wonder whether my view is being coloured here by the fact that I like to work very intensively with primary sources in my teaching – obviously the issues will be different for more scientific disciplines.

      Comment by lizgloyn — August 24, 2011 @ 1:23 pm | Reply

  3. I remember having course packs as an undergraduate, mostly for survey courses in a specific area: e.g., Roman history, Augustan-age Latin literature. Personally, I found course packs a little disconcerting – I was told what to read and when to read it, but on the whole there was no narrative, no structure, and I had to trust that the professor would fill in all the context that I needed to understand where that literature fit in. Which of course meant that I also did my own background reading/research. But I wouldn’t expect that of today’s undergraduates because the degree has evolved in the past 15 years since I started college (and because I knew I wanted to go on to PhD work, so of course I wanted depth as well as breadth). In most classes, then, I have a foundational text – usually a textbook for intro (that I touch on, but base lectures and examples on other things), or a discipline-specific book for advanced classes. Plus a set of additional readings available through Blackboard or another online course management system. This semester, I’m asking students in my upper-level class to find their own articles and present them to the class – something I had to do as an undergrad in a particularly challenging Latin class.

    At any rate, yes, it would be awesome if all the classes I taught were for depth rather than breadth. I’d expect a lot more out of the students, as I am this semester with my palaeopathology course. But in reality, students don’t know anything about anthropology until college (and many don’t know much about classics either), so those intro courses need to draw them in, teach them the basics, and hope that they carry that new knowledge with them in their future careers as doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, etc. If we don’t get butts in seats, if we don’t show how anthropology (or classics, et al.) is relevant to today’s undergraduates, we’ll be out of jobs. At least in the American system.

    Comment by Kristina Killgrove (@BoneGirlPhD) — August 24, 2011 @ 10:22 am | Reply

    • I think course packs are a bit of a different animal; my experience is more of being given a reading list of relevant literature, especially key works with a star next to them, and being told to dive in. That’s the model I’m working with, where you get guided to a whole area of literature that interrelates, rather than a course pack that provides articles outside their context.

      I agree with you completely that the aims of courses in the US system are very different, and have the benefit of reaching a much wider segment of a college population and sharing what’s important about the subject with them – that’s a real strength of the system that my comments above don’t really address. This really does seem to be a US vs UK higher ed environment issue – I don’t mean to suggest that one’s better than the other, but that the two environments create very different requirements for course structure. (I’ve thought a bit about the impact of the National Curriculum and the A-level system on this too; if you’re interested, my thoughts are here.)

      Comment by lizgloyn — August 24, 2011 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

  4. I could kind of see what you’re getting at, initially, but from about the 3rd paragraph onward my view was rapidly obscured by the cloud of smug surrounding your view of what happens at UK universities (and, by implication, does not occur in US ones).

    Firstly, what you describe as “an intellectual nightmare” of taking different subjects at once was, for me, an absolutely priceless experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I absolutely loved learning about Milton, the Reformation and Byzantine art alongside my physics and maths courses, and I heartily wish that UK students had more opportunities to mix subjects like my classmates and I did. Who knows, it might keep a few more arts students from being pig-ignorant about science, and science students from knowing sweet FA about how proper research in a social-science or arts discipline is carried out.

    Of course, the US system has its drawbacks. Notably, it’s less good at preparing students for a research career in a specific discipline, and the longer US PhD reflects this. However, only a vanishingly small number of graduates actually go into research, and for the remainder, a broad, liberal-arts background (with some concentration in a single area) is far better preparation for the multiple jobs and careers they’re likely to have over their lifetimes. I’d actually argue that forcing UK students to pick a single subject — and to pick it very, very early, since choices of A-levels and even GCSEs sharply restrict options at university — is desperately shortchanging the majority of them.

    I should also mention that in my arts classes, most of the “textbooks” we were required to buy were actually secondary sources, they were supplemented by printed handouts of book chapters etc., and we were definitely expected to read beyond both of these (without help from “suggested reading” lists, either!) when researching essays etc. That’s really not any different from what you characterise as being UK-specific. Perhaps things are different at mediocre US universities (mine was pretty good), but similar things could be said (and indeed have been said, above) about mediocre UK universities.

    I don’t doubt that some people would prefer a narrow, deep education. The existence of “physics for poets” courses (and, less commonly, artsy counterparts like “philosophy of science”) in US universities even suggest that this preference is a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. But please don’t assume that a “T-shaped” education — generally broad and shallow, with depth in one area — is a universally bad thing!

    Comment by M L Harris — August 24, 2011 @ 10:24 am | Reply

    • I’m sorry you felt the tone was smug, as I certainly didn’t intend it to be. The US system provides considerable benefits to its undergraduates, including the fact that classics departments (inter alia) reach a much greater proportion of the university population, and so more students have the chance to discover the subject and realise its importance.

      I don’t think that taking different subjects is an intellectual nightmare; I think that taking different subjects in the depth that UK universities expect of students would be extremely difficult because of the range of disciplinary norms students would have to absorb.

      I agree with you that the UK system is far more set up for preparing students for specialisation and research, which has a lot to do with the UK’s National Curriculum and national standardised examinations like the GCSE and A-level (which, I feel, you don’t give enough credit for alleviating your concern about humanities students knowing nothing about science and vice versa – I’ve written a bit about this before here).

      My thoughts here were intended to partially explain the confusion over the different national approaches to set texts, not than judge the relative merits of the two systems. They both have considerable strengths, but each has its own distinctive features as a result.

      Comment by lizgloyn — August 24, 2011 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  5. Your notion of ‘UK’ seems rather English-centric. Here in Scotland, many of our students do Highers, rather than A-levels, and leave school a year earlier, so the first year or two of university is much more like the US liberal arts model with students normally taking a range of modules from different disciplines.

    Moreover, as a philosopher, I never assume that students have studied the subject before at school. (Even if they have, A level philosophy isn’t very good!) Of course, by the later years I can take for granted a certain degree of basic training, but first years – even those signed up for Philosophy degrees – may have no real background whatsoever.

    Comment by Dr Ben Saunders — August 24, 2011 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  6. I’m confused – where do the students get the primary texts that you’re assigning them in their course if you don’t make them available? There probably are not enough translations in the library or editions for every student. Do they just have to hunt and hope it works out? I too teach mostly with primary literature, which is why my students buy a considerable number of books. I also care about the translation they use since some – especially those online – are really not great at sparking interest. Your tone sounded a bit harsh to me about how Americans organize their courses, and a bit unfair. But I’m also curious about how you make your readings available to students (without violating copyright) if not through books they purchase or borrow?

    Comment by LDG — August 24, 2011 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

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