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Ten Questions to Ask When Choosing a Textbook

posted: 8.21.13 by Traci Gardner

I was recently hired to teach first-year composition and technical writing classes in the Department of English at Virginia Tech this fall. I’m completely thrilled. There are challenges to being a last-minute hire, but I am ready to take them on. The first challenge I dealt with was having only a few days to find and adopt a textbook.

Textbook adoption was never overly complicated when I taught in the past. I gathered possible textbooks when the company reps came around the building. I checked them out during the preceding term, and by the time textbook orders were due, I normally knew what I wanted.

Things are a bit different this time however. As I am writing, I’ve only known what classes I would be teaching (and that I was hired) for a little over three days. Even more of an issue, I have no current textbooks on hand. I have been relying on the scanned pages on Amazon and the details available on the publishers’ websites.

I had a rather free-form process for narrowing down textbooks before, but I have quickly realized that I needed a clear system for comparing the options. It’s a bit more difficult when you have to skip from website to website, instead of just spreading the texts across your desk and comparing them.

I came up with these ten questions that I asked as I worked through the resources I could find for each possible textbook, generally in the order that they are listed:

  1. How much does the text cost? I cannot control textbook prices, but I can be aware of them. No matter how perfect a textbook is, I can’t justify asking a student to pay $100+ for a general textbook, even if it is the most perfect book in the world. If the book is too pricey, I won’t even bother looking at it.
  2. Does the content meet my goals and approach? I focus on collaboration, for instance, so I want to see support for peer review and teamwork. If the book doesn’t fit with my pedagogical beliefs, I don’t go any further.
  3. Does the text include key content I typically teach? I rely on social media, and I like students to work with audio, video, and print. If the book doesn’t cover these areas, I will have to provide supplements, so I prefer a text that already has the content included.
  4. Are there useful models in the text? I want students to see examples of the texts that they will compose themselves. The more models, the better a text is.
  5. What do teachers and students who have used the text say?I search for feedback from others who have used the text. I want to see both how they use it and how well they think it worked for the class. In the case of a very new book, this information won’t be available.
  6. Does the look and feel of the text seem appropriate for the course? Having worked for publishers, I have high expectations for what a textbook looks like. I want a clean look, with useful graphics and easy-to-navigate text markers. If the text looks in any way cluttered or messy, I am not going to choose it.
  7. How recently was the text published? There are some classic texts, but for the classes that I am teaching, I prefer to use a relatively recent textbook. Since I do rely on computer resources, a book that is even a few years old may have laughably out-of-date information about digital resources.
  8. What supplements are available? An instructor’s manual and related resources are not a requirement, but if they are available, I like to look at them for a sense of how the authors and editors imagine teachers using the text. If the supplements cut out some of my own work, that’s always helpful too.
  9. Are online editions of the text available? Ideally, I want a book that I can download and search—and I want students to have that option as well. It’s not a deciding factor, but it might make a difference if I couldn’t decide between two options.
  10. Is the text widely available? I want to be sure that the bookstore can acquire the texts without an issue. If the book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, that’s a great sign. There’s no sense in choosing a text that will take weeks to arrive.

Using these questions, I have narrowed my choice down to three books, and my generous Macmillan rep is speeding them to my door. I am about 60% sure which one I want, but I want to see the texts before I make my final decision. It shouldn’t be hard once they finally arrive.

Now I am on to the next challenge. I need to pull a syllabus together pronto! How are you doing as you get ready for the fall term? Have any tips to share with someone heading back to the classroom? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment below or dropping by my page on Facebook or Google+.

[Photo: DSCN1271 by Artin Gal, on Flickr]

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