Monday, February 22, 2010

If you don't like it, change it

The New York Times reports that the formerly respected publisher Macmillan is introducing a system that allows college instructors to change the content of the books they assign to their classes (delivered to the students as e-books), down to the sentence level, without notifying the publisher or author.

Technically, there is no review mechanism to detect whether an instructor introduces errors or adds material that the author whose name is on the cover would find unacceptable. The system is completely under the control of the individual instructor.

Were there a wiki-based approach that allowed a community of similarly situated instructors to revise and improve the text, with the author being able to accept or reject such changes, this would be a way to keep scientific texts, for example, up to date with the latest research. But under the system as Macmillan has designed it, students will soon be subjected to freshman biology texts that replace the Theory of Evolution with Intelligent Design or some such.

This is more than a bad idea (and thanks to Brian Akers for bringing it to my attention). This represents a total abdication of any duty on Macmillan’s part to control the quality of the books they publish. But this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Ever since publishers started to be acquired by conglomerates in, what, the 1980s?, MBAization of their management has turned them away from any sense of social or cultural responsibility. This is just one more (and one very disturbing) step in that process.


Unknown said...

This will also eliminate the ability of parents or students to judge the quality of a college's program by the textbooks used by the department, when they can get that information.

I think it is already a mess where a professor is allowed to assign a textbook he had written instead of the department-approved text in a beginning-level course. The students subjected to the badly written and organized textbook may never master the material necessary to comprehend the succeeding coursework.

Anonymous said...

This just creeps me out. The thought of anybody being able to substitute their words for the author but leaving the author unknowingly responsible for those changes is just wrong. If a professor thinks he knows a subject better than the textbook author and feels he needs to address "mistakes," then he has two options. One, point out the "mistakes" and teach the students how to look at them with critical eyes and come to their own conclusions. Two, get off his lazy keister and write his own textbook.

Anything else simply degrades the state of education beyond repair and teaches everybody that education as a whole is suspect. That way leads to disaster.

Shawn R.