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I keep hearing my teachers (high school and college) joke about how professors make their grad students write parts of textbooks for them.

For example, one high school teacher picked up a history textbook and joked that Spielvogel (the author) just made his grad students write all 1000 pages or so.

How common is this practice? Does this even have a grain of truth?

  • 16
    Why do your high school teachers have grad students? – Kimball Feb 22 '15 at 19:52
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    Some used to be professors. – Dissenter Feb 22 '15 at 20:05
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    Exploiting their grad students might be why they are now teaching high school. – RoboKaren Feb 22 '15 at 21:02
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    @RoboKaren now, I only wish exploiting grad students were enough reason to get them fired... – Davidmh Feb 22 '15 at 21:46
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    The one case I know of where a graduate student helped write a textbook, he got his name on it as coauthor, gets a portion of the royalties, and got an academic job at a good school which cares about teaching. Not a bad outcome. – Peter Shor Feb 23 '15 at 2:39
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Amongst the number of professors I have known who wrote textbooks, I have never known this to be the case. Of course, I have only a small sample...

I have however, known professors to trial run their textbooks on the students in the appropriate class. I would consider this entirely reasonable and appropriate, as in many cases it would probably be more accurate to say that, in fact, the textbook is a condensation and evolution of the lecture notes of the course that the professor has been developing in any case.

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    often, in the preface of the textbook, the author is thanking and crediting people who helped in the preparation of the work. this includes editors and copy-editors, graphics people, and the like. also, i remember reading, the prof thanking grad students who have worked out solutions to textbook problems at the chapter ends and solved problems/examples inside the chapter body. sometimes these grad students find out that the premise to a problem is flawed or that a previous answer was mistaken. – robert bristow-johnson Feb 22 '15 at 21:20
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    Students can often point out errors or unclear passages in professors' notes before the notes become a textbook. I would expect that, if a professor plans to turn his notes into a book, he would encourage students to point out anything in the notes that could stand improvement. – Andreas Blass Feb 23 '15 at 0:18
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I can't provide you with general statistics on this, but I can relate what I have seen. In my undergrad I had a 3rd year project course where the professor had published a book that consisted of projects written by students in previous years. We were told that the projects we did would also be destined to be considered for future editions. I don't remember if credit to the student was given in the book, so let's just say that it was.

In any case, I voiced my objection to not being given a choice about it (and was shouted down by my colleagues :). The professor's response was that 'MIT does this all the time' - I think he had his PhD from MIT.

But this is the only time I have seen students being 'used' to write a book.

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    'MIT does this all the time'---certainly not in any portion that I interacted with. – jakebeal Feb 23 '15 at 17:27
  • When I was a master's student, I TAed for a course where we used a book written by a Yale professor as our main text. I entered the PhD student and met a student who did their undergrad in that Yale department.I mentioned the book and she said that she wrote the majority of the text for the book when she was an undergraduate RA. I was surprised she was not acknowledged more heavily in the text. – Dawn Jun 5 '17 at 18:15
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As a student, I studied from a great textbook, by Hewitt and Stromberg. Hewitt was the senior professor, Stromberg was his Ph.D. student. I met Stromberg years later. He did not consider that Hewitt has "used" him unfairly. On the contrary, writing this textbook was the start of his career.

  • Was Stromberg made to write it as part of his PhD, I think, would be the onus. I'm sure Stromberg wrote the textbook of his own volition and enjoyed it, seeing he has written many more. – Compass Feb 23 '15 at 16:43
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This can be very common. Even some students rise the suggestion to cooperate with another professor to author a specific book. For example when I was involved in researching and writing a book about mathematics of cryptography, I thought it'll be a good opportunity to receive the advice of my teacher and therefore to work with him completing that book. I hope you would love such thing as this is very common and many books published yearly have authored even by 20 and more persons based on their chapters. It seems that such method of publication will be very popular in near future.

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On my colleague, we got a new professor who started writing new textbook of Linear Algebra during the semester on-the-fly based on

  • previous version (written many years ago by prof. predecessor)
  • feedback from students (us) on how to better explain the topics

So from my experience, the student-professor collaboration on textbook is something from which both sides will profit.

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