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In a technical course, our professor refused to introduce any textbook. He officially stated (included in the course syllabus) that all the course content will be discussed in the class, and cover all questions in the final exam.

I think this is a trick to bring the students to the class instead of relying on self-study.

I do not have problem with this method, as I regularly attend the class, but it would be easier to have a textbook.

My question: can a professor do this? Isn't it the essential right of students to have appropriate textbooks for each course?

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    " Isn't it the essential right of students to have appropriate textbooks for each course?" So, if there is no text book a course cannot be taught? – xLeitix Feb 23 '15 at 17:38
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    I'm under the impression that any professor that doesn't mandate a textbook knows the material well enough to teach without someone else's book guiding him, as well as wants to save you the hassle/cost of buying a book. – Compass Feb 23 '15 at 18:06
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    I've had plenty of technical courses where there really is no good, appropriate textbook. I'd much rather have no textbook than be required to purchase one that does not cover the content well. – Kathy Feb 23 '15 at 18:56
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    Just FYI, I did my entire undergraduate degree with no set textbooks and all course content covered between lectures (classes) and problem sheets (assignments). The lecturers (professors) and tutors (um... over-qualified TAs?) were still happy to recommend books for those who wanted them, but naturally any disagreement in content or notation would be resolved by the lectures, not the book. As you can probably tell by the lingo, this was in the UK, so maybe "the right to a set textbook" is one of those human rights the Americans were so keen to found a republic over and that we never got ;-) – Steve Jessop Feb 23 '15 at 19:10
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    I don't understand how this is a quality question for this site and not just a rant. What evidence of research does this question show? My understanding is that this site is intended for professional academics. Is this really a question relevant to professional academics? – KennyPeanuts Feb 23 '15 at 20:18

10 Answers 10

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There is no "right to have a textbook". Students do have a right to pick a different professor, or a different major, if they want. You should assume that the lack of a textbook for the course means that the instructor has evaluated existing texts as not appropriate.

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    "Different professor" doesn't always work (sometimes a course is only taught by one professor). You can always not take a course, but you generally can't demand that a course be taught by a different professor. – cpast Feb 23 '15 at 19:12
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    Students do not have the right to pick a different professor or demand a course be taught by a different professor. They can enroll in another subject instead. – awsoci Feb 23 '15 at 20:47
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    ... or another university. – Bob Brown Feb 24 '15 at 1:31
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    Or they can go buy a textbook on their own that isn't "sanctioned" by the course. If you know that reading a textbook is best for your learning style, then buy one. Just understand that it won't always cover everything your professor wants you to know. – David K Feb 24 '15 at 13:24
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    I can’t agree with the last sentence. One might feel that a number of available textbooks are appropriate and usable and still prefer to use one’s own organization and not to require students to buy a (probably expensive) book that in principle they won’t need. In practice some will be much more comfortable with a textbook, and the solution then is @DavidK’s. – Brian M. Scott Feb 24 '15 at 21:55
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This actually sounds good! Whenever I met professors like this, I'd look forward to his/her lectures. Most of the time, they have good confidence, experience, and mastery of the subject and can pull off very systematic lectures and discussions. I would perhaps try to see this as a very positive sign and start appreciate the professor.

As for "trick" to get students to attend. What most of us merely want is to have our teaching done in an effective manner (though "effectiveness" can be subjective, and would need to be optimized to fulfill both students and professor. But the professor is the driving force of the teaching process, as a student I'd respect the decision.) If coming to class is the most effective, then we'll make students come to class. There is no trick, for we don't get paid by how many show up in the class. We just want to see you and address your questions.

Think another way, this is a person who would rather deal with more potential questions and varied reactions in class than stuffing you a text and ask you to survive yourself. It's likely a good sign. (Or, he/she may have copied the whole text into the lecture and read each slide out loud, though I tend to think most people are good first.)

As for the text-deprived, they can always get their own text. The syllabus should have provided enough headlines for you to match with the book's contents page, allowing you to make an informed decision when buying or borrowing textbooks. Also, a search for syllabus with similar course title will also get you ample amounts of sample syllabi, most of which probably did suggest a text.

Additionally, just because there isn't an assigned textbook doesn't mean the professor will not recommend any reference book. Perhaps later into the semester you can ask if there are any desktop references or web resources he/she will recommend.

Lastly, some personal experience: good textbooks come by more often due to chance than effort. Sometimes the authors may use different terminology, have different inclusion or organization of the topics, use different software so the examples don't apply to the students, or everything is good but they haven't updated the book for 10+ years, etc. Sometimes there is just not a suitable text.

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    100% agree with your first point. Lack of a book recommendation usually speaks to the confidence of the lecturer. I'd rather have no book than be forced to purchased an overpriced one from an ethically dubious publisher. Your last point is of course dependent on the field; calculus books have stayed relevant for hundreds of years but a machine learning or software textbook may age itself to irrelevance over the course of a decade. – Conor Feb 23 '15 at 19:59
  • @Conor Aging to irrelevance over the course of a decade? How about aging to irrelevance over the course of it getting edited, printed, and shipped to the bookstore? – Doktor J Feb 25 '15 at 17:08
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No, there is no mandate.

I taught an introductory course last semester and deliberately decided to not use any textbooks at all -- only journal articles that the students could download from the library database. This was because I wanted the students to learn what my field was through the most recent, cutting-edge materials available.

My university (I believe it is a federal rule) says that I must list all the required textbook titles and prices before the beginning of the term so that the students can shop classes based on price. But there is no requirement to have textbooks and the fact that my class was listed as $0 for required texts was a bonus.

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    If listing texts and prices is a federal rule, it must be a very recent one. – aeismail Feb 23 '15 at 18:24
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    @aeismail, relatively recent; it's been in place for only a few years. See here. – Penguin_Knight Feb 23 '15 at 18:29
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    +1 for "This was because I wanted the students to learn what my field was through the most recent, cutting-edge materials available." Textbooks are usually multiple years old. Related: What subjects benefit from textbook editions? – Stephan Kolassa Feb 23 '15 at 19:44
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I can't say I see how it is required that a Professor prescribes a text. I have had lots of classes where the only material was that given in lectures.

However, if you want some additional clarification, I would email the Professor and politely inquire if there are any references he considers relevant to the course. I cannot imagine a reasonable academic would be unwilling to advise you - his notes almost certainly draw from somewhere. In my experience, the biggest problem is that the course material is often concocted from many somewheres over many years. Still, I am sure the course leader could refer you to something, even if it is a list of chapters spread over multiple books.

The thing is, if the Professor has not a set a text, this a sign that focus of the course (read assessment) will be based on the class material only. Hence you risk going down a rabbit hole working off other material, and I would try and be sure that the stuff you look up is in the scope of the lectures.

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As an extreme case, I'll mention the Moore method, developed for mathematics courses. In a class taught according to this method, students are given only basic information (definitions, etc) and are expected to derive all the standard results in the subject for themselves (either individually or collectively).

In the traditional version of this method, not only is there no assigned textbook, students are forbidden from referring to any textbooks or other resources on the subject, for the duration of the term.

This teaching method is certainly controversial (no need to post comments saying you think it sounds terrible) but I think most institutions would consider it a legitimate approach if a professor chose to adopt it.

As I've mentioned in a few recent answers, professors generally have wide latitude in making pedagogical decisions for the courses they teach, and institutions tend to avoid creating regulations that would constrain that latitude.

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    I took a class once where all answers had to be derived from a single formula (fluid mechanics). The problem that I had was that the teacher wouldn't let us take notes in his class, because 'it's all in the book' (because he wrote the book) ... so sitting there for 75 min per class, not being allowed to write anything meant I fell asleep every class. It also didn't help that I remember things by writing them down (I can often remember it was on the top of a left-hand page of my notebook, and visualize my notes) – Joe Feb 24 '15 at 14:59
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    Okay: I’ll post one saying that it can be wonderful. :-) My first topology course was taught modified Moore method, Jim Cannon’s 700-level graduate topology course at Madison too many years ago was taught straight Moore method, and they were the two most enjoyable non-seminar mathematics courses that I ever took. – Brian M. Scott Feb 24 '15 at 22:07
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    @Joe not allowing students to take notes sounds like a pretty terrible and self-absorbed professor. I would go so far as to find places online to make recommendations against taking his classes, if he can't understand the simple fact that some people learn best by writing, and that notes can help translate a cryptic bit of a textbook into an idea the student can more readily grasp. – Doktor J Feb 25 '15 at 17:18
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I don't see why should there be such a right. In most places, only things that have been presented on the lecture can be examined. If you are present at the lecture, you take your notes and study from them.

If you miss a lecture, then (first it's your problem and second) you either ask a mate to have his notes copied, or come to the professor, explain your reasons (should be something serious: illness or good family reasons, as always) and ask for references that cover the lecture you missed. The prof (in most places) need not give any, but usually they will.

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I think this varies from one type of school to another, so I'll give the picture at my school, which is a community college in California. Every course is required to have extensive curriculum information that is approved by a curriculum committee, is maintained in a database, and is publicly available. This is important for us because our students transfer to four-year schools, and four-year schools need data so they can decide what courses to accept from us. Part of the required curriculum data is a list of one or more textbooks, and there are specific requirements, e.g., at least one of the texts listed must have been published within the last 5 years. This 5-year requirement is imposed on us by our accrediting body, which is very authoritarian and loves to micromanage. One can have a list like text A or B or C. It could be A and B and C. It could be A and (B or C).

However, this is only a requirement on the info that goes into the curriculum database. If I decide to use a different text, or no text, and nobody in my department has any objections, then nobody will know or care. When we change textbooks, for example, the change always happens first, and only later, when we get around to revising the curriculum data, is it reflected there. (This may be as much as 6 years later.)

I think the basic idea, which is reasonable, is that listing texts indicates very precisely what type of course it will be, including breadth, depth, audience, and level of intellectual sophistication.

Note that there is no wide consensus on whether textbook selection falls within the sphere of academic freedom. For example, the AAUP's 1940 statement on academic freedom is silent on textbooks. In a large department, for a course that is taught by a lot of people, textbook selection is usually a formal and somewhat political process. This is partly for practical and economic reasons (e.g., not wanting students to get stuck with a book that they can't sell back), but also often for reasons of control. E.g., tenured faculty may feel that part-timers should hew closely to a certain prescribed structure.

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    When I applied to grad school, some schools wanted me to list the courses, and which books were used. It's a very objective measure of how difficult the class is, compared to just a list of topics. – Johanna Feb 23 '15 at 23:10
  • @Johanna: Maybe I am unfamiliar with the practice of using "textbooks" you have encountered, but doesn't using such a book include anything from "meticulously presenting and working through all topics from the book in their original order in class" to "roughly touching upon some similar topics and using a few of the explanations and problems presented in the book, possibly in different contexts than those given in the book"? With such a huge degree of variation, how can there be any conclusion about the difficulty of a class? – O. R. Mapper Feb 25 '15 at 13:04
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There is no such requirement that I know of, and there should not be. The professor's job is to teach the material. If they can do it without a book, great!

I taught intro to statistics as a graduate student, and I could not find a book that I really liked. They were too wordy with real life examples, and they provided formulas with little or no intuitive explanation. So, I knew that I was going to rely on my notes from intro to statistics class (which was very good and almost entirely lecture based) that I took myself as a student. Given, that my class would be entirely based on the class lecture and the notes, I felt bad requiring a $100+ book, which would hardly be used.

I "recommended" a book stating clearly that it is not required and I was not super impressed with it.

Many people thanked me for not using a book in their evaluations.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don't. If you can't find a good text, and pick a mediocre one that doesn't help, the students won't like you wasting their money. If you don't specify a text in this case, the students think they're being tricked into attending class.

To answer your question, profs are generally free to do as they choose with respect to texts. In response to your feelings on the matter, if you work out the math, in the top US private schools, you're paying about $200/lecture that you choose to miss. The pedagogical approach the profs tend to take work best if you're in class. If you don't mind missing out on that, and don't mind paying for lectures you're not attending, and can accept that you might well grade lower than your class-attending peers, then your approach to class attendance works well for you.

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    If you don’t specify a text, some students will indeed feel that they’re being forced to attend class, but I found that even more were uncomfortable without their security blanket. And to be fair, some of them really did need one: some students really don’t learn as well in the classroom as they do from books. In any case I don’t think that the per lecture figure means much: what you’re paying for is access to the instructor and the relevant facilities (e.g., library and tutoring programs), and how you weight the various components will depend on you and on the specific course. – Brian M. Scott Feb 24 '15 at 22:24
  • @BrianM.Scott One of the things I try to train students to do is to learn to operate without a security blanket, and show them they can function at a high level without one. My teaching is with upperclass engineers, so they've already been through the mill and I get the survivors. Where appropriate, I use good textbooks -- though I'm getting less and less publisher support over the years. – Scott Seidman Feb 24 '15 at 23:00
  • Note, though, that as I said, for some people it is not a security blanket: it is a more effective resource than the classroom. – Brian M. Scott Feb 24 '15 at 23:05
  • If a student more effectively learns by reading a textbook, then why not ask the professor for a recommendation of a text that one can use to supplement what is taught in the classroom, with the explanation that they learn best through reading? Any professor worth a damn should understand, and be happy to recommend a text that is compatible with their curriculum so as to best enhance the learning experience (as opposed to the student picking a text at random, that might be at odds with the professor's methodology or curriculum). – Doktor J Feb 25 '15 at 17:25
  • When not using a text, of course supporting material should be available, and liberally. Reserve Materials, Source Names, electronic material available on course websites, etc., – Scott Seidman Feb 25 '15 at 18:09
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I have taught at universities which did not require textbooks, universities which did require a textbook but did not prescribe which one, and universities which prescribed the textbook. Perhaps the concern is that instructors in future courses should be able to presume student who completed a specific course has been exposed to a specific curriculum. Ideally, this should be true independently of the university or the instructor. In practice, it is not always so.

  • There are courses for which there is no good reason for it to be so. An example in my field is the genuine liberal arts math course (as distinct from courses so labelled that are actually either remedial or courses in practical elementary topics that might be useful in daily life). – Brian M. Scott Feb 24 '15 at 22:13

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