Long-Distance Learning

 

From intimate Mayflower Hill, Colby faculty members reach thousands of students by writing popular textbooks

By Alicia Nemiccolo MacLeay '97
Photography by Leo Pando
 

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In recent years Julie Millard, the J. Warren Merrill Professor of Chemistry, had become increasingly dissatisfied with the "watered-down" general chemistry books available for her non-majors chemistry course. "I could write a better one," she thought.

Now she's doing just that.

Millard is at work on the second draft of Adventures in Chemistry for Houghton Mifflin. After weaving basic chemistry principles into chapters like "Chemistry and the Gym" and "Chemistry and Crime," she says she now has more interesting stories to share,and not just at Colby.

Millard is one among dozens of Colby professors whose textbooks are in use in classrooms far from Mayflower Hill. Colby professors can be found explaining subjects ranging from Environmental and Natural Resource Economics (Tom Tietenberg) to Euripides' Alcestis (Hanna Roisman) to The Puzzle of Latin American Economic Development (Patrice Franko). While the majority of textbooks are intended for college or graduate students, some authors, like Robert Gastaldo, the Whipple-Coddington Professor of Geology, also have taken a turn at educating the younger set. In addition to his college-level Deciphering Earth History: A Laboratory Manual With Internet Exercises, Gastaldo worked on the fossils component of an earth-science curriculum for middle and high school students.

One of the things Millard learned from writing a mass-market textbook is that "a lot more people have a say in what ends up in print than the author." She's currently incorporating comments from reviewers (typically six to 10 professors at other colleges) and from Colby students who used her first draft this past Jan Plan. All of this feedback is considered before the book goes on the market.

It's familiar to Cal Mackenzie, Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, who has taught tens of thousands of college students how American government and politics work through his popular 700-plus-page tome, The Politics of American Government.

In 1994 Mackenzie co-wrote the textbook's first edition, intended for the half-million students nationwide who take introductory American government courses. He's working on the fourth edition.

Mackenzie's expertise in American politics and the presidency (which first attracted the attention of Random House in the mid-'80s) and his years in the classroom have been essential to his success. "I could be an effective teacher of government without ever writing a text," he said, "but I could not be an effective text author without having taught the subject in a classroom."

But, while Mackenzie's Colby teaching experience has helped, it isn't a complete guide to writing an introductory text. "Nobody writes texts [specifically] for Colby students," Mackenzie said. "There aren't enough of them to make a market. Texts are for Ohio State students, El Paso Community College students and occasional Yalies."

Mackenzie says that having such a diverse audience for one textbook makes it essential that the material is clear, accessible and stimulating to students of varying abilities and backgrounds.

Some authors work with smaller, more specialized publishing houses to keep control of their texts. "With smaller firms you get less interference," said Professor of Mathematics Fernando Gouvêa. Gouvêa has written two books that have been adopted as college-level textbooks: p-adic Numbers: An Introduction, for advanced undergraduates and graduate students, and Math Through the Ages: A Gentle History for Teachers and Others, co-written with Visiting Professor of Mathematics William Berlinghoff. Like Millard, Gouvêa was dissatisfied with available texts.

"There aren't very many interesting textbooks," said Gouvêa, who also edits a book review column for the Mathematical Association of America's Web site. "Most are the same old, so we don't review them." He blames that homogenization on publishers.

Mackenzie agrees. "The textbook industry is a dinosaur, and we should expect its extinction soon," he said. Like Gouvêa, Mackenzie believes that texts too often seek one-size-fits-all solutions and are too expensive, partly because the used-book market undermines publishers' profitability. "For all those reasons textbook publishing needs to change," he said.

Electronic communication and the Internet are the real force for change, he believes. "Why rely on a single picture of the speaker of the House when we can have a link to his complete biography and voting record?" he said. "Why try to boil down a Supreme Court opinion to a paragraph of text when the complete text and a full audio recording or oral argument are readily accessible online?"