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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Someone told me that there is a person in town who is proofing textbooks as a job. So far, I don’t know who that person is or what kind of textbooks are meant or even what “proofing” means in this context, but I’d like to find out for several reasons.

Textbooks as an issue -- as compared with POD as an issue -- have preoccupied me for quite a while, so now that it occurs to me to think of the two issues at the same time, the lightbulbs pop. For one thing, I just Googled <“print-on-demand”+textbooks> and got a fascinating list of citations, including the website entry below:
Some quotes:

"According to the NACS 2004 College Store Industry Financial Report, college bookstore sales of new textbooks reached $4.956 Billion. Used textbooks added another $1.751 Billion. By contrast, the combined North American sales of Amazon, Barnes&Noble (stores and website) and Borders for 2004, including music and DVD sales, was $10.83 Billion. Deduct something for those non-book items and allow for the fact that Amazon et al also sell some number of college textbooks, and you see that college bookstores with their captive audiences make up a good third of the U.S. bookstore market.

"The textbook situation is one of those problems that could easily be solved by a combination of internet publication and print-on-demand. Just imagine, professors could write their own textbooks without selling their souls to the editors at the NY trades who insist on the inclusion of needless color illustrations and bizarre formatting just to run up the price. The cream wo
uld rise to the top, when students wanted (or were required) to purchase the texts, they could be printed on demand, as a whole text or in sections, and students would see their textbook costs drop to under $20 per course. Thanks to the print on demand publishing model, an Internet textbook co-op could pay for its overhead and still pay professors royalties on par with what they would have earned on a $150 paperweight."

If one goes to the website itself,, one finds charming and essential sources for material on how to fix one’s computer and how to build oneself a timber frame house! If I were younger than forty, I’d begin both projects immediately! But since I’m “coming on for seventy” as the English say, I reckon I’ll stick to self-publishing.

Here’s my issue with textbooks. When I first began to teach in 1961, there was generally a key text that everyone used in some fields. For instance, all the high school speech & drama teachers used “The Stage and the School” and “Rehearsal.” This meant that publishers could do mass printing and keep prices low. The books were teacher-written, illustrated with photos from their work (I’m in some editions of “S&S” as a student.), and not flashily bound. In fact, “Rehearsal” was an early example of plastic comb-binding and not entirely satisfactory. Then came the big post-canonical explosion of approaches and materials in all fields.

Much of that was a reaction to poorly prepared teachers who simply started on page one and taught their way through the English books, hoping to get to the halfway point of the book at the same time as the halfway point of the course. Usually what happened was that students dropped off the map along the way, doing more and more poorly if the material was cumulative, or the teacher slowed down to reteach until they caught up, which meant that the better students muttered and sighed -- and the back end of the book rarely got taught at all. Maybe the last week the teacher would crash-teach gerunds and participles for the college-bound.

More of it came from “streaming” or “tracking” or sorting kids into what our Fifties chorus teacher in elementary grades and reading teachers in primary grades used to call “song thrushes,” “canaries” and “crows.” (One chorus teacher had a category she called “listeners.”) The idea was to group the kids according to ability, achievement and style of learning so that one teacher could use multiple methods. The fact was often that the stigmas of race, poverty, and disability nudged out other criteria. Over the years this has been abolished and then crept back in (usually with a new name) repeatedly. On a reservation this has enormous political implications. The inability to find a good solution means constantly vacillating between grouping and not-grouping, enormously expensive and hard on morale.

At its best I once had a reading comprehension series in paperback that had four tracks, but all of them focused on one paragraph. The “lowest” track concentrated on what happened and vocabulary. The “highest” track addressed symbols and cultural context. The examples that worked the best were Steinbeck. I myself learned a great deal from preparing to teach from these materials, but they disintegrated easily and were hard to manage in terms of handing out, checking in, and all that dumb stuff.

Nevertheless, one could put one’s hand on Warriner’s and know what was there. The last time I tried to teach (Cut Bank) there were simply no textbooks for English except an idiosyncratic collection of ragged paperbacks in insufficient number for the class sizes or anthologies that suited the prejudices of the one dominant English teacher. The principal (who had been an English teacher) said she would buy English texts “next year.”

Part of the reason she was putting off the acquisition was that the books have become incredibly expensive, due to the slick, bright covers and illustrations, even as the contents have deteriorated into error, politically skewed facts and omissions, and lousy editing. Since they were a horror to teach from (and had the opposite difficulties from my little paperback series -- e.g. they were huge, heavy, slippery, and the loss of one meant a $50 or more hit to the inventory), everyone went to duplicated materials. This meant that the poor copying machine fairly smoked in the morning and “monitors” were sent to make extra copies all day. At the end of the day sheets of papers strewed the floor -- impossible to re-use. Teachers had elaborate filing systems and new teachers were handicapped by the need to spend their evenings inventing these materials. (Death to trees!)

California and Texas are huge school constituencies, so most commercial textbooks are aimed at them. Since they either have or are believed to have high proportions of “Creationists” and other ante-diluvians, that’s what goes into the texts. They are not friendly to people who are not “mainstream” Americans (meaning mostly Germanic and white) and tend to skip history that’s not flattering.

A few years ago the state of Montana passed a law (pushed hard by Native Americans) requiring the teaching of “Indian history” in the state. Most people interpreted this to be anthropological discussion of artifacts plus -- if a person were bold -- a bit of material about how white people pushed the Indians aside. I don’t know of any textbook that discusses in any detail the creation and development of reservations. So -- heigh-ho! Here I am a’doin’ it!

This morning I’ll proof a book I’m calling “Reservation Blackfeet” so that Google and Amazon will pick it up from my blog. It’s not original writing by myself except for some transitions, explanations and definitions. Instead I’m including a few documents specific to the Blackfeet that are otherwise inaccessible because they are unpublished, or too academic for high school kids and teachers.

This NOT what some Native American people wanted. They had fancied a counter-equivalent to white mainstream triumphalism by the inclusion of romantic ideas about greater entitlement and the natural nobility of their bloodlines. They didn’t want to have to wrestle with such immediate and painful issues as water rights. To my mind, this is what makes a POD project valuable: for an outside party -- though sympathetic -- to attempt to provide objective materials. But I didn’t try to include water rights in this first attempt.

For now, I think my old eyes would be better off not “proofing” textbooks, but that my old mind and library might be valuable in terms of thinking about textbooks and providing materials. Fonerbooks may be a little over-optimistic about cream rising to the top, but optimism is a valuable commodity. Anyway, this attempt to provide materials should be available in a week or two from

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