Tricksy textbookses. We hates them.

Eugene Wallingford of the University of Northern Iowa writes about teaching computer science and -- yawn -- marathon running. A posting of his dating from June crystallizes my every thought on textbooks, especially those intended for CS courses. In Picking a Textbook for Fall, Wallingford writes:

I don't like textbooks.

That's what some people call a "sweeping generalization", but the exceptions are so few that I'm happy to make one.

For one thing, textbooks these days are expensive...

...[one-semester textbooks are] written specifically not to serve as a useful reference book for later...

...I want to teach my course, and more and more the books just seem to get in the way...

...By and large, these books aren't about anything.

[emphasis in the original]

Wallingford concludes by announcing that he has chosen a multimedia-oriented trade paperback for his Java-based CS1 course. For one thing, it should make the programming exercises more meaningful to the students, and for another, it will stay out of the way when he fills in the theory gaps with his own notes.

For my own courses, I either eschew textbooks entirely, or use them selectively for portions of the curriculum. And "textbook" isn't the correct term, as I tend to choose trade books from either O'Reilly or Peachpit Press. These are much less expensive -- I once inherited a database course with a $180 hardcover text that was all but useless -- and will serve as references for students who continue in the field after graduation (we're always going to lose a few to Alberta's tar sands).

Teaching sans textbook does add to the instructor's responsibilities: not only to provide sufficiently detailed lecture notes, but also to assign readings that address the topics in an alternate voice. And there is more effort required in developing a course without an accompanying text; we can assume that the writers of these tomes have expended a great deal of effort into the incremental organization of the material -- that, and writing out the answers to the odd-numbered questions.

The textbook publishing industry plays an expected role: distributing free samples of the latest glossy hectodollar opus. As of the present, I haven't been swayed by such enticements, but then with titles like Spacial Databases, Fundamentals of Database Systems, and Administrator's Guide to SQL Server 2005, they may yet bore me into submission before the next academic year.