The arrogance and common sense of teaching from my own book

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching a course in scientific writing (with both graduate and undergraduate versions).  There were lots of decisions to be made in designing the course: what topics to cover; the blend of lecture, workshop, and assignment; how to accommodate graduate and undergraduate students in the same classroom; and more.  But one decision was easy: which book to use as a text.  There are quite a few books on the topic, but I assigned my own, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, without any hesitation*.

Well, not really without any hesitation.  Actually, I can’t help feeling mildly embarrassed by joining That Bunch Of Profs Who Assign Their Own Books.  How arrogant!  How closed-minded!  How ridden with conflict of interest!

On “arrogant”: although I can’t help feeling that, I know it’s not really so; or at least, it isn’t any more arrogant than any other teaching decision.  In every course I’ve ever taught, I’ve chosen what to cover and how to cover it.  The only difference: this time, I made those choices a few years ago while writing the book, rather than last month while assembling the syllabus or just now while writing tomorrow’s lecture notes.  Is it arrogant to think my book is the best choice for my course?  I put in the book what I put in because it was my best thinking about writing. Wouldn’t it be deeply weird if I preferred some other book now?

On “closed-minded”: it is, absolutely, possible that assigning my own book could lock me in to an approach.  It’s easy to rip up last year’s lecture notes; it’s less easy to tell the students that Chapter X or Y of my own book is wrong.  I’m not too worried about this, though.  Not because parts of my book mightn’t be wrong – I’ll be shocked if, 5 years from now, I haven’t changed my mind about some things.  Instead, I’m unworried because I’m like a broken record, even in the book, that there’s no single prescription that works for every writer in every situation.  In fact, peer reviewers of The Scientist’s Guide wanted me to be more, not less, definitive about my advice.  (I resisted.)

Finally, “conflict of interest”.  Here, I admit, there could be a good case to be made.  It’s true that I make a little bit of money each time someone buys a copy of The Scientist’s Guide.  (Thank you.)  It isn’t much – about $1.25 Canadian at the moment), but in principle at least it’s unfair for me to profit personally from my choice of which book to assign**.  So I decided early on that I needed to address the conflict.  Here’s what I’ve done (and it’s not a novel solution).  I indicated on the syllabus that my royalties associated with the course were to be donated to a charity of the students’ choice.  During our first meeting, I asked the students to nominate 3 charities, and in our second meeting I held a secret-ballot election.  The result?  I donated the princely sum of $11.25 to the local chapter of the SPCA.  That wouldn’t have been my first choice – I was pulling for either the food bank or the New Brunswick Nature Trust.  But of course that’s exactly the point: I resolved my conflict of interest by giving up any say in where the royalties went.

So: I’m unrepentant.  I’m also resolved to no longer look down my nose at others who assign their own books.  It’s possible, though that you’re still rolling your eyes; that you’re unpersuaded.  Push back, please, in the Replies!

© Stephen Heard  February 6, 2018


*^Among the others, I particularly like Josh Schimel’s Writing Science.  If you don’t like The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, or even if you do, you should check out Josh’s book.

**^The AAUP has a policy statement on this, and while it isn’t very prescriptive, it’s a useful reference.

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6 thoughts on “The arrogance and common sense of teaching from my own book

  1. Catherine Scott

    As an undergraduate in mathematics at Queen’s university it was the norm for professors to assign their own books. In some cases it was a “custom courseware” bound set of notes and in other cases it was a real book (that probably began years before as one of those bound sets of notes). Arrogance never crossed my mind when thinking about this choice. In the case of bound course notes, it was cheaper than a textbook and, more importantly, clear that the professor had put a lot of time and energy into designing the course and the topics we should cover. When it was a real (expensive) book, it implied, to me at least, that the professor was an expert in their field and it was also really fun to “hear” their voice and personality in the pages of the text. I always thought it was great. No one ever offered to donate their royalties, but I think I would have appreciated that!

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  2. Katie G

    My only problem with a professor assigning his own book was when the lectures matched the book exactly. I had a physics professor who was in the process of writing his own book, so he made it into a coursepack and assigned it to us. All of the examples in the book were the same as the ones he used in lectures, so if I didn’t understand something in lecture, I couldn’t look to the book for clarification, as I did in other classes. So as long as your examples and lectures expand on the book instead of replicating it, I don’t see this as an issue.

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  3. John Pastor

    I use my book Mathematical Ecology of Populations and Ecosystems in my mathematical ecology course. I do it for virtually all the same reasons you give for your book. There is no other textbook which covers the transition from population modelling to ecosystem modelling and there is no other textbook that presents ecological modelling in the context of dynamical systems theory. Those are the topics I am interested in and want to cover. I have never worried about my royalties from book sales to the class – they are too small to get my undies in a bundle about. So you have my endorsement, for what it is worth, and thanks for writing a very nice book about writing.

    John Pastor
    Biology, Univ. of Minnesota Duluth

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  4. Markus Eichhorn

    I certainly assign my textbook. This doesn’t trouble me either, because I wrote the module first, then wrote the book to match because no suitable alternative existed. A former colleague did the same, but made sure that although his lectures followed the conceptual structure of the book, he gradually changed all the examples. This was intended to demonstrate that the principles remained the same regardless of the specific context. Needless to say, students complained. But this just reflects the difficulty of getting students to differentiate between what we’re trying to teach them (concepts) versus what they perceive as the module content (facts).

    I’ve also had students moan about me teaching from the book. This is despite the fact that it’s available free online through our library — they can even download chunks of it. As for the royalties, I haven’t earnt a single penny yet, so there’s no moral dilemma! If I’d wanted to enrich myself then I’d be churning out erotic potboilers rather than ecology textbooks. Now there’s an idea… could I combine the two?

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