Choosing and using textbooks

There is no such thing as a perfect textbook – unless perhaps you write one yourself. Going into my third year of teaching I’m certainly not ready to write my own textbook. I am, however, thinking hard about whether the books I’ve been using are the best ones for my classes. I’ve talked here before about the importance of selecting reasonably priced books. Beyond that, however, I want to make sure that the textbooks are helpful to the students and add value to the courses I’m teaching.

The first thing I’ve been thinking about is how I want the students to use the textbook in an intro class, and what it provides for students both in class and in the future. I’ve seen what I would categorize as three main type of books that might be selected for an introductory class.

  1. Short, simply-written, basic books. This type of book doesn’t cover all I expect students to know, but I could reasonably expect students to read it before class. This type of book provides a scaffold to which I provide more examples and in depth material, making a little bit more work upfront for me (a potential negative). A benefit to this type of book is that there’s no confusion about what book material the students need to know (all of it!). Another benefit is that the book is likely to be digestible by most of my students. A negative is that they won’t have a substantive book to refer to later in their college (or out-of-college) career.
  2. The ‘just right’ type of book that provides the level of detail and information that fits the students and the class. I can cover all or most of it, and there aren’t large sections that are above my students’ heads. A benefit to this type of book is that I have to do very little hunting for additional information or examples, but a downside is that the book may be too dense for some of my students.
  3. The complete, exhaustive coverage of the material. This is the type of book you expect students to keep and refer to in upper division classes, or perhaps their future career or in graduate school. There is no way to cover an entire reference-worthy book one class, so using a book like that means you may be only choosing sections to have them read, or telling them they are only responsible for terms or concepts covered in class. These are the types of books I still have sitting on my shelf today – but they aren’t the types of books the average student is going to be able plod through. I worry that these types of books might actually turn students off of learning.

To some degree deciding which of the above three to choose depends on the make-up of your student body and what most of them do with the information they learn in class. My intro class is taken by two different types of students: sophomore departmental majors preparing for our upper-division courses, and upperclassman taking it as an elective from other departments on campus. These students come to the class with vastly different amounts of preparation and interests. I’ve tried teaching with both version number 3 (reference book) and version 2 (“just right”). Interestingly, the book I thought would be “just right” and taught from the first time, which was the book I learned from as an undergraduate, was too much for the students at my College – so even the “just right” book is going to be different for different groups of students.

I’ve also been thinking about how I use the book in class preparation. My first year teaching it was all I could do to get through the material presented in the book, but now I have time to think about incorporating alternate examples and outside sources. Given that there’s an example for each major concept or equation, is it best to go over that particular example in class, to ensure that students fully understand that example and get the information from multiple angles? Or, if I’m more interested in imparting general understanding than particular examples perhaps it’s best to present an alternative. I’ve tried both and received conflicting feedback from students, and I’m not sure yet what leads to the most effective learning for the largest number of students.

Lastly I’ve been thinking about the utility of textbooks for upper division classes. I have been considering getting rid of textbooks altogether (once I’m comfortable with the course design and material) in my senior-level courses. I would transition to a lecture- and primary literature- based format, and have an optional textbook. This would give me a lot more freedom to cover the material I think is most important. However, many of the students in our program (even as seniors) find it difficult to get through primary literature, and focusing on discussion and interpretation of those sources might make it less likely those students learn.

Do you use textbooks in your classes? How do you choose them? How do you use them?

Collaborations, Slurs, and Being Heard

TW: Discussion of homophobic slurs

There have been plenty of times in life when I’ve had men assume that I don’t know what I’m doing or saying, and treat me accordingly. I’m mostly used to it when I go to a car shop to pick up oil, but have recently had it happen in one of the most egregious manners I’ve ever experienced within academia. Continue reading

Guest Post: Finding new definitions for career success: Turning down tenure

I turned down a permanent faculty position. Yes, I turned down tenure. The process led me to redefine what ‘success’ is for me, and hopefully sharing this unusual situation can help others broaden their definitions of success. To start, I love science. I have been sciencing long and hard for approximately 10-12 years, including a Masters, PhD, many post-docs, and nationally competitive Research Fellowships. I am a 42 year-old mother of two, working in plant biology, having graduated in 2007, and submitting my thesis while 8 months pregnant.

In the continent where I work, (not the USA) it is common for people to under-take multiple post-docs across up to 9-10 years. Given that I love research with a passion, and am prepared to sacrifice social life, food, and a decent salary, I decided to continue post-doc as long as I possibly could to ensure I have a strong CV, allowing me to win a permanent job in the city of my choice. Ambitious? Sure, but I felt (dreamt?) that if I worked hard enough, prioritized my career, published in high impact journals and won hundreds of thousand dollars of grants, I could be in the top percentage of scientists with permanent jobs. I don’t need to remind Tenure She Wrote readers, that the percentage of women is lower, and the percentage with children even lower. Continue reading

The last push to tenure

Time on the tenure track is like being in labor. It is like five or more exhilarating and painful years of labor, with the promise of a hard-earned and beautiful reward at the end. Just as every labor and birth story has its own arc, every person’s time on the tenure track will have unique plot twists and challenges, and sometimes the outcome is heart-breaking.* The process of birthing, whether a baby or a tenure package, isn’t always what we had idealized.

Acknowledging these variations, if we proceed with the analogy anyway, then there a few generalized stages of the process: early labor, active labor, pushing the baby out, and delivering the placenta. In early labor and active labor, mothers experience contractions that dilate or open the cervix, making a passage big enough for the baby. On the tenure track, those contractions are the periods of intense busyness (and often stress) that we periodically experience in the years leading up to tenure. Each contraction, hopefully, results in some product — a paper or grant submitted or revised, a student defended, a new course taught — that moves us closer to our goal of tenure. Continue reading


Like many of you, we at TSW were appalled by the response that Dr. Alice Huang gave to the postdoc in the June 1st Ask Alice Science Careers advice column. Science has since removed the column* and posted an apology. Many people have written excellent responses to the debacle, and in some cases have offered a different perspective on what the postdoc should have done**, so see below for the initial list we have compiled.  Also be sure to check out the #dontaskalice hashtag on twitter, as well as the #CrapScienceCareersAdvice hashtag and it’s more positive twin, #GoodScienceCareersAdvice. Started by @mwilsonsayres, both are very useful- one as satire and one as serious advice. Continue reading

Guest Post: When it’s not just students who plagiarize

All course instructors have academic integrity statements on their syllabi. Unfortunately, dealing with students who have plagiarized is one of the worst parts of teaching. But it’s not just students (usually undergraduates but occasionally graduates) who can—and do—plagiarize. Two colleagues plagiarized my work. One of them plagiarized twice. Although these events happened a number of years ago, I still have knots in my stomach just thinking about it. Continue reading

Use your Academic an Professional Societies as Advocacy Machines

In which @Scitrigrrl begs for your help to generate a list of questions about advocacy to ask candidates seeking election for Professional-society positions.

[Disclaimer: I’m focusing on Society for Neuroscience here because that is the organization with elections going on right now. But this is broadly true for all of our major academic professional societies.]

Advocacy is one of the main missions of almost all Academic and Professional societies – not just the sciences  (American Historical Association has News and Advocacy as it’s first link on the menu bar; Modern Language Association has advocacy right there under Resources; Association for Psychological Science includes it front and center in its missions statement…I could go on). Right now when we think of advocacy we think about lobbying for support from congress, but we should be thinking more broadly than that. Workforce issues, public policies, public education about research and research ethics, supporting and yes, advocating for underrepresented groups in the field, I could go on.

Continue reading