The Textbook Wars From An Author's Perspective

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Note to Non-Geologists

This particular essay describes the experience of writing an earth-science text and obviously contains a lot of discussion specific to the earth sciences. However, I suspect the process is not that different in other fields as well. Feel free to substitute appropriate analogies from your own field.


Most of the complaints commonly leveled against textbooks result from forces generated by the textbook market itself. Textbooks will not be rigorous and interesting to read until reviewers and adopters demand it, and that demand can only come through sales. Unfortunately, although many educators say they want certain changes in textbooks, they often react negatively when confronted with textbooks that actually offer those changes. The responses of textbook reviewers and adopters, when it comes to the actual decisions that shape textbooks in the marketplace, are overwhelmingly in favor of traditional textbooks, and often reinforce many of the practices that cause the greatest dissatisfaction with textbooks. The rising cost of textbooks is largely due to the used book market. Before used textbooks were widely sold, publishers could distribute the development costs of textbooks over several years; now those costs must be recouped in the first semester.


I found the process of publishing a textbook (Dutch, Moran and Monroe, 1998) extremely informative. Not only did I learn a great deal about geology in writing the book, but I also learned a lot about publishing and the textbook market. Considering everything I have heard and read about the quality of science education, I thought it might be useful to provide an author's perspective on why textbooks are the way they are. My experience is best described as ten years of unremitting pressure to dumb down the text, and most of it came, sadly, not from corporate "suits" looking at the bottom line, but from people who style themselves educators. 

Although there are many commentaries in this and other educational journals about the problems of textbooks, there seem to be very few narratives by textbook authors describing their experiences. Most of those deal with the business aspects of publishing and the author-publisher interaction (Brock, 1985; Lewis, 1989, 1993; Henry, 2002). The closest parallel I have found to this paper is Tyson-Bernstein (1988). He found himself torn by two conflicting forces: technical reviewers who demanded high precision and more detail, and low-end users who wanted simplicity and less detail. Many of his experiences mirror mine. 

This project began late in 1986 when my colleague Joe Moran, who has extensive publishing experience, suggested collaborating on an earth-science text. We signed with a publisher, but after endless cycles of new editors and market analyses, we finally asked to be released from our contract. In 1992 I contacted another publisher and revived the project. One of the original co-authors bowed out, and another came aboard. In effect, the project was actually two publishing ventures joined end-to-end, and the text finally came out in 1998. The first chapter drafts were written on an Apple II clone with 128 kilobytes of RAM, the last on a PC running Windows 95. The project lasted long enough to see the return of Halley's Comet, a comet crash into Jupiter, the first naked-eye supernova since Johannes Kepler, and the collapse of apartheid and the Soviet Union. 

The book received uniformly favorable comments and very little criticism, but because of production delays, it came out at the midpoint of the normal publishing cycle for earth science texts and did not go to a second edition. Although I am professionally dissatisfied with many of the experiences I relate in this paper, I attribute the sales outcome of the text to timing rather than any specific editorial decisions. 

The Mechanics Of Publishing

The first lesson I learned was about economics. According to the publishers we talked with, it costs on the order of a quarter of a million dollars to get a textbook into production. About ten per cent of textbooks printed are sent as instructor or sample copies. Quality black-and-white line art, such as characterized classic textbooks like Holmes (1965), is no longer acceptable for introductory texts. Everything nowadays in introductory textbooks is full color, although, to be fair, color printing technology has advanced so rapidly and become so standard that color printing does not have too serious an impact on production costs. 

The real reason textbook costs are soaring is this: once upon a time publishers had several years to recover their production costs. Now they have to recover costs in the first semester. After the first semester, used textbooks account for almost all sales. Indeed, used textbooks account for a substantial fraction of initial sales, because textbook buyers scavenge and resell complimentary copies. Publishers who once had several years to turn a profit now must make up their costs in one semester. The fixed costs of publishing, once spread out over several years, are now borne wholly by the first semester's buyers. This may be one reason why textbook prices have outpaced inflation. 

The used-textbook trade is a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Individuals acting in their own short-term interests have damaged their environment (in this case economically) but individuals acting separately have little power to reverse the process. 

One of my pet peeves about contemporary textbooks is that the art is irritatingly busy. I flatly refuse to use products of one well-known geoscience illustrator because they are so overly elaborate they obscure rather than clarify concepts. In my view, line art is better than color, solid light colors are preferable to dark, and shading and texturing are virtually never helpful. Unfortunately, many of my own attempts to provide better illustrations were rebuffed because it was simpler and cheaper to re-use existing stock art rather than draw new illustrations. 

One sobering discovery I made was that published illustrations in the professional literature are not necessarily available for reuse. A good-faith attempt to contact the last known copyright owner is usually sufficient, but I had to forego one spectacular illustration because the owner could not be located. 

The consolidation of textbook publishers has changed the textbook market in recent years. There are fewer outlets for textbooks, although some publishers publish several books simultaneously. This internal competition cuts into authors' royalties but does not harm, and may increase, the publisher's overall sales. It seems to be a pattern in many industries that a period of consolidation is followed by fissioning of special-purpose subsidiaries to capture niche markets. Thus, the market is sensitive enough that a real demand for rigorous textbooks would trigger a response. Publishers are more concerned about the bottom line than the specific content of their rextbooks and would just as cheerfully publish textbooks loaded with calculus if they sold. It is convenient to blame publishers for the sameness of textbooks, but they are not the real cause. We educators are. 

What Is Earth Science?

In most curricula, Earth Science comprises geology, oceanography, meteorology and perhaps astronomy. (The astronomy component is to earth science what a discussion of earth as a planet is to an astronomy course: a brief overview to provide context) We were repeatedly criticized by reviewers for emphasizing physical geology, and many said this was their complaint about all earth science texts. 

On the other hand, what is the alternative? For example, how many distinct substances make up the ocean? One: sea water. How many make up the atmosphere? A handful: air, water droplets, ice crystals, dust, aerosols. How many make up the solid earth? Thousands, of which perhaps fifty rocks and minerals are common enough to require discussion at even an introductory level. The solid earth is intrinsically far more complex than the oceans and atmosphere, with a much greater variety of phenomena, and unlike the oceans and atmosphere, it preserves a detailed historical record. There is no way a properly-written earth science text can avoid being at least half geology. It's earth science and 99 per cent of the volume of all earth systems is the solid earth. A course that attempts to spend four weeks each on geology, meteorology, oceanography and astronomy will do such a superficial job on geology as to be worse than useless. To those who think earth science texts overemphasize geology, too bad. That's how the world is, literally. 

What We Say We Want In Textbooks ... And What We Actually Want

There is sometimes a vast difference between what we say we want and what we actually choose, and this is true of textbooks as well. Here are some things I thought geoscientists wanted in textbooks until chapter reviewers set me straight. 

Livelier, Less Stuffy Writing 

As much as we claim to want this, just try to write a textbook that uses contractions, personal pronouns, or colloquialisms. There is a difference between effective spoken and written language, but some reviewers get annoyed at any informality at all. Despite all that has been written in current style manuals, the passive voice still seems to be preferred by many reviewers. And many reviewers do not want words of one syllable when polysyllabic sesquipedalian equivalents are available for pedagogical utilization. We have stodgy, dull writing because too many of us still think it sounds more "professional."

Science as it is Actually Practiced 

When I began writing the introductory chapter, I thought a good approach might be to begin by describing the day-to-day practice of geoscience. Who are geoscientists? How many are women or minorities? What do they do? What are some of the problems they face in the field? The response from reviewers was overwhelming: B-o-r-i-n-g! (a direct quote.) So I opened with a blood-and-thunder account of the Chicxulub impact instead (one adopter told me that opening swayed his decision to adopt the text). 

Certainly any discussion of science as it actually is practiced would have to include a good deal of history. A historical approach shows science in action by describing how important problems were actually solved, and is often also a good heuristic device. A historical approach deals with the broad picture first and adds refinements later. Often, the most logical way to approach a complex subject is the way it was actually approached historically. Unfortunately, history is one of the first things reviewers want to cut. 


Just don't show science in any historical context, or take sides in any real controversy. I shudder to think what would happen to any textbook that treated our society's approach to risk as the voodoo science it actually is, or flatly assaulted scientific creationism. 

In the chapter on the stars, I had a box on environmental problems in astronomy, specifically light and electromagnetic pollution. Stray light and radio signals can reduce a hundred million dollar observatory to complete ineffectiveness, and are a tremendous problem for astronomers (IDA, 2004). Problems with light pollution are reported in virtually every issue of Sky and Telescope. In recent years, light pollution has begun gaining the attention of the general public as well as astronomers. To my knowledge, we had (and still have) the only earth-science text to address this problem. One reviewer complained that he didn't think this was an important issue. Students who don't want to become informed are bad enough; what can we say about educators who don't want to become informed? 

One piece of good news is that the war on political correctness has turned into a rout. Anything that remotely looks like political correctness is likely to make even supporters of politically correct causes cringe. I know, because despite my own conservative leanings, I was accused of being Politically Correct a couple of times. In particular, a piece on women in astronomy struck several reviewers as looking like a bow to feminism. Actually, I wrote that section at the very start of the project, before Political Correctness had even emerged as an issue. I felt (and still do) that astronomy is one area where women have made an astonishing number of world-class discoveries and more people need to know about it. (The book was so long in gestation that the Political Correctness controversy mostly came and went before publication.) 

A Process Approach

Initially, I treated metamorphism and deformation in a single chapter. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why reviewers had a problem with this arrangement, but they didn't merely grumble; they went completely ballistic. One said flatly that he could not understand why I treated metamorphism and deformation together in the same chapter. Apparently the fact that they often accompany each other during orogenies wasn't sufficient. I also treated the entire coal series from peat to graphite in a single discussion, causing a reviewer to object vehemently that lignite and bituminous coal didn't belong there because they are sedimentary, not metamorphic. 

Less Memorization 

In my physical geology class, I spend the first two thirds of the course following the rock cycle. I describe minerals and igneous rocks (appearance of new material in the crust), then discuss weathering and fluvial erosion, sedimentary rocks, other surface processes, then finally metamorphism and deformation. One reason for that approach is that it starts with the surface, where things are familiar, then deals with the earth's interior after students have developed a bit of geological intuition. Another reason is that it avoids having a long string of successive labs on hand specimens, but instead intersperses them with other subjects.

Our text was originally organized along those lines, but so many reviewers complained that we reverted to the traditional organization of a chapter devoted solely to rocks. So instead of spreading out the memorization of rocks and minerals in small modules, our reviewers insisted on a single, memorization-intensive chapter where rocks were presented out of their geologic context. 

Fewer Terms 

Just don't omit my favorites. Here are quotes from reviewers who criticized other parts of the text for being too detailed or too heavy on terminology. Bear in mind that the text is an introductory earth-science text for non-majors. 

The Review Process

One point not widely understood by non-authors is how limited is the creative control authors have over many aspects of textbooks. Authors are free to develop creative ways of explaining topics, but high order structural issues like chapter order and organization are largely driven by editors, based on feedback from reviewers. An author who adamantly refuses to go along is likely to find himself or herself without a publisher. 

The review process in textbooks is different from journal articles. Authors have a bit more freedom to judge the merits of reviewer's comments when writing a textbook. The best reviewers caught errors, although my own single most embarrassing error slipped past every reviewer and I only caught it when I gave in to some nagging doubts and double checked it myself. Good reviewers also corrected misinterpretations, provided additional useful details and constructive suggestions, and caught mechanical problems. Mediocre reviewers often got hung up on proofreading issues, failing to realize that metric conversions, chapter references and spelling would be cleaned up in the normal course of editing. Flagging errors of that sort is useful, but often these reviewers' only comments on a draft might be that metric and English units were occasionally inconsistent. Bad reviewers sometimes had nothing constructive to offer. One reviewer said repeatedly that our writing was poor, then admitted that he didn't know exactly what good writing would be, but our work didn't qualify. I told my editor "I may not know what good writing is, but I know what good reviewing is, and this is not it." 

The time lag in writing a textbook is such that authors may have to anticipate how events will turn out. For example, when we started, the Lake Nyos, Cameroon disaster (Holloway, 2000) was recent history. I described the gases as being magmatic in origin and drew fire from reviewers who wondered why I didn't also discuss the possibility that the gases came from decaying organic matter in the lake. I ignored them, partly to keep the text manageable in length but mostly because I thought the organic origin hypothesis was unsound on its face and would not stand the test of time. It didn't.

Although geoscientists rightly pride themselves on being among the most interdisciplinary of scientists, the reviewers' quotes above show that some geoscientists are as prone to tunnel vision as anyone else. And though I yield to nobody in my disdain for the publish-or-perish system, it appears from review comments that the quality of scholarship at institutions that require no research at all is often just plain abysmal. Some reviewers had clearly not read a journal in years, and if they did read current literature, they got it wrong. One reviewer told me he was under the impression that most geoscientists no longer believed convection drove plate tectonics. That was news to me, and I suspect to most geophysicists as well. Frequently reviewers objected to the inclusion of current published research findings because they either had never heard of them, or because the findings conflicted with what the reviewer was already teaching. The tragedy is that these reviewers are teaching unbalanced, obsolete, or simply erroneous geoscience to their students. Worse yet, as reviewers they are obstructing the publication of texts that reflect the current state of geoscience. 

Even conscientious reviewers can object to seeing newly published research. Byerkerk-Kauffman (1993) criticized a film for presenting an inaccurate portrayal of freeze-thaw weathering, only to have the authors (Burk and Robbins, 1994) point out that the portrayal was based directly on recently published research. Byerkerk-Kauffman (1994) had the grace and professionalism to admit her error.

Some battles are just not worth fighting. In my reading of accounts of the St. Pierre disaster of 1902, I found references to survivors other than the two cited in most texts. These survivors' stories either did not become widely known or they were not in the city proper, although they were still injured (Garesche, 1902, p. 34-36, 44). In my original draft I referred to a "small number" of survivors on land. Reviewers objected so strongly to any change in the traditional telling that it was obvious prospective adopters would respond the same way. Not one reviewer considered the possibility I had researched the topic more thoroughly than they had. Setting the record straight would have required a long digression completely out of proportion to the importance of the topic. I changed the text to a "couple" of survivors on land, which allows the traditionalists to go on thinking "two" while conveying an element of doubt. 

What Should Textbooks Contain?

Science teaching is often criticized for proliferating terms or presenting concepts by fiat instead of explaining how science actually works. To me, there is only one adequate response: present ideas only with adequate explanation, and include nothing that cannot be fully and properly explained. I suggest that textbooks should include facts or concepts only if they meet one of the following criteria: 

Some Topics That Should be There (But Often Aren't)

Modern Soil Classification

Soil classification is probably the most complex classification problem in science. The systems now in use are an intellectual triumph, and an excellent illustration of how and why scientists classify things. Pedocals and pedalfers, still found in some texts, are terms that have been obsolete for fifty years (Brevik, 2000, 2002) although they have some heuristic value as a broad distinction between humid and dry-climate soils. Soils are not glamorous. Students have every right to ignore them provided they are willing to go without eating. 

Modern Fault Terminology 

For every symmetrical graben like the Owens Valley there is a half-graben like the Newark Basin. Continents do not break apart symmetrically. We should explain listric and detachment faults. As for blind thrusts, two words: Northridge 1994. Impact This has been a significant process on earth even in the Phanerozoic, and ubiquitous on other bodies in the Solar System. A good explanation of impact processes is essential. 

Folds, Foliation and Asymmetry of Minor Folds

This is how we unravel the histories of even badly mangled rocks. It's amazing to map a complex area and watch it make sense. Shouldn't we show students what we can do? Omitting this topic is especially inexcusable considering how many texts still include details of fold nomenclature that were never of much scientific use. I'd rather have students understand the relationship between foliation and axial surface than be able to define "recumbent." 


A direct attack on pseudoscience is probably outside the scope of most texts. I favor a "head 'em off at the pass" approach. If I'm aware of a pseudoscientific argument, I counter it in passing. I note that radioactive isotopes do not change in decay rate even under extreme conditions. I point out that the geologic time scale was established long before Darwin. I talk about the Channeled Scablands and point out that real catastrophes leave absolutely unmistakable evidence. Some explicit discussion of pseudoscience is desirable. I have had students who found it a revelation that there even was such a thing as pseudoscience. 


Evolution is founded at least as much in geology as biology. We should showcase the role geology had in the discovery of evolution. A frontal attack on creationism would probably turn many students (and textbook adopters) off, but it's possible to address a lot of creationist arguments just in passing. Warning: authors need to read actual creationist literature carefully so as to address what creationists are really saying and not merely what we think they're saying. Asking "why can't evolution just be God's way of creating life?" is on an exact par with trying to discuss geophysics using junior high-school math.

Landscape Evolution 

If the earth has a history, so do its landscapes. Some textbooks cling to outdated classical evolution schemes, others skirt the subject entirely. A good description of current concepts of landscape evolution should be in every text. Too many texts discuss bed load and channel geometry, without relating them to anything else, but omit stream piracy or antecedent drainage. This is an example of a traditional topic that is often omitted when in fact it should be retained. 

What Should Textbooks Omit?

I reject emphatically the commonplace notion that textbooks are too long. If a Tom Clancy or John Grisham potboiler can run 700 pages, a 500-page textbook is hardly unreasonable. Science texts have been accused of offering as much vocabulary as some foreign language texts. Speaking as a student of several languages, that is probably less an indictment of science for demanding too much than of foreign language teaching for demanding too little. Many geoscience terms are merely commonplace terms with somewhat specialized usage. Just what part of "flood plain", "lava flow" or "red giant star" is unclear?

In these days of competitiveness and downsizing, there is no Constitutional right to be on the fast track. I do not think learning, and remembering, a few thousand terms over four years is too high a price to pay for access to a better career. There is always less room at the top than there are people who want to be there, and I think our society has a perfect right to reserve the best careers for people who demonstrate a serious commitment to personal excellence. Nevertheless, to make room for the new, we either have to expand texts or throw things out, and here are my criteria for things to be thrown out. 

Any term without a clear and complete explanation

If we're not going to explain why a term is significant, we should not bother using it. If we're not going to explain why rocks are classified the way they are, why bother with rock names at all? If we don't explain clearly why we classify rocks as igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic, as opposed to gray, brown, and white, or big, medium and little, why mention the terms at all? 

Any geologic fact without supporting evidence

How do we know there were ice ages? How do we know plate tectonics works? How do we know about things that happened in the distant past, or processes with very slow rates, or extremely rare processes? Students are often quite happy to ignore these issues ("just tell me what I need to know for the exam"), but doing so only reinforces the idea that science is just some variety of magic. Science is not magic, and to counter the magical nature of popular thinking, we must explain how science actually knows things. 

Some Specific Topics to Omit 

Stress and Strain

I'll start with a heresy from my own field. If students are not going to do geologically serious calculations, they really do not need to know the terms "stress" and "strain." I would keep "shear" because it is useful in discussing faulting and there is no equivalent everyday term. 

Arcane Structural Terms

Elaborate fold description systems were an intellectual dead end. I cannot see the slightest reason that non-specialists need to know about upright, asymmetrical, overturned and recumbent folds, especially when they often don't learn about decollement, or about fold-foliation relationships, which are genuinely useful in the field.

Obsolete Mineralogy

The only luster distinction that really counts is that between metallic and non-metallic. Metallic luster occurs in metals or small band-gap semiconductors, and relates directly to the atomic structure of the material (Nassau, 2001). Terms like waxy, resinous, glassy and so on are trivial and self-explanatory. The same holds for most fracture terms. Mention conchoidal fracture when you describe obsidian, then forget it. Apart from hematite and pyrite, how often is a streak test informative? 

Traditional but Uninformative Terms 

Pahoehoe and aa have only marginal geological significance. Glacial terms like horn, arete and tarn are minimally informative, as opposed to moraines and drumlins, which not only indicate the former presence of a glacier but convey information about its history and movement as well. 

Redundant Terms 

Superposition and cross-cutting relationships are variations on a single logical principle (younger phenomena overprint older ones) and don't require two terms, although reviewers reacted violently when I treated them as a single concept. Unconformity, disconformity, nonconformity and paraconformity are my nominees for the most useless proliferation of terms for the sheer sake of proliferating terms. I vote to use unconformity as the generic term for any gap in the geologic record and omit the rest from introductory texts. If it really matters what kind of hiatus is meant, it should be obvious from context. 

Correct but Pedantic Terms 

Correct terminology is important, but only if it improves understanding. There is no such thing as centrifugal force, but explaining why we should speak of centripetal force results only in a long digression that confuses students, results in no improvement in understanding, and usually results in lost time and poorer understanding. I have been heartened to see a number of recent meteorology and oceanography texts opt for common sense by ignoring the pedants and simply using the term "centrifugal," but a chapter reviewer once lambasted a colleague of mine for doing so on a different text project. 

It is appropriate here to mention the Journal's own sin in this regard. The former feature Misconceptions - A Column About Errors in Geoscience Textbooks ran from 1996 to 2002 without, in my estimation, ever exposing a significant error or contibuting materially to improving textbook quality. The vast majority of the "errors" it discussed were pedagogically justified simplifications. 

Finally, pedantry begets innumeracy. No unit conversion should be more precise than the original quantity. The correct conversion of "about 150 feet" is 50 meters, not 45.7 meters. 

Subsidies for Bad Study Habits

Boxes, perspectives, factoids, chapter prologues and all the other junk that clutters texts serve only to foster the illusion that learning is entertainment. A student should be able to summarize a chapter on his or her own, or cover a paragraph with an index card and summarize it. I seriously doubt that chapter summaries and review questions do the slightest good. Good students don't need them and poor students don't use them effectively. Many years ago I put all my exam questions on reserve in the library, and more recently, on-line. My purpose was to level the playing field and negate the perceived (not real) advantage of old exams. The performance of the weaker students has gone down since then. A glossary is rarely necessary if students learn the terms as they encounter them. About a quarter of a typical textbook is devoted to extras that merely encourage poor study habits. 

In our text we had chapters, then we had prologues and chapter summaries so students didn't have to read the chapters, then we had a Study Guide so students didn't have to read the text at all, and we had an Instructor's Manual so instructors didn't have to read the text. In my darker moments, I see the day coming when we dispense with texts entirely and simply put covers on old telephone books, which the students will return at the end of the semester with shrink-wrap intact for maximum resale value. 

Do Them Right or Not at All 

Certain topics are often introduced in texts for completeness or to satisfy reviewers but then short-changed for reasons of brevity. Often the result is an isolated term or concept with no apparent purpose except to show up on the exam. 

Andesite and Diorite 

These rocks can be all but indistinguishable from basalt and gabbro in hand specimen and are often hard to tell apart in thin section. Their exact definition is chemical and their significance is chemical; they have been modified by passing through continental crust. If we want them in a text, then we need enough petrochemistry to explain why it is important to tell them from basalt and gabbro. 


Include formulas only if they will be used to derive a result. Otherwise forget them. Darcy's Law seems to be the most commonly abused formula in this regard. It seems to be stuck in most texts to show that geologists use mathematics. If we're not going to do an actual ground-water calculation (and that will mean showing exactly how we determine the permeability of an aquifer), why include the formula? I did use the formula for kinetic energy in my discussion of impact, but in the context of a discussion showing that objects at typical impact velocities have enormous energy. 

Bed Load, Suspended Load, and Channel Geometry 

I have never seen an introductory text do anything meaningful with these concepts. They are described in a perfunctory fashion, then forgotten. What, exactly, do these concepts contribute to a student's understanding of hydrology? 

Crystallography and Color 

I have discovered that crystallography and color in minerals simply cannot be covered well given the length constraints of an introductory textbook. I have never seen an introductory text that did a proper job on crystals, and having tried to do it myself, I know why. It just can't be done without doubling the length of the chapter. I also tried in early drafts to describe some of the reasons minerals have color. Although the research is fascinating (Nassau, 2001), it gets too deep into physics to be easily accessible to introductory students. 

Dealing With "The Suits" 

In my decade of dealing with publishers, I met people of all sorts. In general the production staff, illustrators and photo researchers were highly professional and a delight to work with. One editor was a consummate professional, but another, who unfortunately made some key decisions late in the publication process, embodied the worst in corporate cravenness. A single bad editor or reviewer can effectively neuter a good textbook, because marketers are so sensitive to the risk of lost sales that the slightest hint of difficulty or excessive length will cause them to demand revisions. 

The paranoia I encountered over perceptions of difficulty often was ludicrous. I had a diagram of the crustal abundances of the eight most abundant elements, with a blowup showing the next dozen or so. The blowup was deleted. There was no constructive reason for doing so, except that it made the illustration "simpler" and presumably less threatening to students. Similarly, I lost a battle to include a box listing the modern soil orders. The box would have been marginal material to be included or not as the instructor chose, but it created too much perception of difficulty. 

Surely the most bizarre incident came as I was writing the preface. I noted that many students collect disconnected tidbits of fact like Gilbert and Sullivan's Modern Major General. That reference caused ripples of concern among the editors that it might go over students' heads. I argued that students do not read prefaces, and even instructors rarely do. I wouldn't have been reading the Preface myself if I hadn't been writing it. I held one last argument in reserve. There is a cartoon show called Animaniacs that does a parody called I am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual. We were perilously close to going on public record as demanding a lower level of literacy than Saturday morning cartoons. Fortunately, the preface stood as written. 

Perhaps the most disheartening change involved a graphic design. I illustrated a "system" by a simple diagram showing gears, pulleys, and a power source. I used gears to symbolize the interconnected elements of a system and pulleys to indicate connections to other systems. My idea was to carry this symbolism throughout the text to illustrate various earth systems. I was concerned that some people might object that it was too complex or too mechanical and sterile, but I got few negative comments and began to become optimistic about its eventual adoption. Then, during production, the publisher decided to eliminate it. They were concerned it might alienate female students. What a marvelous way to encourage women to enter science - by fostering the stereotype that women can't handle technology! 

It took some time for me to learn how to resist or subvert pressures to dilute content. One simple but effective stratagem is to nod agreeably, then ignore as many of the most egregious demands as you can get away with. Also, publishing is a very fluid industry and people move around a lot. A project will pass through many hands before completion (thanks to corporate mergers, I have one textbook but three publishers). Each hand-off is an opportunity to insert improvements or undo some of the damage forced on you by previous reviewers or editors. 

If You Don't Come, They Won't Build It

Realistically, contemporary textbooks are pretty good. The facts are accurate and the traditional organization makes sense. They have a monotonous sameness for two very good reasons: they work and they sell. Since publishers know that existing texts will sell, what's their incentive to experiment with radically different pedagogies? Would you adopt a textbook organized very differently from existing products? "Maybe" or "it depends" is not an acceptable answer! Publishers know they can sell traditional books. Why should they accept the risk of selling an unorthodox text when they can have the near certainty of successfully marketing a conventional one? 

The quality of textbooks will not change until publishers sense a powerful enough market demand to offset their ingrained fear of unorthodoxy. If you want to see more rigorous, up-to-date and interesting textbooks, I suggest the following: 


About the Author 

Steven I. Dutch received his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1969 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1976, both in geology, and has taught earth science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay since 1976. His research interests include the Precambrian of the Great Lakes region, impact phenomena, pseudoscience, and computer applications in geoscience education.

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