As a university professor and administrator at an institution that serves primarily working-class and first-generation college students, I have had it with the textbook industry. Had it.
Which is why Medium just became my textbook. I’ll give the “how-to” in this article, but first, some context:
Textbook companies have charged exorbitant prices for decades, simply because they can, because they know students have to buy their company’s textbooks in order to succeed. Now that both professors and students are fed up and finding ways around buying textbooks, the higher ed publishers are scurrying around trying to sell entire “systems” of textbooks-packaged-with-technology — they sell not just the book but the accompanying PowerPoints, the accompanying online tutoring, and the accompanying phone app.
It works like this: the textbook companies broker deals with administration that offer price breaks when their products are specified for multiple (or all) courses, all while riffing about “passing along cost savings” and presenting the whole thing as though this is a great deal for students.
It’s not; it’s a great deal for publishers. These contractual agreements dictate that students buy their textbooks for current courses while also nearly ensuring that any future selections professors make will be funneled to whatever titles the “partner” publisher offers: Sure, you can choose a different textbook from a different company if you think it’s a better one, but wouldn’t it be more ethical to save your students so much money by selecting from this already-approved-and-price-negotiated package of materials? Maybe, but only if you’re able to willfully disregard the one-degree-of-separation from the original unethical move.
It’s a smart marketing tactic for publishing corporations, but it doesn’t necessarily benefit students, and it’s taken what used to be a more collaborative relationship between professors and book reps and turned the activity of textbook selection into something more akin to buying a used car. By the current game rules, the most persistent and aggressive salespeople, rather than those with the most disciplinary knowledge, win the contract.
One of my colleagues recently commented on Facebook that “Every scene in the trailer for the movie A Quiet Place could be about me hiding in my office from textbook reps.” This is true for a lot of us.
I teach nonfiction writing courses, and for the past several years I’ve pulled all reading material from top-notch publications like the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post. However, most of these are now limiting the number of times a non-paying reader can click on their articles; in most cases, you get three free views and are then cut off — this is sometimes problematic for students, but I also haven’t wanted to ask them to purchase subscriptions, since the whole reason I’m using these resources is to save students from having to shell out even more money for college than they already do.
Medium has a paywall too, of course, and many of its best writers are posting behind that paywall (same as the others — three freebies and then you can’t access any more articles behind the paywall). At least for right now, though, there is still an ample selection of articles on Medium that are freely available to everyone all the time — this is true of both individual authors’ work and of the articles offered through Medium publications. I have had no trouble finding material that is solidly researched and supported, clearly and cleanly written, and artfully presented in both language and images. These are the qualities we strive to help our students develop.
Here are some tips to create your course using entirely Medium articles:*
- Choose topics that are plentifully represented on Medium. This year the site has featured a lot of stuff on artificial intelligence, which is where I chose to begin building my content. The writing course I’m currently teaching is titled “Robots and Redemption.” Topics such as the questions of robot rights, the marketing of sexbots, and how soon children should interact with forms of AI have all been addressed here. I came up with the alternate topic of “redemption” because I wanted something decidedly non-technical to balance out “robots” and because I’m an English teacher and susceptible to choosing snappy titles based upon their alliterative allure (there, just did it again). Students choose to write their course-long projects on a topic related to either robots or redemption (or some crossover of the two if they want to, but that’s a lot to ask of undergraduate writers, so it’s merely an option rather than a requirement).
- Choose your articles initially based upon popularity. That might sound superficial, but in my experience an article that gets 15 thousand claps is generally better than one that gets 11 claps. You should of course read all the articles you include on your syllabus, but popularity is a pretty good metric to use in your initial selection process.
- Build your syllabus on Medium. It puts students right in the modality from which their readings will be drawn, plus you can edit it whenever you want, and it’s correct in real time — all you do is give students the link — no more taking documents out of your course website, editing them, turning them back into PDFs and reloading them.
Here is my syllabus for “Robots and Redemption”:
ROBOTS AND REDEMPTION SYLLABUS
Instructor: Dr. Young Office: MAC B 328 Office hours: by appointment Phone: 330–241–7096 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
4. This tip is very important: When you publish your syllabus, number one: don’t put it behind the paywall (duh). But also: Use Medium’s “unlisted” option when you publish it. There’s no need to subject your followers or all of Medium to your syllabus; that would be annoying.
5. Last point: Bringing students to a current and reader-friendly format like Medium can only be a good thing. The more people read, the more everybody wins. :)
*I realize this method is unlikely to be helpful for anyone teaching something like physics or math, but it works really well for a writing class and could probably also be modified for other courses in the humanities or social sciences.