Archive for the ‘Textbooks’ Category

Textbooks Make Me Feel Dirty

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

ChemBark Ed on Dollar BillWe’re three weeks away from the start of the semester at SLU, and this time of year always brings the first wave of e-mails from the next class of students. While these messages vary in length and tone, they can generally be distilled to one question: “Professor, what do I really need to buy for your course?”

Can I use the previous edition of the text? Do I really need a model kit? Do I really need the model kit on sale in the bookstore? Can I share my model kit with a friend? Do I have to buy the subscription for the online homework?

Whenever I read these e-mails, a part of me dies inside. I feel their pain. They’ve just paid their bills for thousands of dollars in tuition, with two more years of it to go. And now, after absorbing that massive hit, they’ve got to scrounge up another $375 dollars for my coursepack. It’s a slap in the face.

The cost of these materials makes me sick, and the prices are rising at an astounding rate. For my college organic text, I paid less than half of what students are asked to pay today. Are today’s books really worth double my book, which remains a valued reference on my office bookcase? Has our understanding of introductory organic chemistry really changed that significantly in the last 15 years? No.

I’ll be teaching Organic Chemistry I for Majors again and using the same coursepack we did when I arrived at SLU.  It contains: (i) the textbook, (ii) the solutions manual, (iii) a plastic model kit, and (iv) a subscription to the online homework assignments. That all costs about $375 when purchased together.

Three hundred and seventy-five American dollars!

While I could easily point the finger at the publishing companies as the villains that they are, ultimately, they are not the problem—I am. After all, I’m the one who assigns the books for my course. And for that, I’m truly sorry, but allow me to explain:

While there are a dozen good organic texts, I think we can all agree that it makes sense for a class to adopt a single textbook. As a teacher, I literally want everyone on the same page, with a precise understanding of what information everyone is responsible for. In the absence of a strong external force, inertia will govern this decision. It makes sense for an instructor or department to stick with the book it used the previous year, because the switching costs of an instructor having to rework the syllabus, slides, and order of practice problems can introduce a lot of unnecessary work. And there are benefits to students when we use the same book as the year before, because they can buy a used version. Furthermore, they can get something out of borrowing their friends’ old notes and exams.

Now, here’s where the publishing industry appears and sinks in its fangs. The used-book market poses a serious threat to their revenue stream, because they only make money by selling new copies. It’s the bookstores and old students who make money from the used-book market. So, what do the publishers do? Release a new edition! By releasing a new edition, the publishers can (i) find professors to drive orders of new books and (ii) stop printing the old edition so colleges can’t find enough used copies of it, forcing adoption of the new edition.

These new editions usually contain few or no substantive changes relative to the previous edition. It can be as silly as shuffling content between chapters, renumbering the practice problems, and adding a few new photos. Case in point is the 4th edition of the text I use now. Anyone with the 3rd edition would have no problem following my class, because hardly anything changed.

Another thing that burns me up is that by the 4th edition of a text, you’d expect all of the errors would have been ferreted out and corrected by now. Have they? No. I maintain a list of errata in the text on my webpage and use it to show my students that organic chemistry must be hard—not even the textbook’s author can get it right.

Textbook publishers erode the used-book market to drive the sale of expensive new editions, but professors are complicit in maintaining this skewed market. Why? Because we are the ones that assign these textbooks as required course materials. And you know why professors don’t especially care? Because we get our textbooks for free. The publishers will just give away a $250 text to us because they want us to force 200 students to buy it. They’ll even sweeten the deal by giving us free lecture slides that correspond to the text. The sales technique is brilliant: make life as easy as possible for the professors and give them free stuff so that they will force their students to buy your product. While it’s not exactly a kickback, it’s not terribly far from it.

So, the textbook market is not a fair one as far as students are concerned. Students can’t shop around for the highest quality book at the best price; they are essentially required to buy whatever textbook their professor decides at whatever price the publisher is charging. And as if that wasn’t enough to make you sick, publishers send instructors e-mails like the one I received a month ago:

From: <Textbook Publisher>
Subject: When it’s required, they’re prepared required_advert_450Disgustingly shameless. I feel gross just reading it.

Hey, instructor buddy! You want your students to learn? Well, then you need to *require* them to purchase our expensive online add-on! And don’t worry—we’ll give instructors free access to the system, of course!

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that authors and publishers perform a valuable service. While our understanding of first-year organic chemistry hasn’t changed in 30 years, our ability to make instructive figures has certainly improved to the point that no one would choose a text from the 1980s over those offered today. So yeah, publishers should be compensated for the materials they produce. But at the same time, there is a limit to what is reasonable. Issuing a ‘new’ edition every three years at $375 a pop is ridiculous.

So, students, please forgive me. I know the system is unfair, but there really isn’t a good alternative at the moment. I would much rather you spend $375 on a nice iPad and download the coursepack for free. Unfortunately, the free organic texts in existence pale in comparison to the expensive texts out there, and the time required for a professor to produce all of the necessary materials for a class is too much to do in one shot. I hope you will believe me when I say that I’m working on it, but it’s going to take some time. Every year I produce a little more material and build towards the goal of obviating the need for an expensive text. Give me 20 years and that should become reality. I hope someone else beats me to it.

The Pauper Professor’s Orgo Library

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

chembarkfc_kit_200Well, it looks like I’ve been ignoring the blog again. Sorry about that.

We are in finals week here at SLU, and the end-of-the-semester crunch has definitely crunched me (with a lot of help from lab stuff, two chemistry “business” trips within the last month, and the fact that I will be getting married in two weeks (!).

I’m teaching Organic 1 this semester, and it has consumed an inordinate amount of time. But the experience has also been a lot of fun and a good training ground for figuring out how to run a class efficiently.

Like many orgo teachers, I began the year by insisting to the students that the best way to do well in the class is to work practice problems (and lots of them). When I was a wee lad taking orgo at NYU, I walked uptown to the fantastic Barnes & Noble at 5th and 18th and bought copies of Vollhardt and Streitwieser to supplement the problems in Jones. My weekly routine was to read through the Jones chapter in two nights while also making index cards that cataloged each reaction along the way. The rest of my week would be spent doing all the problems in Jones, then as many in Streitwieser and Vollhardt as I could stomach.

But textbooks aren’t cheap, and I feel icky about asking students to shell out extra money for supplemental problems after they’ve already forked over $260 (!) for the class’s required textbook. Of course, the used-book market is flooded with cheap, old editions of organic textbooks.

Over the course of this semester, I undertook a mini-project that involved scouring for deals and assembling a small library of textbooks and solutions manuals as a resource for my sophomore organic students. The last volume arrived two weeks ago, and now my collection occupies almost an entire bookshelf in my office:


There are 16 books there: 8 sets of texts and solutions manuals. Here’s what I paid for each book + manual:

Bruice: $3.43 + $0.75
Carey: $3.26 + $0.75
Heathcock/Kosower/Streitwieser: $1.05 + $1.18
Jones: $0.75 + $0.75
Loudon: $4.07 +$4.12
Smith: $0.00 + $0.00 (this is the one SLU uses)
Vollhardt/Schore: $1.05 + $0.75
Wade: $2.22 + $0.75

Those costs are steals compared to the prices listed on Amazon. The shipping on each item ranged from $1.89 to $3.99 and was always more than the cost of each book. In total, my little collection set me back $74.14. The plan for next semester is to cart them over to the main library where they can be kept on short-circulation reserve. Students can check out the books for a day at a time—long enough to work or copy the problems in a chapter, but not long enough to hog the resource. Anyway, with eight texts as options, I’m hoping the market for orgo practice problems at SLU is now saturated. I should never again hear wailing about there not being enough practice problems available.

Anyway, the final exam for my class is this Friday—the 13th. I expect the only students who will encounter bad luck are those who haven’t been working enough practice problems.

A Tale of Two Textbooks, Then & Now — RVW #2

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

In the second part of his series, Retread lays out his first impressions of Jones vis-à-vis his previous orgo text in grad school, English & Cassidy.

The book for my first Organic Chemistry course (’58 – ‘59) was English and Cassidy, 2nd edition, ‘56.  Jones is the 2004 edition.

………………………………………English & Cassidy            Jones

Pages (text only)                442                          1323
Page size  (inches)            9 x 6                         10 x 8
Text width                          4.5                           5.25
Text height                         7.0                           8.50

The most striking difference is the graphics.  There were only six 3-dimensional representations in the first 100 pages of Cassidy, while Jones has TNTC (too numerous to count).  It is hard to find a page in Jones without one.

The tone is completely different.  Jones is chatty and conversational.  “Remarks for the Student” in E&C begins as follows:   ”It is usually taken for granted that the student who  takes up the study of organic chemistry has a thorough knowledge of first-year college chemistry.”  Not too warm and fuzzy.

One of the very best things about Jones, is that he tells you what is hard, and what you must learn. “The (R, S) convention looks a bit complicated.  It is easier than it appears right now, but it just must be learned and cannot be reasoned out.”   Repeat this advice 50,000 times and you’re through med school.  There is no reason the appendix is on the right, the heart is on the left, speech is usually in the left hemisphere  etc. etc.  Jones also tells you what looks  hard but really isn’t — drawing cyclohexane in the chair form for instance.

Another very good thing about Jones (which may seem rather trivial) is that when he points you back, he gives you a page number to go to.  On retirement from medicine, I indulged a lifelong taste for math by auditing some math courses (number theory, abstract algebra,  algebraic geometry) at the local colleges.   Math books almost never repeat anything.  You are referred back to theorem 10.3 (and have to hunt for it).   There are hundreds of theorems, corollaries etc. in the average upper level math book.  It gets irritating unless you have a completely flawless memory.

Also, math books don’t usually tell you what’s really important, and what will be used later.  Not all results are equally crucial for the argument.  On reading it for the first time, you can’t tell the wheat from the chaff.  Jones is excellent at this.

In one sense, the two books can’t be compared, just as stereos back then and now can’t be.  I worked all summer as a supermarket checker at $1/hour before entering college in ‘56 and bought an RCA Victor record player to take with me for $140.  The richest man in the world back then could not buy sound of today’s quality no matter what he was prepared to spend.

However today’s convenience store worker would have to work considerably more hours to buy Jones (167.74) and the answer book (80.59) than I would have had to for English & Cassidy back then.  I asked the student checking me out how anyone could afford books like
these.  He said that often students bought a single textbook and shared it.  Shades of the 19th century Ghetto.  My grandfather told me how there were people who could only read Hebrew upside down, or at a 45 degree angle, because 4 – 6 students would sit around the  same table and study the same page at the same time.

One final point.  Despite the dryness, formality, lack of graphics etc. etc. not much harm was done.  I liked the book back then as did most of us.  This includes Jones himself (Yale ‘59), who almost certainly used the book, as English and Cassidy were Yale professors and the first edition came out in ‘49.


Enter Retread, Stage Right — RVW #1

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

What’s all this about?  Well it started like this when I posted the following on The Wall:

24 Apr ‘07

Let’s say you were a graduate student in organic chemistry at Harvard ‘60 – ‘62 (I was), and that you passed 8 of the first 9 cumes (I did) and that you talked Woodward into letting you work on you own idea 9 months after you got there because passing 8 cumes was all you needed to start your PhD work (also true) and were remembered by most concerned as arrogant unfortunately true) and that you were god-awful in the lab (true) and left organic chemistry to go back to medicine. Further suppose that organic chemistry always seemed natural and fun, and that you happened to see a squib in the 12 April Nature about the total synthesis of Lyconadin B, Googled it and found the structure and commentary in TotallySynthetic.Com and fell back in love with organic chemistry, and wished to get up to speed so you could enjoy reading about the field again..

How and where would you start? What are the best introductory texts for organic chemistry, physical organic chemistry? Are there still texts, or is everything on the web now? What is the best place to read about NMR and structure determination (just beginning back then), computational chemistry (practically nonexistent back then — they were still sweating H2+). Also is Debye Huckel theory still what we used to think about it — good for slightly impure distilled water, but not much else. Something better is needed for cell water which is 0.3 molar..

I love the irreverance of the chemical blogs. Have at it folks.



I got this back the same day from Excimer:

I’ll bite: my favorite introductory chem text is by Jones- it has pretty widespread use throughout undergraduate classes still, and I like Anslyn and Dougherty’s “Modern Physical Organic Chemistry” for that subject.

and from Paul:

Excimer mentions my two favorite undergraduate organic texts. I would also consider ordering the solutions manual to Jones, then working out some of the problems. There are few things more satisfying than being able to solve problems to convince yourself you understand what’s going on. If you’re super-excited, what about enrolling in an orgo course at a local community college? Taking courses on a subject always gives me extra motivation to learn things, since you have to stick to a schedule.

So I bought the above (the solution manual hasn’t arrived yet) and started working through Jones ‘04.  Anslyn looks like something I should read after Jones.   I was impressed with how different Jones is than how I remembered my first Organic text (English & Cassidy 2nd Ed. ‘56) so I managed to find a copy on the net and it arrived today.  The next post will contrast the two books.

So this series will be sort of “Rip Van Winkle meets Modern Organic Chemistry”.  Why should you bother reading what’s coming?   Just imagine quitting grad school with what you know and spending the next 45 years reading molecular biology and biochemistry with the background you currently have (in your spare time while going to med school and practicing neurology that is).  I guarantee you’d find it primitive and rather simplistic but would have no problem understanding what’s going on.   So there will be tidbits here and there that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere (such as why Jones is wrong about Strychnine poisoning — I saw a case, and how the cell lets potassium inside while excluding the smaller sodium ion — if you don’t know the answer think of how you’d design a protein to do it — MacKinnon won a Nobel for it — if you can’t wait.  I can assure you that no one had a clue until the structure was solved.  There was a lot of handwaving about differential absorption of Na and K to proteins, and that great fudge factor that no one could calculate — the activity coefficient.

Stay tuned,