UT Dallas History Prof Speaks at McDermott Library About Online Options to High Textbook Prices

Facing textbook and supply costs averaging $1,200 annually, college students are increasingly avoiding purchasing their assigned textbooks, jeopardizing their grades and academic progress, a UT Dallas assistant history professor told an audience recently at an event sponsored by the Eugene McDermott Library.

Speaking at an event held at the McDermott Library, Dr. Ben Wright, assistant professor of history in the School of Arts and Humanities and co-editor of The American Yawp, discussed the history of open educational resources (OER), the landscape of OER in the new field of digital humanities and how faculty can both counter costs and improve the quality of course materials. The American Yawp is a free online, collaborative, open American history textbook for college-level history courses that has quickly been embraced by students.

Wright told the group of about 50 UT Dallas staff, faculty and students that a recent study indicates that 65 percent of students reported opting not to buy at least one textbook due to cost, even though they knew the decision could likely mean a lower grade.

“Simply put, these students knowingly just decided that they couldn’t afford to earn an A,” Wright said. “We at UTD rightfully take authentic assessment really seriously; we want to make sure our students are learning. But how can assessment be authentic if the majority of our students at some point in their educational career decide that they can’t afford to truly succeed in our courses?”

“American college students say that textbook costs dictate how many courses they take and what courses they are. Having high-cost, survey-level textbooks prevents students from taking pre-requisites, causing sequencing problems, delaying program completion, increasing student debts and lowering graduation rates,” he added.

Although ever-climbing textbook costs are a problem, it’s a problem with a solution, said Wright. Frustrated by textbook prices and hoping also to improve their quality, Wright and a colleague looked for new models for the creation and distribution of textbooks and created The American Yawp, hoping it and other open-source projects could offer low-cost, quality alternatives. A new wave of open-source textbooks with permissive copyrights are already helping slash costs for students taking required introductory courses.

Launched in beta form in 2015, The American Yawp (www.americanyawp.com) provides a survey of U.S. history. Wright and Dr. Joseph Locke, assistant professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, provided the basic framework for the chapters, then sought historians to contribute to the book. Wright said along with creating a free textbook, the editors wanted to provide a higher quality textbook. Their project included hundreds of collaborators (Two editors, 45 editorial advisors, 33 digital content advisors, 26 chapter editors, 225 content contributors and 175 reviewers), which he believes makes it a better book.

“I think that the best textbook in American history is Eric Foner’s ‘Give Me Liberty.’ He is a singularly talented historian, and he is only one person. We think that American history is just too big and broad for one person to master, no matter how brilliant they are. Other textbooks will have sometimes five, six or seven authors, but I have never seen another textbook have 10, for example, authors, so we are way out there on the fringe,” Wright said.

“We wanted to take a step back and build a textbook that would actually function the way that our profession works. Historical knowledge bubbles up from the work of researchers. It does not flow down from editors, publishers or other institutional gatekeepers,” he said.

The book’s title, Wright noted, was penned from the words of a Walt Whitman poem that captures the heart of the editors’ mission in the words of a Walt Whitman poem: “I too am not a bit tamed; I too am untranslatable. I sound by barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

“Long before Whitman and long after, Americans have sung something collectively amid the deafening roar of their many individual voices – and so have historians,” Wright said.

Each semester, The American Yawp receives more than 2 million page views, with almost 300,000 unique users. Wright said the book is being used at colleges and universities from Yale and Columbia to Bronx Community College and Northern Virginia Community College.

On the horizon, Wright said, is the publication of a low-cost print edition of the textbook that is available for purchase now Stanford University Press.

“One of the most common responses that I get from instructors is ‘I have one or two students in my class of 50 who are just printing out your textbook. Can you make a print-ready version available?’ For $25, we felt like this would be a compromise. But to be clear, these printed editions are not designed to replace the free online edition. There’s no additional information in the print edition that is not available online. In fact, there are a few more things online than we were able to include in the print edition,” Wright said.

Wright concluded his discussion with another quote from American poet Walt Whitman, “our project’s favorite poet who still informs our work and I hope maybe he can speak to you too,” Wright said. “Whitman said we should re-examine all that we have been told. Just because it’s the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean that it’s the way we should continue to do it.”

For more information about Open Educational Resources, please contact Alexander Rodriguez, Senior Librarian, at [email protected].

Page Last Updated: January 3, 2019