History Professor Challenges High Textbook Prices with Online Option

Dr. Ben Wright holding a tablet that is displaying The American Yawp

Dr. Ben Wright

As the costs of college textbooks increase, a UT Dallas professor is offering an alternative for students — a free, online college textbook that he and a collaborator have developed.

Dr. Ben Wright, assistant professor of history in the School of Arts and Humanities, is co-editor of The American Yawp, a free online, collaborative, open American history textbook designed for college-level history courses.

“If you ask a student, it’s a huge deal. Textbook costs are absolutely out of control,” he said.

The College Board estimates that the average student in the United States spends approximately $1,200 a year on books and supplies. A report from Student Public Interest Research Groups said the costs of a college textbook increased by 73 percent from 2006 to 2016. The report also showed that 65 percent of students at 150 campuses in the U.S. have opted not to buy a book because it was too costly; of those students, 94 percent were concerned their grades would suffer because of it.

“We talk a lot about assessment and making sure that our educational measures are authentic,” Wright said. “But if we're setting up our classes in such a way that 65 percent of students can't get an A or decide they can't afford to get an A, then what are we doing?”

Hundreds of Contributors

The American Yawp, launched in beta form in 2015, 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. Some 300 scholars provided content, with nearly 100 others contributing editing or digital content. Wright and Locke remain editors of the project.

We’re pleased that this resource is being utilized in classrooms all over the country. We believe our collaborative process makes our content stronger than traditional texts.

Dr. Ben Wright, assistant professor of history

Wright said historians are able to suggest changes to the book as new research emerges.

“There's just so much scholarship coming out all of the time. And when you try to actually synthesize everything, it's like drinking from a fire hose. Collaboration is key,” he said.

Last semester, The American Yawp received 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.

“American history is big and the volume of literature is absolutely massive. This project has actually given me valuable perspective and greater respect for the profession as a whole,” Wright said.

Chaz Lilly BA’11 MA’15, a doctoral student in Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication, said a lot of online class content continues to be digital versions of expensive textbooks. But he said The American Yawp is part of a movement toward more open and shareable sources of information.

“We’re seeing more collaborative writing of scholarly information online,” Lilly said. “The end result of these types of projects is a more accessible and open system of education.”

Coming Soon: An Affordable Print Edition

The next iteration of The American Yawp occurs in August, when a print edition is being released by Stanford University Press. Wright said the price will be $24.95, a fraction of the $153 students typically spend per class on materials according to a recent study by the United States Public Interest Research Group.

Wright said that The American Yawp is a labor of love. Neither he nor Locke, nor any other contributor, receive any royalty or payment.

“We’re pleased that this resource is being utilized in classrooms all over the country,” he said. “We believe our collaborative process makes our content stronger than traditional texts, and hopefully it provides a break for students trying to reach graduation without burdensome debt.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].