One of those things we professors have to struggle with every year is textbook decisions. Your standard science textbook is a strange thing: it’s a heavily distilled reference work that often boils all of the flavor out of a discipline in order to maximize the presentation of the essentials. What that typically means is that you get a book that is eminently useful, but isn’t the kind of thing you’d pick up to read for fun, and then we hand it to our undergraduate students, who may be in our class for only the vaguest of reasons, and tell them they must read it. Finally, of course, at the end of the semester most of the students take that expensive reference work down to the bookstore buy-back and get rid of it (not me, though! I’ve still got my undergraduate developmental biology text on my bookshelf).
The other thing that goes on is that as textbooks age, they get denser and denser. Gilbert’s Developmental Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) is probably the best book in the field, and I certainly love my copy, but it’s also been accreting great stuff for years with many new editions. That’s good for me, but I worry that it may be too much for undergraduate students, most of whom want a general introduction and aren’t necessarily planning to go on to do anything specific in development. That’s why I went with Wolpert’s Principles of Development(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)—it’s good, but it’s also a little lighter and a little less intimidating than Gilbert’s.
The other thing I try to do is to toss in some supplemental reading: lighter fare with a narrower theme and, with any luck, a narrative and a more personal insight. That’s sometimes harder to find, but the advantage is that these are books you can imagine someone picking up at a bookstore and reading for enjoyment, so maybe even my students who go on to become doctors or dentists or lab techs or insurance salesmen might continue to browse the science shelf at the Barnes and Noble and keep up with the topic.
This year, I assigned Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) as the supplemental reading (in past years, I’ve used Brown’s In the Beginning Was the Worm(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), but two is about the limit of what we can handle with discussing a few chapters a week; it might come back in the future). I’ve always felt a little bit of trepidation about using At the Water’s Edge, just because my course is on development, and I could imagine some student complaining that there’s an awful lot of paleontology and physiology in there—but personally, I think a broader integrative view is important, too.
Anyway, I asked my students their general opinion of the books this week, and I also asked them to post a brief comparison to the web. You can read them all here:
I was greatly relieved to learn that my students like the more popular science supplements. Carl will be relieve to learn that his book was the unanimous favorite of everyone in the class. Carroll’s book is good and more tightly focused on the subject matter of the course, but I think great writing wins every time.
Now next Fall I’ll be teaching a general neuroscience course. I’m thinking the two extra books I’ll be using are Soul Made Flesh(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (Zimmer again! I’ll stick with a winner) and Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll).