I find that nearly all college textbooks are self-contained. All of the readings, exercises, and multimedia (e.g. videos on a provided CD) are provided in a single package. I think textbooks suffer from offering students a limited perspective. I found that my college freshmen and sophomores are not developing good reading and writing skills because they only read college textbooks.

I would like to create a college textbook/workbook that heavily relies heavily on outside materials. For example, each chapter will suggest that students analyze a specific documentaries or films, journal articles, or chapter from a novel or non-fiction book. The front of the book will provide a list of books that students will need to purchase or locate at their library. Here is a simplified example of how an outside source might be integrated into the textbook:

Chapter 1

(a brief introduction to film X)

(some explained background knowledge needed to understand the film's context better)

Before watching the film X (1999), consider the following questions:

1. Have you ever ... ?

2. What did ... ?

After watching the film, answer the following questions:

1. When ... ?

2. Why did ... ?

I have never encountered a textbook that heavily relies on outside works in this manner, so I wonder if there is something preventing textbook authors from doing this.

  • Is there some legal or other reason why textbook authors avoid relying heavily on other work?
  • Would this be considered some kind of plagiarism?
  • Wouldn't the cost be a problem? Plus I imagine it would be very inconvenient to constantly have to switch materials, and break workflow.
    – gardenhead
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 6:57
  • 1
    For studnts, textbooks are meant to accompany lectures. Usually professors give a list of books for students to read at home to extend the knowledge gained from the presentation and to prepare for exams. Usually textbooks are provided in large numbers by the college or university library, so students don't have to buy them. If you require students to use several other books as well, that means that the library has to buy all those books in a number large enough that all students can read them. This will be too expensive and impractical, and no university will use your book.
    – user5645
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 10:05
  • 1
    Also, textbooks are meant for an introduction to a field, not as the end all of your studies. We use textbooks for first semester lectures only, from then on the students have seminars where they read journal articles and specialized monographies. We already do what your book means to do, only we don't do it with one book, but with a whole library full of literature.
    – user5645
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 10:09

2 Answers 2


As a workbook I can see this methodology working.

Since you do not plagiarize the original works, you cite them, and refer the reader to them, I am not aware of any laws which would be in conflict (note: I am a US citizen and laws in other countries are something I know absolutely nothing about).

If this were a textbook, as a student I would question whether it was appropriate. A textbook in my view is one which teaches/instructs. It does not present a potentially-biased summary, ask for a pre-judgement on the unknown, request the intake of that item, and then ask for my own judgement... how does such a process teach or instruct? It is impossible to know what every student will think beforehand and afterwards and then educate them based on their analysis, so how does one continue the segment afterwards? While exceptional cases may facilitate such a method, to do an entire textbook via such a method is likely to not achieve the goal a textbook is designed to achieve and could easily be replaced by a list of items to be read/viewed.

Take, for example, John Gardner's "The Art Of Fiction". It cites many writings by numerous authors and very often includes excerpts. I am not sure if this is a textbook by raw definition (I bought it for non-formal education purposes). In each of the citings, though, an analysis is included as to how that particular passage establishes a point being made. Sometimes a contrast is made between two different passages in order to demonstrate the point. Such a demonstration serves a fundamental purpose in that it allows the author of the work to choose the examples and then specifically address areas of excellence or areas where improvement can be made.

If we leave, as I gather from your question, the analysis up to the reader, we are asking only for self-reflection and providing little guidance.

Now, perhaps you have found the key dmm has referred to in the answer's closing section, but it seems to me that the reason you do not see a plethora of such works at this time has nothing to do with legalty and is because highly-effective, proven methods of instruction are what authors lean toward (not that anyone is necessarily biased towards other methods such as you have suggested).


There are textbooks for homeschooling that do exactly what you are saying. So, I'm pretty sure it isn't illegal or plagiarism. However, homeschoolers are an independent lot -- not representative of the general public. Also, even among homeschoolers the non-self-contained textbooks are used more by the "hard core" homeschoolers (who are becoming more and more of a minority as homeschooling spreads into the general public). Try a web search on homeschool "great books".

The nice thing about the type of textbook you describe is that it is cheap -- assuming the user has access to a good library (which isn't being laid waste by other users). Otherwise, the user has to buy and keep track of lots of books instead of just one. Most people find that annoying and/or troublesome. OTOH, when you're reading "Huck Finn" you only need to carry around one little paperback instead of a gigantic tome that contains 10 novels.

Plus, if the books under study are all out of copyright, then you can get them all for free from the web and put them on an e-reader. That's super convenient.

OTOH, a big advantage to self-contained textbooks is that notes and questions can be put right into the primary material under study. Students like that. It's super convenient.

The best thing would be to have your textbook be an e-book, and have it link to stuff on the web (books, essays, movies, etc.) But you'd have to do that cheaply somehow, because people don't trust that those web links will last for years (therefore your e-book would have low [NO?] resale value). Linking to out-of-copyright stuff is fine. Any links to copyrighted stuff will require usage fees, which will add to the cost of your textbook.

In summary, I think what you are proposing is the wave of the future, but people are still trying to figure out how to do it profitably.

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