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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Textbook changes with culture

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 12 - November 10, 1994

The textbook that Marshall Fishwick used in his popular-culture class this fall had a section about O.J. Simpson being charged with the murder of his wife. Next semester's textbook will have the updated story of the trial that has captivated the country.

With traditional textbooks, that would not have been possible, because the publishing process takes up to two years. By then, anything a textbook contained about Simpson would be outdated. And, in today's on-line world, particularly in a field that changes as rapidly as popular culture, that's a problem.

So Fishwick, professor of communication studies and humanities, found a way to keep up with both the changes in our culture and the immediacy of information retrieval in the world of the computer generation without having a classroom full of students hidden behind terminals and reading from screens. The solution now being pioneered by several publishers is a custom-designed book that's a cross between the traditional textbook and a magazine. The close collaboration of a large staff makes the new schedule feasible, Fishwick said.

"It's more durable than a magazine, but it won't be there forever, the way an old textbook would be," Fishwick said.

Along with American Heritage Custom Publishing Group, Fishwick custom-designed Go, and Catch a Falling Star, a textbook for his popular-culture class's study of fallen celebrities. It contains text Fishwick chose from several sources, as well as some of his own research.

"At the last moment, after the book went to press, O.J. did his Bronco deed," Fishwick said. "The editor said if I could get that in in the next week or two, he would include it. They put it in in July and got the textbook to Tech in August." After all, a textbook on fallen heroes used this fall would have been outdated if it had not included the most publicized case in recent history.

The custom-published books are cheaper and more relevant than traditional textbooks, Fishwick said. They allow the professor to pick from materials on databases, such as chapters from other books for which the publisher has obtained reprint rights, while adding their own chapters. "Everything, I chose," Fishwick said. "The book can focus for the instructor." It also presents the material in a more aesthetic package than duplicated packets.

But the ability to update quickly is the book's selling point. "You can add, modify, and change pictures or text at will," Fishwick said.

This allows the professor to use high technology, but not let it take over his classroom. "The book will be in continuous flux," Fishwick said. "I think the idea is going to spread."