Pressbook for teaching

I never thought I’d used the phrase that is coming up, but here we are. 

I am old enough to remember when being in college meant dealing with lots and lots of paper. For both students and instructors. In my first two years as an undergrad in Venice, professors would leave copies of the readings in a folder in my department at the time, so that students could borrow them for half an hour and photocopy them. We would go to libraries and bookstores legally authorized to copy entire books. 

A few years later, all of this seems like life on a different planet. No, really! Try telling your students that you carried around paper books, and took notes by hand. (Although if you really want to shock them, tell them you do not know who Billie Elish is.) Today almost everything is digital, exists in PDF, EBUP, MOBI, or it’s downloadable from somewhere. Not just for students: since the pandemic, I rely extensively on digital access or digital books for my research. It also makes for a lighter suitcase. And, not surprisingly, teaching is more and more digitally based too. In my first semester as an instructor, I rarely I had to scan a book chapter that I wanted my students to read. My college subscribes to a sea of e-books that I can easily link in Sakai, the learning management system that we use at the Claremont Colleges.  

Everything is digital. And so at one point in the semester I decided to turn my digital notes for the class into something better than a Word Doc. Something 1) better organized and 2) reusable when I offer my classes again. That’s how I landed on Pressbook, which I will review in this post. 

Pressbook’s idea is simple: making knowledge free and accessible. The end products are OER – Open Educational Resources. It’s an attempt to change some of the ideas about publishing books: substituting long and somewhat stressful processes of peer reviews and book contracts for a process in which you, the author, are fully in charge. The author is also the reviewer and the publisher. Bad idea? Not really. Because the end product, in many occasions, develops from teaching, and it gets tweaked and polished until it’s a good one. It’s always editable, so when you spot a typo, you can correct it immediately with your Pressbook account. And once the book is out there, it’s freely available to anyone. The Pressbook directory gives almost 5,000 books for users to explore. Check out this amazing textbook, China’s Magical Creatures, edited by Tineke D’Haeseleer, and Ann Waltner’s textbook about The Dream of the Red Chamber, fully available there for you to use in your courses. You can download them as PDF, EPUB, and MOBI. 

Teaching is also how I started using Pressbook, and why I will continue to use it. In my classes, I want students to read as many primary sources as possible. I want to expose them to the ideas of Chinese writers and literati. I want them to ask as often as possible “how do we know what we know?” and learn to find the answer. Only in a second moment do I walk them through the process of historical interpretations by scholars.

This means, however, cutting on a lot of historical background. And if students have not taken a history of China survey course, then it’s a headache. There are plenty of excellent textbooks, but students may perceive more pages to read as overwhelming, especially in a system that asks them to take 4 or even 5 courses per semester. As mentioned above, I started by typing summaries of textbooks – yes, summarizing the summaries!, to provide them the necessary historical background in a Word document. I would add links to online resources, and merge the material with other notes I had from previous teaching. Then I would send this Word doc to them. Not an ideal way to do so – if you decide to make an edit, then you have to resend it, or upload it again somewhere, and notify them… Pressbook avoids all this. It associates a URL to your book, and every update is immediately reflected online. 

This is how it works. Once you signed up and got it all started, the interface is pretty self-explanatory. You have a dashboard, can access your catalog, see stats, access your books… if you ever worked with a website in WordPress, you will find this very familiar: 

After having started a new book, giving it a URL of your choice (as long as someone else has not used it already), you can add parts, chapters, and glossary terms. You can add as many as you want, and move them the way you like them. In the pressbook that I have been working on, I have been adding several parts, each divided into chapters, that cover how this book would be used, the history of China divided into big sections, a glossary for terminology encountered in the readings, and a final rubric to help my students with their finals called “Writing Skills in Pills.” The images below illustrate some sections: 

When you are writing within a chapter, you can choose formatting, see all the edits that you have done (on the right side, it tells you how many revisions you have done and gives you a link to review them, you can add media, hyperlinks, and so on. Different headings give you the option to make a header part of the menu in the final product. In the example below, I divided the chapter on Neo-Confucianism into 1) historical background; 2) Neo-Confucianism; 3) the contention about human nature. I formatted all these three headers so that they would appear as hyperlinks in the final table of contents, as the second picture below illustrates. 

In my experience, Pressbook is great to put together all those annotations, course material, and bits and pieces that we all produce when we teach (sometimes even when we do research). Many times we think “one day I will publish on this.” Well, at least I do. This semester I taught a course on conceptions of human nature in Chinese pre-modern intellectual history. And it did give me an idea for a book, but I also quickly realized that half of what I thought would not be relevant to this hypothetical book. When writing becomes such a precious activity among meetings and committees, do we really want to waste even a single word?! All that goes into Pressbook has to be your creation, you cannot reproduce someone else’s work – clearly! So it can be a great repository, temporary or not, for the writings we produce. And if at the end you don’t want to share it with the world, no one will force you to! 

There are a couple of downsides. Pressbook requires a subscription. The plan for individuals is not too expensive, but what is included is limited. The best option is to get institutions to subscribe, which (as I hear) is happening more and more. 

Second, if you want to use this resource while teaching, you have to make your pressbook public in order for students to access it. Even if it’s half done – as it was for me, since I was writing chapters and parts during the semester. If you want to keep it private, each student will have to create a pressbook account. I did not feel like asking students to do so, for one semester only. My current book is thus publicly visible, although very much incomplete – not something I really want the world to see. But for now, it’s buried at the very bottom of the Pressbook directory, so this will have to do. 

Third, although you are the admin of your own account, you do not have access to all the features that the admins of Pressbook for your institution have. I wanted to clone the pressbook I am working on, to re-use the chapters that overview China’s history next Spring in my course A Chinese Culinary History. But, it turns out, I cannot do it. What I have to do is create a new pressbook, and then copy and paste every single section I want to reuse, one by one. 

Fourth, although the learning curve for the overall structure is very small, there are some others (such as media integration) that require much more time. 

But all in all, I think it’s a great resource. Even if you decide to never publish your pressbooks, it is a great way to keep your teaching writings or any writings organized, all in one place, automatically nicely formatted, and easy to navigate. All that an individual produces belongs to them, not to the institution through which they accessed Pressbook. 

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