Searching for the perfect GIS textbook

If you’re reading this, chances are you are a fellow geonerd, and may have a shelf of GIS books that you have collected over the years (or maybe that’s just me).  One of the great perks of my job is that, from time to time, I get free GIS textbooks sent to me from publishers for my consideration.  I LOVE getting new textbooks, and immediately start flipping through them and thinking about what topics are included, how they are organized, the writing style, the quality of the figures, what’s been left out, etc.  I have a clear conscience about receiving these books because every spring, after my courses are over for the year, I review my GIS curriculum and take a fresh look at what textbooks I’m using and what else I should consider.  I have used six different textbooks in ten years of teaching, so I am certainly willing to give different titles a try, even though switching is a lot of work, as all my reading lists and references to the text in my lecture notes have to be updated.

As much as I love GIS textbooks, I have never found one that met all of my needs for a course.  I know this is a common complaint from instructors.  I think the reason it’s common is not rooted in arrogance (“no one can possibly capture all of my brilliant teaching material in one book”).  My suspicion is that it is because teaching is so personal.  In order to be able to teach something well, you have to really make it your own.  Inevitably, that means that you will develop ideas about what works, what doesn’t, when to introduce certain ideas, and so on.  It’s just really unlikely that some author out there just happens to think the way you do and has turned that into the perfect textbook.

My main complaint with most GIS textbooks is that they are organized according to the old familiar project-oriented approach: a bit on basic map concepts first, followed by data input, management, analysis, and output.  This is a great way to organize content for a reference book, but I have never been convinced that this is a useful way to organize material for the most effective learning.  When I teach, I tend to refer to several sections of a textbook in one lecture, often across several chapters.  This is because I prefer to introduce concepts within the context of a problem-solving example, or to at least link concepts that I think have a natural connection.  When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of thinking that I had to stick to the sequence of topics in the textbook to make it easier for my students to follow.  While this might be true, I found it was quite limiting and, consequently, a bit boring for me and the students.

Every once in a while a student or textbook sales rep. will ask if I have considered writing my own textbook.  While it’s flattering to be asked that, I always say no.  The short version of my explanation is that I think the traditional textbook model is problematic at best, particularly in a rapidly changing technology-oriented field like GIS.  The longer version is something I plan to address in a future post.