I understand how this assignment might leave you with the impression that this is a scheme for the professor to exploit free student labor. Let me explain a little more about the assignment. I actually spoke with Dr. Harris-Scott briefly about the project a few months ago, and I was excited to hear about it.
Dr. Harris-Scott didn’t invent the idea, first of all: he heard a professor present about the assignment a couple of years ago at our annual Innovations in Teaching and Learning Conference. The idea was that each student writes a single paragraph, which is drawn from a larger research project—culminating with a long research paper—that the students will be working on, under the instructor’s guidance, over the course of the semester.
One objective of this assignment is to help students boil their research project down to a single paragraph. The exercise requires them not only to summarize the large body of knowledge they have acquired over the semester, but also to think about why it matters: how it adds to our collective understanding of global history, and how it fits within the larger narrative of world history that is generally told in intro-level world history classes (the textbook that Dr. Harris-Scott is writing is a world history textbook). Another objective is get students involved in a collaborative project. Historical research is typically done in isolation, but asking students to contribute their own research towards a collaborative project not only provides extra motivation but also requires students to engage in the analytical exercise of connecting their own individual piece to the collective whole. Research, analysis, collaboration, writing—these are the skills that employers say they value most in prospective employees, and those are the skills this assignment aims to cultivate in the students.
I will add a couple of comments that, I hope, will also help persuade you that this is not a scheme for exploiting free labor. First, the royalties that Dr. Harris-Scott will make on this e-textbook—if any—will top out somewhere in the low triple digits. Some textbook projects do indeed yield considerable profits—sometimes in the thousands, or even tens of thousands, over the course of a few decades, if the text manages to corner the market. This is not one of these projects. The second thing I’ll mention is that if Dr. Harris-Scott’s goal was to finish the textbook with a minimum of time and effort, the last thing he would do is involve 35 undergrads—most of them non-majors—in a collective project. The 35 paragraphs that will come out of this project will need an enormous amount of additional research and editing work on Dr. Harris-Scott’s part in order to be used in the textbook, and that’s on top of all the time that he will spend in guiding the student’s research projects along the way. It would be much easier for Dr. Harris to just do the research and writing himself. Far from being an effort to exploit student labor, this is an example of an instructor going out of his way to create an innovative project that will be more interesting to the students—and, I’ll add, far more time-intensive for him—than simply requiring the run-of-the-mill historical essay that students submit to their instructor at the end of the semester and then promptly forget. Finally, let me add that Dr. Harris-Scott will absolutely give credit to his students for their contributions, however they end up making their way into the final product.
Dr. Harris-Scott is a terrific teacher. He is dedicated, inventive, and caring. I’m confident that the students will enjoy the class, and that the project will be stimulating and beneficial to them. If you’re interested in discussing this further, I would be happy to do so.