Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sam Folkchurch has made Mathsquatch Thirsty

Thank you, Sam Folkchurch, for your second funny comic. It has made me ponder my academic trials. I started out a student, then, in Grad School, I worked at the college bookstore, and now, I am an instructor. So, I have seen the textbook issue from three different angles. As a student, I can tell you that math books should not cost $100 or more, but they regularly do. As a bookstore employee, I can tell you that the bookstore hardly makes any money on books (Honestly, most of their income is from sports apparel and merchandise). As an instructor, I can say that sometimes there are no other options than the new edition because it is the best book out there on the subject.

So, what can be done about the whole mess? Well, I suggest that we cut out the middle man. If the professors who wrote the books would just put the books as .pdfs, or something like that, on discs and then sell these discs, the students who want an e-book have it, and the students who want a physical book can take it to the local Kinko's FedEx Office and have one made. The only problem is that this causes a few more problems for the professors, who will have to format their own work.

I can solve that problem, too. Since not every professor at any institution is necessarily writing a book, each college/program could have a few dedicated individuals who format texts. While this might be a pain in the butt, it will make fixing things easier. Then, when a new edition needs to come out (fixing errors, updating the information [like pluto not being a planet]), the author can make update discs and new text discs, at a fraction of the cost of a new book.

The only problem then becomes the idea of copying the discs. To that, we go to the software industry and use their solution! A CD key! Sure, this won't completely protect the copyrighted work, but it will be a major step in the right direction.

Now, I know that many of you will not agree with me, so I ask: What would you do?

Mathsquatch out.


  1. My circumstances may be somewhat unusual, but I am a statistical adjunct who teaches a service stat course using only hyper-mediated cases - active, meat-space class, online, web-based media. I link the official text to my stuff, with the benign consent of my overlords.

    Is it pretty? It is not - as web pages and texts go, it is ugly. Ugly but functional, a working resource deck and casebook for the course.

  2. Oh, please. CD keys are so old and busted. The New H0ttn3ss is this thing called the global spider-mesh, or the intertubes, or something, where you can magically project information directly into people's computers! At the speed of light!

    What's that? You want to make money from writing textbooks? Well, I want a pony that poops chocolate sprinkles. Good luck to both of us.

  3. And then the snowflakes (whether student, admin, or anti-intellectual "cultural critic") who are anti-education will bitch and moan about how professors "making money" off their students. (See Jeffe above.)

    And the students will continue to accuse those profs of feeding their own self-important egos about their own brilliance by requiring students to buy their work. Has anyone else encountered that attitude when you took a course and the students whined about having to buy the prof's newest book? I always wanted to smack them.

    By using the middle-man system, at least this nonsense gets avoided.

  4. Here, have a margarita!

    I like your idea, but isn't marketing the big bugaboo? At least it's how the textbook publishers in part justify the incredibly inflated prices of their products.

    For my part, I advise having students try to order their textbooks from India...even if the books ARE printed on toilet paper and paginated in Swahili. It's worth the hassle!

  5. My university has just introduced the option of renting, rather than buying, textbooks. I don't know how well this will work out, though I suspect the whole system will change as more textbook publishers issue their publications as ebooks (and as the makers of ereaders and tablet applications finally get a clue and start including stylus-based annotation abilities and wider book margins for notes as standard features).

  6. Hey, I never said it was for money that I offered this. My guess is that the CDs would sell at only a small fraction above cost. This is simply because most professors don't get much money from a book anyway. Well, that is, unless the book becomes the standard and is used by a crapload of schools. (James Stewart's Calculus book comes easily to mind. [hmmm...I wonder why...])

    @Samantha Folkchurch: You do know that that is, technically speaking, illegal, right? Not that I think it necessarily immoral, of course. (I bought my fair share of those illegal copies when in school. Actually, I mostly ponied up the extra dough and bought quality used books and some new because I keep them for reference. And boy am I glad that I have kept them. They have been useful numerous times. Seriously! That's not sarcasm.)

    @Jeffe and Babbling Brook: If the students saw how much the professor currently makes, they would not necessarily feel that way.

    Wait, what am I saying? They don't understand economics! They can hardly spell their name correctly most days. Of course they would complain that the professor is "gouging" them by charging roughly $5 for a textbook on CD that likely took months to write and format. Not to mention the years it took to become an expert on the subject... Using textbooks will always cause people to complain. As many have said before me, "Education seems to be the only place people want LESS for their money."

    Mathsquatch *sulks* out *while bemoaning the current state of education*.

  7. As an undergrad I had a prof who wrote her own book and it was terrible. I would have happily paid for some quality. As an adjunct, I worked at a school where an administrator wrote the required text, which was an abomination and an embarrassment. When students complained about the typos and irrelevant, unfunny cartoons in it, I just smiled. Maybe YOU can pull it off, but will anybody honestly tell you if your book stinks? I agree there's a problem, but this is no solution, in my book. (Sorry, it just came out.)

  8. We tried giving students in four course sections free Kindles loaded with their textbooks. Everyone hated them. Even the professors complained, mainly about the lack of page numbers and difficulty navigating with the location numbers. Okay for novels, but not for a textbook that you need to flip back and forth between chapters. Many students bought the paper textbooks anyway. Textbooks from India are often 2/3 less expensive. The only differences are they are usually paperback with black-and-white illustrations. Sometimes the appendices are missing. Most students shun the overpriced campus bookstore and go with the international editions whenever possible.

  9. @MathSq and @Samantha: the legality of purchasing a textbook that is labeled "For purchase outside the US only" is not yet resovled (see for some discussion around the issue)

    @Patty: I have found the same thing in every focus group I was a part of. We ask the students (mainly in CC and mid-tier colleges/unis) which they prefer, and it's a solid majority that prefer to handle and manipulate a paper book over an ebook. And why not? A textbook is not meant for leisure, start-at-page-one-and-read-to-the-end reading. If one (an instructor, a consortium, etc) wants to provide students with course content through some electronic means, I maintained that it is a waste of time trying to mimic a book, because a computer screen is never going to be a book. Hence, the approach cerberus takes, I'd wager, will be more useful to the students than a set of PDFs with the same content.

    Emily the (former) Editor

  10. I say let 'em eat cake. Most of our so-called students never read anything anyway, heaven forbid any books we tell them to read.


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