Thursday, April 23, 2015

Big Thirsty about Publisher Payola

As I reflect on the awful and merely bad parts of my career, I find one bit of joy: book vendors.

When I was but a wee assistant professor, I still entertained the idea that giving a thought to my students' education would help me get promoted.  Ah, the silly ideas of youth.  (I do care about their education but I now realize that it distracts from research, which is how I'm really evaluated.)

A consequence of caring was that my colleagues let me lead our department's textbook committee.  Actually, I am the committee.  That means that every book vendor is sent to my office.  I receive all their calls.  They know that I make the decisions about books for our big gen ed classes.  The experiences with vendors have made me a richer man.  Literally, I'm making bank, I mean, honorariums.

They want me to evaluate a chapter for a new gen chem book that's just like all the others.  That will be $75.  I'm invited to workshops where they show off their new online homework system.  Those score me $100 for an afternoon at a conference or more if it's an overnight trip somewhere else.  I've been to lunch with book sellers visiting campus and professional baseball games with marketing teams, all comp.

They get value for their dollar.  I write one hell of a good chapter evaluation.  I even check the end-of-chapter questions.  Webinars don't compare to spending four hours elbow-to-elbow with other faculty, all trying to break the slick new online lab experiments that the publisher is trying to sell.  We earn our keep.

The downside is that they call every God damned semester to see if I'll change books.  I won't because our current textbook is slightly less terrible than the others and it's slightly less expensive too.  Still, it's nice to be compensated for helping them, I enjoy the networking with fellow faculty textbook decision makers, and the book reps always pick up the bar tab.  (I drink cheap beer so I'm doing my part to keep textbook prices low.)

Oh, yeah.  I'm supposed to make this a Big Thirsty.

What's the best free stuff you've gotten as an academic?


  1. Free time. No one gives it to me, so I have to steal it.

  2. a trip to New York City to attend a seminar.

  3. Cheesecake, lots of cheesecake.

    1. Which meaning are you referring to?

    2. I mean actual cheesecake. There was also beer and wine in a fancy hotel suite in San Diego.

  4. Books upon books, each new edition more prettied-up and dumbed-down than the last. Judging by the latest batch, textbook publishers have decided that business majors have the cognitive ability and attention span of macaques.

    1. Yeah, the books are fun, no question. Not the textbooks, so much: you're right that they shoot lower and lower every edition, it seems like (Though, in fairness, the last time I tried to use one that had a very distinctive and ambitious approach, the results were Hindenberg-like).

      But the secondary texts that I get for course-materials-review are things that I really should be reading anyway. In my defense (or theirs, I'm not sure), an awful lot of my assigned texts are books that I got that way.

  5. Definitely the jet-setting, adventure-filled lifestyle of a modern astronomer. Unlike the guys on the Big Bang Theory, I never had much use for comic books or fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and whatever video game it's inspired these days, since from an early age I had too much of a taste for real adventure.

    I have caught starlight photons on every continent except Antarctica and in space, too, with Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA spacecraft. I'll admit that I'm getting a little old to be a real-life Indiana Jones: whenever I get pushed through a plate-glass window or dragged behind a truck these days, I tend to grumble.

    Still, I always feel so proud and so happy whenever I'm approaching one of the world's major centers of learning, with the knowledge that I have business there. My recent trip to Caltech was a good one, and it helped a student of mine get an internship at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory this summer. Giving a talk (even if it was for a job that I didn't get) at Harvard was another. The drive across the Arizona desert, where I actually saw a coyote chasing a roadrunner, and up the mountain to Kitt Peak National Observatory is a good one, although poor KPNO has been so defunded lately it makes me sad. A really good one is driving up the causeway to Kennedy Space Center, since it's a fairly long drive with much to see on the way, including alligators in the ditch on the side of the road.

  6. Oh yeah, it's the travel and mind-blowing research experiences. Not so much through my current position; I envy Frod his ongoing travel and associations with NASA and other institutions. But back when I was an Ivy League student and NSF Graduate Fellow, the world was my oyster.

    I've taken actual Polaroids through a scanning electron microscope for my projects as well as through a telescope for a class (remember those days, Frod, and the smell of the wiping fluid?), so I've encountered both outer and inner space. I've been in cliff dwellings and seen rock art that took two hours to get to by 4WD off the main road, which was 3 hours from "town," which was a gas station. I've walked miles in remote (i.e., with no human noise) wilderness areas that are off limits unless you have a government permit. There's nothing like taking a hot camping-bag shower under a wide swath of glowing Milky Way. And if you're patient, you can get kangaroo rats to eat Jiffy-Pop out of your hand.

    I've narrowly missed encounters with scorpions in trees, snakes in caves, black widow spiders in outhouses, snakes under trees I needed to harvest, mice in my bed in an old miner's cabin, snakes at the well, hanta virus in the mice, and bats scooping up bugs from my watering hole as I floated there. And once I woke up to hear my old pickup truck* JUMPING next to where I slept on the ground. The world's biggest earthquake that year was centered a few miles away, and -- speaking of Indiana Jones -- it set an honest-to-god boulder rolling down the mountain near my camp. It was awesome.

    Oh, and the free books are great. Seriously. I get case studies, not just textbooks.

    *1967 Dodge Power Wagon with crew cab, laden with water and equipment. Two and a half tons of truck caught air from a standstill.

    1. I always thought that wiping fluid smelled terrible. It tasted worse.

      I always liked the women in academia too, but they're not free. I always felt bad about how badly they can be treated by some guys in the sciences. It seems never to have occurred to them that a little kindness and respect can go a long way.

  7. A t-shirt with the school's name on it. And a mug.

    The books I am sent are not wanted. Salespersons call and then ask if I've had a chance to review it (for free). One publisher offered to let me keep the book. It was an awful text.

    Any research adventures are financed by me, with the exception of one very modest grant, maybe 10 years ago. I'm grateful for anything, mind you. But I do not tax the university's budget by any means.

  8. Frod, you tasted that stuff? Why on earth?

    And thanks for being a mensch.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.