Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Required textbooks are, in fact, required

I don't know why this has not happened to me before this semester.

Students are not buying the textbooks for my courses.

I teach the kind of basketweaving theory courses where more than one book is necessary. You know, like a 100-page French poststructuralist anti-weaving book, Horatio Q. Rothbury's 18th century Fall of Basketweaving classic, and the 1970s sociological study on Mongolian horseback weaving. The students have a syllabus that tells them when these books will be used. And yet I have half-apologetic excuses from all kinds of students, ranging from "my financial aid hasn't quite gone through so I couldn't buy the book(s)" to "I ordered it on Amazon last night but strangely it did not arrive in time for class today, because it is not delivered by magic unicorns as I had imagined" to the simple "I ended up not getting that book".

I don't even know what to say to these fellows. I'm forced to add a clause to all future syllabi that reads "all required texts must be purchased and in-hand by the beginning of the second week of class" (perhaps I should even make that a graded assignment!).

I mean, I don't get the financial excuses. When I was getting my schooling, textbook costs were a small fraction of the tuition I paid, kind of like the sales tax I expect to pay on the skittles and DVDs I buy at Target. And I was a broke, broke lad - sometimes having a single boiled potato for dinner (and relishing the romantic notion of being the starving student). I always knew the textbooks were there to be purchased before the semester began, and that I would need money to do so, and that I would need them for the beginning of class. I budgeted for it.

I mean, can you imagine an employee telling their boss, "Yeah, I haven't purchased the gasoline for the car that I need to do my sales pitches, so I'm just going to skip out on it for now. Thank you for your understanding in allowing me to make this up at a later date"?

I'm not angry as much as stupefied. Really, snowflakes? Seriously?


  1. a) the textbooks cost more now than they did 10 years ago or twenty years ago. I wrote earlier today that the text I used as an undergrad less than ten years ago has gone from $60 to $150 and I'm sure it's not an exception.

    b) We are in a squeeze right now. Texts are outpricing themselves, college is outpricing itself. This will adjust. May I suggest using eBooks starting next semester? Same info, all online, for slightly less.

    Plus, the kids'll think you're cool.

    c) I've never figured out the point of textbooks. It seems lecture is more valuable, and texts become a crutch. Use lecture + weblinks + in-class examples of basketweaving and you have a cheaper, book-free course.

    yes I know that's easier said than done. You'd have to find the time to design a website with content. But maybe if you start now you'll be set in a few years?

  2. Here in the physical sciences we have the joy of convincing the snowflakes that yes, you do have to buy both the text AND the lab manual. They become especially irate when they discover that the bookstore won't buy the lab manual back.

  3. I've never figured out the point of textbooks.

    It really depends on the class and the text. A class that's high content (history) rather than high skill (basketweaving) really benefits from the students working outside of class on basic narratives and primary sources, and using class time for different perspectives and discussion. That way I can, as I did today, give a complicating and thematic lecture on the Cold War (I take issue with "War" and "Cold" and "The") instead of recapitulating the chronology.

    Of course, that assumes that they both own and read the text. Whole other discussion.

  4. As AM points out, we're in a negative spiral at the moment when it comes to textbooks: publishers have engaged in all sorts of ridiculous gouging and profiteering behaviors, which has led already-financially-stressed students to resist buying any books, however reasonably priced, which makes it very hard to teach, especially in classes where the main in-class activity is supposed to be discussion/close analysis of the assigned reading. I'm hoping a better, probably e-reader based, model will emerge, but it's going to take a while. With a few exceptions, I don't think textbook authors (as opposed to publishers) ever made a lot for their work (those who know more, please correct me if I'm wrong), so that opens up some possibilities for open-source publishing, especially if we could figure out a way of peer-reviewing (or at least measuring frequency of adoption of) such materials. It doesn't make sense for everyone to create everything from scratch, but I, for one, wouldn't at all mind the opportunity to mix and match from multiple textbooks (and I'm not sure the one-size-attempts-to-fit-all compendium is really the best model, at least in my own field of composition).

    We may also get to the point of having well-produced classroom editions of primary texts available in electronic formats, but they're still pretty reasonably priced in book form, much less likely to change editions frequently (or to be rendered entirely unusable when they do), and still somewhat hard to annotate electronically (though we're getting close on that last one). I'd welcome electronic editions if they made it less likely for noncanonical works to go back out of print (a lot of good work recovering literature by women and other underrepresented groups was done in the late 20th century; sadly, many of those editions are now out of print; on the other hand, it's now often possible to access scans of the original editions, which have their own usefulness, on Google Books ). I made it through college almost entirely on used volumes (the hunt through my college town's half-dozen used book stores, following a trip to the official bookstore to write down the titles, was an eagerly-anticipated beginning-of-term ritual). But that's the experience of an English major who took almost entirely humanities classes after freshman year. Science and math textbooks are, I realize, a different animal.

  5. All students who CHOOSE not to buy their textbooks are CHOOSING TO FAIL.

    So fail them.

    Excuse-making like Academic Monkey's is so dreadfully common, it's almost impossible to refute.

    But there's that little thing that we all know: College is NOT mandatory. For many instructors, textbooks are required for education to happen. Any student who can afford tuition but not the books cannot afford to be in college.

    End. Of. Story.

    Yeah, and that myth about the $150 worth of texts? Only for certain classes. Many of us routinely assign affordable books. And that $60 text from 20 years is now "worth" the $150. Perhaps similar buying power?

    No, no...just focus on the raw dollars and not on the fact that many of our students buy $5 coffees everyday for class. Give up coffee and gee, that 'spensive book becomes affordable, don't it?

  6. @Jonathan,

    That's the point of my comment: 100-level history courses just rehash of the chronology. The textbook choice seems irrelevant, merely a repeat of what happened in lecture.

    To put it another way, as someone who works with people designing history courses, it seems that history intrucutors don't actually get permission to move away from history as a chronology until the 300 level.

    By then, all the non-majors have drifted off.

  7. @Cassandra
    My department uses a text by the author that had "The House That Calculus Built" commissioned for roughly $24M. While he may be the exception to the rule, during a conference in March, I met a number of textbook authors that were wearing extremely expensive suits.

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  9. I'm an undergrad lurker here. I don't post much because I realize this blog isn't about me. However, after reading through the recent posts on textbooks, I thought I would add in my perspective.

    I work part-time, making close to minimum wage. I work about 10-15 hours a week, pretty much all I can handle and stay on top of my course load. A single textbook costs just about as much as I make in two weeks, if not slightly more. A single semester's worth of textbooks will cost me as much as I earn in about a month and a half to two months.

    Now, I'm in an engineering discipline, so my textbooks tend to fall on the more expensive side of the scale. Just for fun, I looked up the current prices for all the books I've needed the past two semesters on my university's bookstore website. The average cost was $179.14 new, $136.21 used. The cheapest book was $100.50 used and the most expensive was $205.50 new.

    Yes, textbooks are just an additional cost to the already ludicrously expensive college experience, but they should not be considered a trivial cost by any means.

  10. Oh, the_myth, how I wish that were true. I'm a recently graduated undergraduate who sucked it up and bought all my books. My physics book? $212, plus a study guide and a workbook, totaling almost $400. The professor, of course, demanded we use the very latest edition, so used copies weren't available. The art history text? $158. These were for gen ed classes, mind - they have no continuing use value to me, and their exchange value was minimal too. Even professors who "went easy" on us by choosing real books at $15 or $20 apiece proceeded to ruin their advantage by assigning six or eight of them. The only semesters I didn't have a $600 textbook bill (or more!) were my last two - the penultimate semester, I had already bought almost all the associated books for other classes, and the final semester I only took nine credits. Textbook prices are at times ludicrously high, and it's a struggle that students don't need.

  11. I sympathize with those who have to buy actual "textbooks," which are frequently overpriced and replaced over and over again by "new" editions of dubious value.

    However, over here in the Humanities, I use Dover Thrifts a lot, at $2-4 a book. And I put course books on reserve in the library. And I still have students who cite the cost of books as a reason not to do the reading.

  12. @The_Myth All students who CHOOSE not to buy their textbooks are CHOOSING TO FAIL.

    Yeah, that's a myth.

    Undergrad lurkers, earmuffs! (or blinders, or something- just don't read the next paragraph.)

    I bought the book for an Intro to a Science class that was shrink-wrapped; you break it- you bought it. After the first few lectures and comparing notes with some other people in the class I realized that the professor's lecture was covering everything in the book. Ev-ry-thing. I returned the book on the last day for 100% refund, got all my money back (I didn't break the seal), and we all ate and drank well that weekend. I made a "B" in the course. Would having the book been enough to get me an "A"? Meh. I didn't care and still don't. But I didn't fail. Your mileage may vary.

  13. I'm not that concerned if students choose not to buy the books for financial reasons. It's standard practice here (everywhere?) to put a copy of course textbooks on reserve in the library to be 'consulted' (=photocopied), and, of course, students could opt to collectively buy a book and photocopy or scan the needed sections. What concerns me is students who think they can get by without using the book in any way at all.
    One of my former students was recently quoted in a campus publication stating that he buys all his textbooks but never looks at them. This could account for why this student is retaking the course again this year (mercifully, with another instructor).

  14. Myth, old shoe, I'm going to have to come down on the side of the students on this one.

    Students in my organic chem course pay about $4000 retail per semester, for tuition. The various required course texts, software and model kit run them around $300, and it would be $400 to $500 if I used commercial software, and didn't roll my own lab manual.

    On the other hand, I also grok Frog and Toad. I assign about $20 in textbooks for my gen-ed chemistry class, and tell them up front that I will not be talking about a fair chunk of the stuff in the book, but they're still responsible for it.

    Some of 'em still don't buy the darned book.

  15. 100-level history courses just rehash of the chronology. The textbook choice seems irrelevant, merely a repeat of what happened in lecture.

    No, no, no, no. Chronology is a framework: history is not chronology any more than mathematics is counting.

    And a lecture which repeats the textbook material without adding complexity, focus or new material is a waste of time on everyone's part.

  16. The real reason why students are hesitant to buy required textbooks is because they are worried about buying a textbook that won't be used at all. I've wasted money on supposed required textbooks that were never used.

    Students want to know ahead of time how a textbook is being used and why it is important to have.

    Making students have their textbook in hand on the first day of class as a graded assignment is a bad, bad idea. a) it looks like collusion between the instructor and the publisher, b)I can't imagine a university allowing such a policy.

    Your best bet is to detail how the textbook will be used in the course syllabus and have them read the syllabus before the first day of classes.

    Still a very interesting article. This is the only article I've found on the topic from the POV of an instructor.


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