Textbooks, Exploitative Academics, and Criticism

A brushfire developed when Andrea James made a side comment in her Boing Boing post about LaSalle University (itself a noteworthy pointer to the rich social history of distance learning); she observed in passing that “Like modern academia, a big part of [LaSalle’s] revenue involved selling overpriced books authored by instructors,” and when several commenters (including me) pointed out that this claim seemed remote from the academia with which they were familiar, James and some other commenters pushed back. Then James, in hope of steering the comments back toward LaSalle University, forked the discussion by making a separate, subsequent Boing Boing entry about the textbook racket.
 
I absented myself from that discussion (though I followed the comments), in large part because the tenor of the argument seemed overdetermined. While I agree that there’s an element of racketeering in the textbook marketplace, I very strongly disagree that faculty are noteworthy malefactors in the story, and I decline to participate in an online thread where responding to charges of corruption triggers the charge of “defensiveness.” I ain’t playing by those rules, nor am I charging James with any hysterically overblown wrongdoing. I leave it to other readers to ponder James’s observation (in response to Got Medieval’s response to the second thread) that “Whenever a professor mentions “the truth,” I reach for my gun” (a few points for the allusion to Hanns Johsst, but big demerits for the implied threat of violence in response to trying to tell the truth, especially since James herself has been emphasizing her veracity (“it’s in a report!”) over against the corrupt defensiveness of professors).
 
As far as I’m concerned, Got Medieval hits many of the salient points. Some of the motifs of James’s (and the commenters’) complaints warrant specific response, though. First, although few defensive academics have disputed the premise that textbooks cost a whole lot — more than one would ordinarily expect them too — much of the anti-academic rhetoric persists in treating this phenomenon as a sin of the professoriate. Among my academic friends, three have hit the gravy train with big-selling textbooks (I don’t know what the sales numbers are, and I especially don’t know what the financial implications are, but they live in noticeably nicer homes than the rest of us, and seem less worried about retirement). As a percentage of “academics I know,” that’s about 1%, probably too small a sample to be considered representative of the whole field. As for the rest of us, James notes that 42% of instructors indicated that they didn’t know how much the textbooks they assign cost. That’s a Bad Sign, although it would sound less horrifying if you said that 58% of instructors pay attention to the cost of the books they assign. Again, among the academics I know, that demonic 42% comprises mostly people who would say that they’re concerned about using the best, most apposite books for the course; why spend thousands of dollars on tuition if you’re going to try to save twenty bucks by using a less-satisfactory text? (I’m not defending this position, and I don’t hold to it myself, but it doesn’t sound particularly baleful or corrupt to me). Another portion of the 42-percenters are (as Got Medieval suggests) overworked or underinformed about the books in question. I have never, ever, ever heard a colleague observe that they derived a pecuniary benefit from assigning a particular book, not in the academic equivalent of locker room talk (maybe “while vesting for a procession”?), not in private conversation about our maddeningly straitened finances, not in boastful assertions of superiority. Sure, I expect that it happens sometime; but I’d be startled if it were other than an extremely isolated incident (in my fields).
 
Now, if we turn to the question of should instructors be complicit with this industry by assigning arguably-overpriced textbooks, the question gets even more complicated. A great proportion of students want lucid, colorful, reliable, helpful textbooks that cohere with the points an instructor is trying to make. If we are to respond to that preference (and the student evaluation feedback that it triggers), our choices are extremely limited — and none of the alternatives, so far as I’m aware, is inexpensive. This, I think, is the real pressure-point for would-be activists, since it affects the pedagogical atmosphere and tenure evaluations. If someday, it were clear that a preponderance of student evaluations expressed a forceful, consistent expectation that the cost of supplementary materials were more important than attractive design, painstakingly careful exposition, critically-sound textbooks, I imagine that heads of department, deans, and canny colleagues would pick up that demand. I don’t expect that to happen, since some of the students who want the fancier product just don’t care about the price, and others probably would prefer something less expensive, but realize that the options are few when one places the benchmarks high. I’m assigning a glossy textbook this spring; I know what it costs, and I’m happy for students to buy it second-hand or at Amazon (or second-hand via Amazon, for that matter) (by the way, to avoid charges of corrution I have omitted the “associates” link with which I usually tag items I mention on Amazon, thereby making about £8/year). If students want to use an earlier edition they may, but Ehrman does make significant changes from edition to edition, as far as I’ve been able to tell, including refactoring the number, order, and contents of chapters. Now, it’s possible that Bart is crassly doing so in order to bilk students out of their meager monies; he’s never talked to me about the business end of the Ehrman family of best-selling publications. I don’t have any reason to take that as my starting premise, though, nor do I think anyone else has.
 
I remembered after I first commented on James’s original remark that I have indeed written a textbook. The fact that it slipped my mind should suggest how great an impact it made on family finances here; it was also the most painful experience I’ve ever had with an editor/production team, rushed, marred with very many errata, and not at all the book I had hoped they would make. It had several distinct advantages when it came out, and for that reason I assigned it two or three times (after having supplied students with free printed drafts for a couple of years); the publisher has presumably seen that the benefits to them of the production decisions and timetable that they made mattered less than the flawed result, and they’ve let the resulting textbook slide into oblivion; if there were a general interest in my resuscitating it, I’d be happy to correct the design and copy mistakes and produce a free-to-distribute PDF of the book, but I also have pressure to produce critical work to support my departments standing in the REF.
 
Most university bookstores with which I’ve worked derive little or no profit from books or textbooks, and a vast amount from office supplies and especially branded merchandise. If we’re going to start a consumer revolution against high prices in academic settings, let’s start by disallowing anyone who’s spent more than £100 on t-shirts, jerseys, hoodies, underwear, and other branded knick-knacks.
 
But that points to big differences among institutions, where (I would guess, without specific experience or data) that community college bookstores (or other small-scale institution bookstores) operate under very different conditions from those that affect Harvard or the University of Chicago. I’m not sure how much benefit we gain by lumping those together under the indistinct header of “academia,” given the factors in play in this discussion.
 
Rather than taking up the rest of my morning with elaborating this point, I’ll conclude by noting that this is an area of vivid interest and commitment on my part; I’ve devoted considerable energy to the addressing this problem; my syllabi in general reflect that commitment and energy; and even though I’ve gotten a lot less support from colleagues than I’d wish, and even though I don’t foresee that changing soon, I won’t back off. And I don’t think it’s fair to most of my colleagues, even those who are politically deaf and inert on this topic, to target them as the principal malefactors.

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  1. This strikes me as a question that’s largely field dependent. I taught world history last year and was pressed into teaching Western Civ 1 and 2. I used the college’s main textbook, which was used by all of the adjuncts. The textbook cost north of US $150 and the book store only ordered the comprehensive textbook (so, it covered the 5000 years, rather than just the course specific length). This was something like the 17th edition in the last twenty years. Half of one class never bought he textbooks. The textbook company provided a number of useful resources: canned powerpoint lectures, a test bank, and some primary readings (none more than 2 pages in length). It wasn’t a bad resource for a course that needs to be taught cold by someone with little training in the field to reluctant undergrads, but it clearly left a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think the argument is that people who write textbooks are predatory or that good textbooks aren’t worth more than poor textbooks. I think there are some markets where textbook companies capitalize on (and perpetuate) bad curricula and pedagogy. If I teach an undergrad survey course in the future I’ll probably use one of the few public domain textbooks available and make my own primary reader (drawing on great sites like Fordham’s), and also assign some novels and short books.

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