When the book reps visit

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A couple weeks ago, the students in our department bought lunch for the faculty. It was a nice catered takeout box. I had the Mediterranean Veggie. It reminded me of the time that the students bought us all bagels and coffee, for the departmental office.

But, these meals had a miserable aftertaste. Our students didn’t buy these meals for us out of gratitude. Every student was required to chip in a full day’s wages just for these sandwiches. These meals were brought to us by book reps, who are schmoozing us so that we will choose their textbook.

I’ve taught using expensive textbooks. I’ve taught using cheaper textbooks. I’ve taught using inexpensive trade books. I’ve taught using an “open” textbook. And I’ve taught with a variety of materials that I’ve personally accumulated. Teaching with a well-supported textbook can make this much, much easier for the instructor. The publishers are making an ungodly amount of profit from this venture, but they often do deliver a product that works and makes the job easier for the professors too. And in courses with multiple sections, textbooks offer a consistency that is hard to get when universities are hiring a series of adjunct instructors who aren’t necessarily closely coordinating with the department. I get why people use textbooks from major publishers.

I also get why people don’t use textbooks. In my university system, more than 10% of our students are homeless and more than 40% are food insecure. On my campus, which has more low-income students than many other CSUs, those numbers are indubitably much higher. Our students are working many hours per week and still, quite literally, can’t afford to eat well. How can I even think about asking my students to pay a substantial amount of money for a textbook (or even to rent one), when so many are in want of a stable roof and a solid meal? What’s a few hundred bucks for books each semester, compared to the cost of tuition and other living expenses? I’ll tell you: many trips to the grocery store.

Academic publishing is a sector that has an outrageously massive profit margin. And they’re not going anywhere, they continue to develop educational resources that we use in our classrooms. There are all kinds of slick applications that students license for six months at a time, accompanying a very pricey textbook, and so many professors will require their students to pay for these resources because it streamlines the teaching.

Did the sandwiches do the trick? That’s not in my wheelhouse. This wasn’t a course I’m not teaching, I don’t run the department, it’s not my call. If we hire contingent faculty to teach courses that are important to us, and they need to teach many courses to pay the bills, then it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t be able to require educational resources that help them get the job done.

As long as there are people who are raking in lots of money to develop quality textbooks, and as long as we don’t have robust public funding to create comparable resources, there will always be faculty who choose these tools — and there will always be some institutions where the majority of students are prepared to pay for it.

After developing a course without relying on a textbook, I changed things last semester, and I relied heavily on Whitlock and Schluter, 2nd edition. Which is a damn great book. I used on the book heavily for reading, problem sets, examples, and datasets. And according to my assessment, the students learned better than when I had polished the course using other approaches. My only regret is that students had to pay over 20 bucks to rent the e-book. Which isn’t so bad, I hope? The MacMillan folks never bought me a meal, so at least my conscience is clean there? But my conscience doesn’t matter so much, the cost of going to college is the variable we need to look at. We should be buying our own damn sandwiches.

6 thoughts on “When the book reps visit

  1. I’ve actually lectured the book reps about the poverty issues on our campus while explaining that I cannot force my students to buy their expensive textbook. I’ve been using OpenStax for a while with good success. It is more work for me, but for my non-majors biology class I just cannot stomach having them pay >$100 for a book. I think an argument could be made for not requiring expensive texts for gen-ed classes.

  2. Our campus uses textbook rental. It’s still not super cheap; flat rate of $50/course, regardless of the number of required books for the course. But that’s significantly cheaper than buying required texts outright. Seems odd to me that more institutions don’t take that approach.

    • I tell students where they can rent the book. I found our intro bio textbook for rent on Amazon for $16 a semester. I also put a personal copy of the book on reserve in the library. I used to feel conflicted about encouraging students to rent the book or buy from online dealers, because I didn’t want to undermine our bookstore, but then the university privatized the bookstore to a corporate chain.

  3. I feel like I have to add this epic comment from twitter:

  4. Have you ever asked about complementary books or access? When I taught a class at a lower income university, our book was online and we got several free access codes to give to students who couldn’t afford the book. I’m more wondering if this is normal as it was the first time I had heard this was an option.

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