Why assign this $135 book?

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By Darren Johnson

Campus News

Even though we at Campus News have covered this story in the past and there have been some battles won – with the passage of textbook rental rules and some changes in law – the fact of the matter is that the war is still being lost when it comes to textbooks and community college students.

And the reasons why you’re being hosed at the bookstore range from professorial laziness to a simple, corporate money grab. Hopefully this piece will shed some light as to why you are being ripped off and what some solutions may be.

Ultimately, it comes down to your professors – often overworked and overstressed – thinking outside the box (or the box store) and taking charge, because they are the ones with the academic freedom to select their courses’ books.

But you, the student, can also do something. Once you pick your class, email the professor. Find out the exact textbook, including ISBN number, he is assigning. Practically every professor, even the lowliest of adjuncts, has an email address listed on the campus web site. Then order it on a site like half.com for a fraction of what the campus bookstore charges.

In my 14 years of teaching, I’ve only had about a half a dozen students contact me about the book(s) before the class began, but it’s a smart move (and also an icebreaker for the student to begin a conversation with the professor). For example, a freshman Italian book, “Oggi in Italia,” is $97 in the campus store. On half.com, it’s $15.21. A basic math text, “Elementary Statistics” by Allan G. Bluma, is under $24 on half.com but $165 new and $124 used in the campus store for the same exact book (you can tell by the unique ISBN number). These examples are the norm. Try researching this yourself with your textbooks.

In my own area, English, “The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings” is as low as 50 cents on amazon.com. That’s CENTS, not dollars! It’s over $80 in the bookstore. That’s some expensive cellophane wrap!

Campus bookstores bank on the natural laziness of people. Professors too lazy to insist on assigning affordably priced books and students too lazy to go beyond the campus to save up to $100 per course or more (true, some students get financial aid that includes the cost of books, thus the gouge, but what’s everyone else’s excuse)?

Using Old Books, a Change in Philosophy
When my daughter neared reading age, I found the first book I’d learned to read, “Pug,” for a few bucks on ebay and used that to teach her. A decade later, when she was considering taking a Spanish course in her school, I found the book I’d first learned Spanish with, “Churros y Chocolate,” on half.com for maybe a five-spot plus shipping.

I figured these books worked for me; why not use them with my daughter? Surely English and Spanish languages haven’t changed much in my four decades. Surely, there was no groundbreaking revolution in that time in how to teach these languages.

But if you’re taking Intro to Spanish at a local community college, the book, “Mosaicos,” is $160 new ($120 used) with a required manual at an added $74 ($55 used) for a total of $234 ($175 used, if you’re lucky enough to find used editions in the bookstore).

If you MUST get these books, you can find them for $33 and $11 on half.com for a total of $44. Save $190! What could you two with two c-notes? Maybe get pretty good seats for you and a significant other at a Broadway show or Yankees game. Have fun!

But, professors should know they are not obligated to assign new textbooks pitched by publishers. Any book in print with an ISBN number should do.

At Borders, a book titled “Read and Think Spanish” is over 200 pages, comes with a CD, and would be fine to use in a typical Spanish intro course. It’s under $20 ($6 used). If a professor were to assign that book, the campus bookstore would be obligated to stock it (and sell it for the cover price, at most). So a student could still get the book on campus.

Perhaps an inventive instructor could also toss a Spanish language newspaper or two in there for students to translate. Another dollar? Most former Spanish students I’ve met barely remember more than the word “hola” soon after the course has ended, so why not try something different?

I know when I was a student, I used to take textbooks less seriously – they are SO generic – than REAL books. Perhaps using real books will have a better effect?

One real book I used to assign in my Freshman Composition classes is out of print, but I’d tell students to get it online. It is the “Penguin Book of Contemporary American Essays” edited by Maureen Howard. It’s 75 cents on half.com and there are plenty of the books listed there. Published in 1985, it has four or five timeless essays that work perfectly in a community college freshman composition class, including Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.”

I would give the students a couple of weeks to get their copies, and then start introducing the essays to the class, which were great conversation starters as to the basics of writing.
You can’t judge a book by its price.

Free Books
Of course, there are free books, too. Project Guttenberg has plenty of public-domain classics on its site. As well, professors are adding to this movement with “open-source texts.”

Mathematics professor Rob Beezer at University of Puget Sound in Washington State is one of the trailblazers in open source textbooks. He has put his book, “A First Course in Linear Algebra,” online where students can access it for free. It is an introductory textbook designed for university sophomores and juniors, but is also used in community colleges and high schools.

It is among the texts recommended to California high schools under the Governor’s order that free online textbooks be made available in state schools. Quite a number of professors across the U.S. are now using his book, his college’s publicity director told me via email.

So I wrote to Professor Beezer. Here’s the transcript:

Me: Do you find college instructors increasingly assigning your book?

Beezer: Have a look at http://linear.ups.edu/adoption.html. [I did – about two dozen professors are using this free text for their courses.]

Beezer: This is an incomplete list, and I have not poked around yet this spring to see where it is being used. I did have a report it was being used at Yale, but the instructor did not want me to post a link to the course on the adoption page.

Me: Any pressures from the textbook industry?

Beezer: No. Some inquires from publishers (FlatWorld Knowledge, Eleven Learning) about my material, but they use “non-commercial” clauses in their licenses, which I do not use. I am not sure what sort of pressure they could bring to bear. It’s a free country.  😉  Conversely, I hope the existence of open textbooks brings pressure on them to lower prices, release electronic editions without digital restrictions management (DRM) and refrain from releasing unnecessary new editions.

Me: I’ve taught journalism and writing related courses for 14 years and, except in the early years when I didn’t know better, have gotten away from the idea of using new books that have to be bought in the campus bookstore. For journalism, I have students buy different newspapers each week, and we study those along with a common stylebook. Maybe total cost for reading materials for the student is $25.

Beezer: Many topical courses (political science, business, etc.) are going that way.  For me it is the opposite. How much has calculus changed in the last 50 years? Answer: not much. Let’s get some good open textbooks out there, and refine them until they are the best possible choice.

Making a Stand
Ultimately, it’s up to professors to make a stand – for their students.

Textbooks are usually a bore, and outrageously priced. Professors: Hit the B. Dalton and find some real books to assign students, at a fraction of the cost. Liven up the class, and also allow students to pocket a few extra bucks.

I once considered writing a textbook – on Practical Writing. I’m convinced that learning the art of practical writing (communiqués, business reports, etc.) is a great way for freshmen, especially those with confidence issues, to hone their skills and become competent communicators. It’s a good foundation for college writing, and a textbook on the subject hasn’t been written in decades.

I approached a textbook company – they couldn’t care less about the importance of the book or its quality. They simply wanted to know how many students I’d have each semester and how many I could force to buy the book. It was simple math to them.

They’d pay me a couple of grand and have unlimited rights to the book. I wouldn’t see a dime after that.
I’m not a sucker. And I don’t treat my students like suckers.

Here’s hoping other professors follow Prof. Beezer’s and my examples.

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