The Trouble with Textbooks

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College students outraged over $999  online textbook (channel3000.com)

One of the primary guiding principles of my teaching career, if not my whole life, is to never forget where I came from. While I could cite many examples of how that principle guides my non-teaching life, my bad experiences as a K-12 student have done a lot to shape how I approach my work as a teacher. Even when I was still a student in those classrooms, I could see how some teachers were inflicting misery on their students (or just me in particular) because they were operating under a mindset that since they’d had to do something they didn’t like when they were students, they had a “right” to force their students to do the same thing. Add a never-ending capacity for sadism to that, and you have a rough idea of how nine years of my early “education” went, which is why every day I teach, before I get things started in the classroom, I always remind myself to be the kind of teacher for my students that I so desperately needed when I was younger.

Now that I finally have a full-time teaching position, I have to remind myself of my roots in a whole new way. I struggled through over a decade of part-time teaching work to get to this point in my professional career, and some in my position would be tempted to forget about the problems of colleges and universities becoming increasingly reliant on low-paid, part-time adjuncts, and how those problems affect the quality of education that students at those institutions are paying for, to say nothing of the stress this puts adjuncts under. I’m not about to do that. Even if I’m now one of the lucky ones with a full-time position, there are far too many instructors at institutions all across this country who continue to barely claw out a living for themselves, and I intend on fighting for them just as strongly as I did when I was a part-timer myself.

For all the struggles I had during my years of part-time teaching, I was constantly exposed in my classrooms to students under far more dire economic circumstances than I was, and one of the struggles I saw them facing was  the absurdity of modern textbook prices. Those prices had already reached astronomical levels when I was still getting my degrees, and that situation has gotten at least twice as worse since then. Colleges and universities advertising their low tuition costs often work against themselves, since students sign up for these inexpensive classes thinking they’re getting a good deal, only to get slammed by having to buy upwards of $1,000 in textbooks every semester, some of which the instructor may never use (or only use in a limited capacity). These students often feel ripped off after they buy their textbooks, and those feelings may extend not only to the textbook companies, but to the colleges and universities themselves.

This story about a university in Louisiana charging $999 for an electronic textbook is disturbing on a number of levels, and what is actually going on may be the least problematic of the issues created by this story. For those of you who only know of the story from its headline, the electronic textbook in question is not a required text, and it was only priced that high to encourage students to buy the physical textbook, which is “only” around $300, since the instructor wants students to work with printed pages during class sessions. First of all, as much as I try to sympathize with teachers having trouble adapting to how modern technology is constantly reshaping our classrooms, I find it hard to believe that instructors can’t come up with alternate exercises that wouldn’t necessitate printed textbooks in class. Giving students handouts, or just asking them to print out something from the course’s online component, would make things a lot easier on students, and it wouldn’t require that much effort on the part of the instructor.

Beyond the issue of how much textbooks cost, there’s also the problem of how much they weigh. I still suffer from shoulder pain caused by having to haul around a bunch of super-heavy books from class to class in my earlier education (back before backpacks with wheels and telescoping handles were widely available), and I’ve had lots of students who have experienced similar issues. If only for the sake of student comfort, instructors should do everything they can to make sure that their students rarely, if ever, have to bring heavy books to class, especially if it’s known that students will have to walk a long distance from their dorms/apartments to the classroom.

The most damage this news story could do, though, may be from its surface. For those people who didn’t bother reading past the headline, and who may think that at least one college class is now requiring its students to buy a $999 textbook, that creates a huge disincentive to pursuing further education. Given that the physical version of the textbook costs about $300, the thought of a required $999 text isn’t all that absurd, and long after the details of this story have receded from the wider consciousness, that “$999 textbook” headline will continue to live on, especially thanks to the anti-education loudmouths who will trot it out every chance they get as “proof” of how out-of-touch higher education is.

It’s often the textbook companies, and not the instructors who put so much effort into writing those textbooks (good, bad or indifferent), that get the lion’s share of those exorbitant prices, but the students (and/or their families) who have to pay for those textbooks don’t care about that. They only care about how much money they have to shell out for books that can often be outdated before the shrink wrap comes off of them. (One of the most memorable experiences of my first year at the University of Toledo was reading a case study in a Business textbook about the “success” of the XFL, which had ceased operations months before the semester even started.) $300 textbooks would be bad enough, but now there is going to be a lingering perception that textbooks costing nearly $1,000 are to be expected at colleges and universities, and that’s only going to make it harder for those of us in higher education to get people to attend our institutions.

Most of the classes I’ll be teaching this coming semester don’t have any required textbooks, and they don’t need textbooks because of the wealth of good, free information available online that I’ve been adapting to my classes throughout my teaching career. This isn’t a decision I’ve made on my own — I have some cool bosses here who share my concerns about helping students with the high costs of higher education — but it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time now. I’d like to think that the move towards using free materials in college classes will continue to grow, but as long as headlines like “College textbook costs $999” stick in everyone’s minds, the rest of us may still wind up with fewer and fewer students to teach in the years ahead, as factors apart from what we teachers do continue to price more students out of higher education.

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