The guest blogger over at BoingBoing this week has a post up insinuating that professors somehow collude with publishers (ala doctors and drug companies) when selecting textbooks. The main piece of evidence for this claim seems to be that professors, like doctors, sometimes receive free samples, in this case free sample textbooks.
Now, I know that seems damning. And if you’ve read the post, you know it presents an ironclad case. I mean, it’s in outline form. And some parts of the outline are bolded. Very convincing stuff. But there’s a few facts that the author, Andrea James, leaves out. So allow me to fill in the gaps.
- Your prof has a budget of exactly no dollars to evaluate potential textbooks for your class. He’s completely at the mercy of whatever scraps the publishers will send him, whatever’s in the library, whatever he has left over from his own undergrad days, and whatever he can beg off a colleague who taught the class last term.*
- Your prof only uses textbooks in big survey classes. And your prof is not an expert in the material covered in the big survey classes. How could he be? Big survey classes cover things like “History from the Dawn of Time until about a Century before the Stuff Your Prof Wrote His Dissertation on”.
- Odds are, your prof has absolutely no idea what the introductory textbooks are in this general field he’s not a specialist in. They don’t cover that in grad school. Indeed, the number of days spent in grad school going over how to pick textbooks is zero. That’s slightly–slightly!–less than the number of days in grad school spent on how to design a course. Hell, if you’re at a big university, your introductory professor probably is still in grad school.
- He’ll probably do an Amazon search or just use whichever textbook he used when he took the course ten years ago. Hope there’s a new edition!
- Say your prof actually had time to request evaluation copies. Unlikely, since until two weeks ago, he was scheduled to teach “History from about a Century after the Stuff He Wrote His Dissertation on until the Modern Day, with Special Emphasis on Multicultural Something-or-Other” instead. It’ll still take weeks for the publishing elves to get back to him.
- When they do get back to him, half the books sent by the publishing elves will be completely useless. Say the course in question happens to be “World History Before 1500”. Some publishers will send American History textbooks, others biographies of people who lived two hundred years after the period being taught, others books clearly designed for middle schools.
- Oh, and now that your prof has contacted the publisher, they have added him to a generic marketing spam list and will periodically send him updates on every book marginally related to the intro course in a field he’s not a specialist in that he taught just once three years ago.**
- On the off chance that your prof does decide to use one of the books the publishers sent him a free copy of, professors don’t have any further interaction with the publishers, because they have to order through their university bookstore which has people on staff to talk to publishers for them.
- Oh, and by the way, sample copies of textbooks are absolutely useless to a professor once they’ve decided which text to use. A doctor with free samples of Cialis or Ritalin has something people want. A prof with a sample textbook has something useful chiefly for propping up wobbly tables or pressing dried flowers. There’s no recreational or off label use for World History Before Columbus: A Slipshod Survey With Useless Full Color Sidebars.
- If your prof doesn’t use the university bookstore, he is an ass, because students on financial aid often have book vouchers that can only be used at the university bookstore.
- If your prof tries to direct students to Amazon or textbooks.com, half the students will seize upon nonstandard behavior as an excuse to delay buying the textbook. They’ll email the prof with things like, “I don’t have the book yet [five weeks into the course]; it takes three weeks to get things shipped from Amazon.”***
- Meanwhile, the bookstore requires professors to jump through insane hoops to submit their book orders. Usually, they want the orders three months before you knew for sure your class was going to make.
- It doesn’t matter how perfectly the professor jumps through said hoops, because the bookstore is just going to fuck the book order up anyway. They’ll order too many of one book, too few of another. They’ll order Henry IV, Part 2 when you need Part 1. They’ll order the wrong edition, or inexplicably order the third edition for the text and the fourth for the workbook. They’ll shelve your books across the room from all the other books in your department. They’ll shelve the books for your section of History 112 in the area for Art History 101, but strangely not vice versa.
- Even if the bookstore doesn’t botch the order, several students will pretend they did to try to delay buying the book.
- Oh, and those nefarious sample books? Your prof lent out the sample book he got, to a student much less prepared than you. And he’s never going to get it back.
- And perhaps most important of all: No tenure review board has ever in the history of academia considered whether a candidate uses appropriate or affordable textbooks.
- After all the emails to publishers, all the time spent evaluating books, all those emails and phone calls and personal visits to the bookstore to make sure that the books were there, when your prof grades the first test, he’s going to realize that it doesn’t matter what textbook you assign, half the students simply will not read it.
- And the half that did read it probably bought it on Amazon or checked it out of the library, so why are they so eager to believe in nefarious collusion?
I hope that clears things up, BoingBoingkateers.
*Him and he are perfectly acceptable non-gender specific pronouns, especially in this case, where all the facts are drawn from one dude’s life.
**The marketers will send him emails that say things like “You taught ‘History Before 1500’ once, so surely you’ll be happy to know that we just published a new workbook for use with Europe in the Balance: 1913-1950!!”
***I must admit to fictionalizing that example. The student in question did not use a semicolon.