The Real Truth About Textbooks

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.

  1. 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.*
  2. 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”.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.**
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. If your prof tries to direct students to Amazon or, 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.”***
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Even if the bookstore doesn’t botch the order, several students will pretend they did to try to delay buying the book.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ChrisJ

    Wow! Half your students read the textbook!

    You've hit the nail on the head.I can't imagine ever actually wanting an examination copy for anything other than examining it for a class. Textbooks generally aren't meant to be exciting perks.

    And yes, If I actually ever do want a particular text to check out, it is almost impossible to get.

    And yes, any copies I do get, I give away.

  • tenthmedieval

    I am actually evaluating a textbook now and have been quite lucky that it's a good one and will help me in the parts of the course I don't know as well, but yes, all of the above is true and, ironically, once I'd got it I was told the relevant university was closing the course. (It has no university bookstore, though. I think that might mainly be a US thing. I would order a few copies for the library and the students who wanted their own copy would have to get it via whatever nefarious means they could.)

  • Lavanah

    I've a child about to graduate (Columbia, class of 2010) and when she went off as I freshman, I was afraid that I would need a 5th mortgage on my house, just to pay for her books. The issues of the BoingBoing writer have been pushed for a while. My daughter bought NO textbooks this past semester; none of her Profs used any one book enough to make purchasing viable.

    Oh-and my father has contributed to several textbooks. He figures that all of his commissions, paid until he dies, won't cover the cost of actually purchasing one of the books. Good thing the publishing companies pay all those marketers, right?

  • Steve Muhlberger

    I say "wow" too, but in my case the exclamation is for the brilliance of your summary, which pretty much matches my experience.

    I very seldom use textbooks: only for World History (and a colleague found a good one) and sometimes for stuff relating to the Middle East or Islamic civilization. What I mainly do is post my lecture notes. Any non-textbook books I require have an assignment attached. I don't assign books just because they are going to be "good for you." Lots of relevant good books in the library.

    I sometimes wonder how many people put off second term purchases as long as possible and then have to choose between buying books and eating. A lot more than in the 80s, I bet.

  • Wacky Hermit

    Add to that the fact that often publishers are wasting their time contacting people like me (OK, like I was when I was teaching): adjunct professors who have absolutely no authority whatsoever to even request a textbook. Only once have I ever had the authority to request a particular textbook, and even then it was only the choice between the 8th edition which the main campus had just switched to or the 7th edition which they'd just abandoned and would therefore be cheaply available for my students, provided they could find a copy. And not only did I get evaluation copies of neither book, but once I'd made the choice they didn't even get me my teacher's edition until the day before classes started, so I had all of 24 hours to produce my syllabus and homework schedule.

    My fave bit of the rant was the part about useless colorful sidebars. There's nothing I hate more than a book that renders itself unreadable by having a main text that continues from page to page, supplemented by those damn sidebars. Are you supposed to stop reading the page in the middle of a paragraph, jump to the sidebar, then jump back into the main text? Or are you supposed to read the main text through, then turn back to the beginning and read through all the damn sidebars without reference to the text to which they purport to be helpful tips? (Not that any of my math students ever read their text or followed any helpful tips…)

  • stu

    And after all this, it's still better than the ones who appear to deliberately pick incredibly obscure books that are nearly impossible to get hold of, on the basis that they either A: wrote them, or B: found a copy somewhere in 1980 and don't see why everyone else shouldn't.

  • TomV

    You left out one scenario: you have just been hired to replace the previous instructor, who had (fortunately) already ordered the book. I did wind up with some extra materials (e.g., excerpts from Mad Magazine in German) that I could pass out to the more interested students.

  • Matthew Gabriele

    now your post has bold too. you actually teach and she is writing a polemic. I'm confused about what to believe. does wikipedia have something on this?

  • Sheryl

    I'll have to read the article to finish off my morning triad of bigmouthery, but your point (i) was the first thing that sprang to my mind when I started reading your post.

    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.

    Anyone who ever tried to sell back a textbook to the university bookstore or, worse, tried to sell it outside of the university environment knows what limited currency and appeal college textbooks hold… in or out of Academia.

  • Janice

    This was timely, as I just opened two mailers from publishers. No, I've never taught and never will teach the history of Ancient Greece but, somehow, they've decided I really need that textbook.

    Meanwhile, the textbook that I adopted for the big early medieval survey and really need a second copy for my TA remains elusive. Dangit!

  • Another Damned Medievalist

    Carl, remind me to buy you an appropriate beverage at the Zoo!

  • Steve Muhlberger

    Getting piles of useless books bugs me, but I think I should mention that at least twice books sent to me on spec have been so good as to inspire me to design courses around them.

    That's twice in 20+ years, of course.

  • pilgrimchick

    I think the bigger part of this problem is that starting in grad school, brilliant people who become professors are rarely taught how to teach, which includes an awareness of the texbooks that are available on different subjects and which ones cover what periods with which perspectives. You'd think they'd spend time on that in grad school rather than making students write a lot of academic papers that only a few people will actually read.

  • Sheryl

    I remember my grad school days (when yes, I taught courses) and the teaching instruction that I got:
    "Don't date your students," and, "Think on your favorite teachers. Do whatever they did."
    Those helpful bits of advice were the extent of my teaching training.

  • Steve Muhlberger

    Pilgrimchick, any time spent on textbooks in grad school would be wasted because no one knows what periods or subjects they will be teaching or what books will be in print and whether they will be priced reasonably.

    A more realistic strategy would be to ask experts who teach the subject for advice. This might mean asking people at other schools.

  • Rana

    a lot of academic papers that only a few people will actually read.

    Where do you think textbooks come from?

    No scholarship, no textbooks, good or bad.

  • Judy

    Re. the campus bookstore–there used to be such a thing as an independent bookstore staffed by people who got the book orders right, because they were selling books, not T-shirts and beer can holders. By pushing orders to the campus bookstore (and, now, to an online posting which gives students a chance to buy online or wherever) the university has killed this service (our last one is in its death throes now).

  • jenne.heise

    Note that our brilliant legislators now want textbook choices completed SIX MONTHS IN ADVANCE so the students (who probably don't know what they will be taking for sure until a month before classes start, and if they are trying to get into limited classes, the day) can try to find the books used, if they exist used.

    This is of course the legislators' solution to the textbook cost problem, which like many legislative solutions tries to bend the bendable bits of the system in response to the fact that some completely other bit (in this case the publishers) is COMPLETELY BROKEN.

    Oh, and there are significant numbers of senior professors who fail to submit book orders on time (and you don't want to know what they do with their reserves) because they were.. too busy, or forgot, or other excuses no self-respecting fourth grade teacher would accept. Also, even when you send in orders correctly, sometimes the publishing machine, which seems to be managed by people overseas whose first, second and third languages are not English, send something else. This happens to library acquisitions, too. You just sorta stare at the order and the invoice and wonder how they are meant to match up at all.

    My theory says that textbook delivery time is basically like the last hour of a 12 hour shift for someone working two full time fast food jobs all summer; it's a miracle anything gets out at all.

  • The Spectator

    When one of my textbooks went out of print, I gave it to my students as a digital copy, placing it on my university's Website. They eventually told me they wanted a real book, meaning they would pay $60 or more for a comparable textbook. In retirement, working with a publisher, I came up with a textbook that could be used in three courses yet cost no more than $30. Sales have been slow. Go, figure.

  • pilgrimchick

    Steve, I respectfully disagree. Starting in grad school, Medievalists are asked to choose a particular area in which to specialize (this is usually divided into early, high, and late middle ages). It isn't difficult to be acquainted with the text books in your area of study–a little research, including your suggestion to discourse with other professors at other schools, is all it takes. There is at least one online database that focuses exclusively on reviews of upcoming books on Medieval history to which anyone can subscribe.

    I suppose I see the problem as one of concentration. I entirely agree that texts in this area of history are hard to come by and decide upon. However, I see that as more the result of an education system that prepares students to research and write effectively rather than to teach effectively.

  • Steve Muhlberger


    Your assumption that a trained medievalist can expect to teach exclusively or even largely in the Middle Ages does not correspond to my experience, which for employees of small universities in my province is not all that unusual. Here are the subjects I have taught since 1989:

    Middle Ages
    Medieval England
    Ancient Civilizations
    Early Modern Europe
    History of Islamic Civilization
    Crusade and Jihad

    World History (first year survey)

    Fourth-year seminars:
    Gregory of Tours
    Fourteenth-century England
    Renaissance Cities
    Democracy and Representative Government in the 18th century
    Arab-Israeli Crisis

    There is no way I as a grad student could have anticipated this particular mix, nor my
    advisors either. I am not complaining — I like the variety, and it has been a great benefit for my understanding of history in general. I think my institution and my students have benefited as well. But like it or not, many profs in "exotic" fields like the Middle Ages are expected to be utility players in departments where the bulk of the resources go to American or Canadian history or modern European history.

  • Allyn J

    Unfortunately, your 'real truth' about textbooks isn't quite the truth, although it's not the 'unreal truth' either Textbooks do make money for their editors and textbook companies and bookstores. For example, English textbooks for English 101, 102, etc., make loads of money. Every student has to take these intro. classes. Additionally, owing to the artifactual revision of these books, editions become worthless. Many universities take advantage of this and assign one expensive waste of money textbook, often created by a faculty member. Choose any course required by all students, design a textbook for it, and you might get yourself a big piece of change. Textbook revenues are 60% of ALL revenues received by publishers. Somebody is cashing in. However, things ARE CHANGING thanks to federal and state requirements for textbook 'disclosures' by universities–too many statutes to go into now, but my blog, now in its fourth year–helped organize the anti-ripoff campaign that publishers have been getting away with–try http://WWW.INTHETEXT.COM, and you can see four years of analysis of the textbook industry. There are many empirical studies of how textbooks make money try Ripoff 101published by a public interest group. Because of my efforts, the average family has saved hundreds of dollars in textbook expenses a year, so you can all send me $10 as a courtesy for my hard work. Only kidding ;O

  • Got Medieval

    Publishers =/= Professors

  • Tailynn

    That’s a mold-bekrear. Great thinking!

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