On Textbooks

This little story is from my time as assistant dean, but it’s been three years, so I guess it’s fine to tell it now.

An officer of the student body approached me with a letter they had drafted. They were raising the issue of teachers who were requiring their classes to purchase textbooks that they themselves had written. I read through and handed it back to her.

“No,” I said.

“No? But…why?!”

“Because it doesn’t quite cover enough of what’s going on. Give me an hour, and I’ll show you what you can really bring up. If you like it, you can make it the official student body position.”

What follows is my version of their complaint (apologies if it’s a little long) —

We would like to bring up the issue of teachers and departments requiring the purchase of textbooks for classes. As you know, textbooks are not cheap. New copies, even the so-called Asian editions, cost anywhere from P200 to P800. While we understand that textbooks play an important role in the conduct of a course, our main issues are:

  1. Teachers and departments that require each student to purchase textbooks that are used only for a fraction of the course.
  2. Teachers and departments that require each student to purchase a new copy of the textbook for the semester. In many these instances, students are even proscribed from using earlier editions from previous years and from borrowing the copies of their classmates.

Ancillary issues we would like the university to investigate and prescribe policy on are:

  1. Whether teachers and departments enjoy favors from book distributors in exchange for requiring their textbooks
  2. Whether teachers who act as authors and publishers of textbooks that they require in their own classes or in their own departments have overreached their authority and unduly profited from the students

The questions we would like to pose are:

Does the university have a written policy on the selection of textbooks at the department level?

  • What is the process for the selection of textbooks?
  • How often is it done?
  • Who are the parties recommending the selection?
  • Who are the parties reviewing the recommendations?
  • Does the department monitor the use of the recommended textbooks in the courses?
  • What is the university stance on students being required to purchase textbooks?
  • What is the university stance on students using used textbooks or textbooks of older edition?

Does the university have a process of endorsing the publishers and distributors of textbooks?

  • At what level is this endorsement done? If it is done at faculty or department level only, are there adequate checks and balances to ensure that no collusion takes place between the faculty or department and the publisher or distributor?
  • Does the university practice any oversight in the transactions?

Isn’t there a conflict of interest when the teachers requiring the purchase of the textbooks are themselves the authors and publishers of the books? What is the university policy on this?

As we understand it, textbooks serve as course guides and reference materials so that students can (1) keep pace with the topics presented in the syllabus; (2) read lessons in advance; (3) review topics already covered; (4) go in-depth on subjects that may not have been covered in lectures; and (5) perform the exercises to gain mastery of the subject matter. If students are able to achieve these ends using legitimate alternative resources, they should have the freedom to do so.

Oftentimes, the reasons why students are required to purchase new textbooks every semester are the following:

1. Students are required to write their answers on the books themselves. Our objection to this practice: this turns the textbook into a workbook. It may be acceptable practice in grade school, but we are already college students. There are other means to convey and submit these assignment: as handwritten or printed reports, via email, or via online learning system. It seems to us that the real purpose of answering on the books themselves is to render the books unusable for the subsequent students.

2. Students are expressly prohibited from photocopying the textbooks on grounds of upholding the copyright of the work. While this aim is noble, we have to ask: why does the university permit photocopying of certain textbooks and reference materials but not of others? We even have a photocopying service within the library itself? Isn’t this a double standard?

3. Students are required to buy the latest edition because they contain updated material. But oftentimes, the updates are negligible and could otherwise be given as supplements or annotations. Again, the real purpose seems to be to force students to buy the books.

Finally, while we recognize the effort put by teachers to write the books, we question why we are required to purchase the textbooks for use in their classes. The teachers are commissioned by the university to deliver a certain course to the students. They have already been paid. Forcing the students to purchase their authored textbooks, for material they are supposed to cover, is tantamount to double compensation. What is the difference between teachers forcing students to buy lecture notes they have mass photocopied from teachers forcing students to buy textbooks they have written (except for a nicer cover and binding?) These teachers may claim respect for their copyrights as the reason for forcing students to buy their books but being the authors of the work, they also have the right to waive copyright usage fees for their students…if they wish to do so. So why don’t they?