Monday, August 21, 2006

High priced textbooks

The Detroit Free Press had a story yesterday on the problem of high priced textbooks and some of the ways students are trying to deal with it. There are some retailers, notably online ones, that are trying to capitalize on this crisis, but the root problem remains. And a crisis it most certainly is. When I was an undergrad, back in the late 80s, my most expensive textbooks were those big fat books for chemistry and calculus (I may be an historian now, but my first undergrad major was electrical engineering). At that point, those books ranged from $50 to $70, and I only had to buy one or two of those - most books were half that much. My most expensive book bills were $120-$150 a quarter, and once I got past those big auditorium classes, my book bill dropped below $100/quarter. The textbook I assigned in my World Civ I class (Stone Age to Counterreformation) this fall, a paperback half volume (containing the first 23 chapters of the 44-chapter hardback version) is $87 from Amazon. I'm sure our book store charges a few dollars more. At those prices, a student can easily have a $400 or $500 textbook bill each semester. There's a reason some of my students don't buy their books. What happened?

To try to entice professors to order them and students to read them, publishers have filled books with huge amounts of color, images, and all kinds of features. They've also invested heavily in online materials, and textbooks increasingly come with CDs or passwords for online access. Some of the online stuff is useful - I find using the Internet is an easy and cheap way to give my students access to primary documents, though I don't need an expensive publisher’s site to do that. Many things are online already. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is a good place to look for them. All those bells and whistles are distracting, too. Try reading one of these textbooks - all the inserts, images and maps have become too much, making it hard for the eye to follow the text, for the reader to know what they are supposed to be reading. Some of this kind of thing is good, but there is a limit. They are no longer books that you read. They've become more a hybrid cross between a book and an online newspaper - vaguely narrative, yet jumpy and episodic, easily leading you in ten different directions at once and thus leading you nowhere. I'm sorely tempted to get out of the game altogether and just assign some cheap classics, the kind of things you can get for a few bucks - maybe Sun Tzu's Art of War for China, and The Iliad for the West. Or I could take Jonathan Reynolds’s experiment to its obvious conclusion and have students bring whatever old World Civ book the could find cheap somewhere. Could make for interesting class discussions.


JackGoff said...

Tell me about it. I just forked over $380 for 4 books, two of them were used and were discounted. My most expensive was my Mathematical Physics textbook, which was co-authored by my professor. I'm certain there's some finagling going on there. :(

Dr.T said...

Oh, the worst I had in that regard was a prof who would assign me his latest book, and then read to us the manuscript of the book he was about to publish. Yay.

binky said...

This doesn't happen in my discipline, but I have friend in English who get wooing from textbook companies that nearly rivals the treatment doctors get from pharmaceutical reps. Since they make decisions about things like ENG 101, which every student in the entire university must take, these English profs are important consumers. They get offered meals, junkets, conference paid for, all kinds of things. Those costs have to be padded in there somewhere.