Professors share reasoning for textbooks on syllabus

Photo of a stack used "King Lear" books
Tara Elsa / The Mossy Log

Insider look at the “Textbook Industrial Complex,” and alternatives solutions to buying new books

This semester, my textbooks cost $280. I’m sure some of you are scoffing, but as a social scientist, this was one of my more expensive semesters. As I purchased book after book, none of which we would read in full, I returned to a timeless question: Why do professors assign textbooks? And, beyond that, do they think about students’ wallets when they make these assignments?

As for why professors assign textbooks; the short answer, unsurprisingly, is pedagogical value. Professor of History Elliot Young is not a big believer in textbooks.

“The textbook industry is a scam,” Young said.

Despite this belief, he assigns a textbook for his Modern Latin American History course in order to provide context for students and act as reference.

Young concedes that textbooks are sometimes necessary as a place students can go to find information needed for assignments or to contextualize lectures. 

That same idea was stressed by Professor of Chemistry Julio de Paula “(Textbooks) can offer more explanation and perspective than could be possible in a lecture or classroom discussion,” de Paula said.

Professor of Mathematics Paul T. Allen had a slightly different philosophy on textbooks. In our conversation, he discussed his idea that each discipline has a narrative, or a collection of narratives. Each course, then, should have a narrative arc to it. Picking a textbook can help the professor shape the arc of their course. And, Allen acknowledged, if it’s just him talking and lecturing, he might miss certain details or explain concepts poorly, in which case students would benefit from having an additional source to consult.

Professor of Political Science Todd Lochner brought up the value of scholarly commentary in his Constitutional Law class. As all Supreme Court cases are public government documents, his Con Law class does not necessarily require a textbook. However, Professor Lochner chose to assign one because it provides “scholarly commentary which I think is really critical.” 

Similarly, multiple professors mentioned the value of using a textbook as a tool to practice what students learned in class. Professor of Spanish Adrian Miller said that in the Spanish 101 and 102 classes, the text book is crucial.

“20% of the grade is just doing online assignments to kind of stay on task,” Miller said.

The textbook used in French 102 through 201 also has a practice component, as well as other language classes. Additionally, the math department assigns work with a similar goal. 

“Students need to do problems to practice the skills,” Allen said. “And the nice thing about a book is that a book has practice problems that fit the narrative.” 

For certain courses, textbooks are essential, but that does not make them affordable. To what extent do, or should, professors consider price when assigning material?

“I usually recommend they buy an earlier edition to save money,” Young said.

“I am also aware of the cost of the books I assign and makes decisions so that the reading list is affordable.” 

Professor Miller said that the Spanish department recognizes its textbook is likely the most expensive textbook students will buy in a semester. As such, the department consciously uses one that covers the content from Spanish 101 through 202 so that students only have to purchase one textbook for multiple classes. 

According to Professor of French Isabelle de Marte, the French program recently moved to a similar system, altering the curriculum so that students need only purchase one textbook for French 101 through 201. Additionally, French students are only required to buy the online edition of the book, saving them money. Of course, this change is less helpful for students who test into higher level language courses, but professors are clearly thinking about price. 

Allen offered a unique take on the issue of cost.

“I think that the cost of books is an interesting issue,” Allen said. “Because as a percent of the cost, the total cost of the education, it’s like 0% … but as a percent of sort of like the direct costs that have to flow out of your wallet right now, it’s a large percent … That means that students feel those costs in a more immediate way than they maybe feel the cost of other things.” 

However, I also think that students sometimes perceive textbooks as adding insult to injury: as Professor Allen stated, students pay a lot for college, and asking them to pay more in addition to tuition can be frustrating.

One possible alternative is an open-access framework. Miller, who also works at Portland State, told me that PSU has moved to such a system. In their Spanish classes, students do not have a textbook. According to Miller, the department “paid one of the instructors and the supervisor to develop their own materials, and then make it available for free to all the students at PSU.” 

Miller reports that such a system has been discussed at LC, but at this point, it just is not in the budget. It takes hundreds of hours to develop a curriculum, and professors would need to be compensated for that labor. 

A similar discussion of labor came up with Lochner. He explained that one year, over winter break, he took the time to manually edit and upload a half of the cases his class reads over the semester, in order to avoid assigning two different casebooks. The task can take months to complete, so he has not yet done it for the rest of the cases.

This discussion of labor hits on the ethics of piracy, which is often present in discussions of textbooks prices. Many students download PDFs of their textbooks from the internet. However, there are other ways to access textbooks for free without pirating, such as utilizing course reserves, or checking out a longer term loan for versions in the Watzek stacks or available through Summit.

Another alternative model, mentioned by de Paula, would be for the college to purchase enough copies of each textbook for all students in those courses, perhaps by expanding the library’s current course reserve system. However, as de Paula pointed out, such a system would be expensive, and that money would likely come from cuts elsewhere.

Your professors likely have something to say about why they assign textbooks, and would be happy to explain the issue. Furthermore, if you have an anti-textbook agenda, reminding professors of how much money books cost may be one way of swaying them towards more cost-effective alternatives.

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