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Textbook Costs and Classroom Ethos: A Practical Strategy

College textbooks

Short of proposing to open up an on-campus bar, or to eliminate high-speed internet in the dorms, few topics draw more student ire than textbook prices. (Some of this ire is provoked by lazy or alarmist reporting–few of the books on this list are really “textbooks” in any interesting sense–but there’s no denying that textbook costs are high.) If there’s not a Textbooks Are Too Damn High political party yet, there probably will be soon.

Of course, last year all of this was cured by the entry of the federal government into the textbook market, as rules promulgated in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 finally took effect: Colleges, as part of course registration, have to provide information about textbooks–what the professor’s ordered, the price, and ISBNs. In some classes, this gives students information they need to find cheaper/used editions–or even free ones, via the magic of libraries. In other classes–especially general education courses with dozens of sections, the law simply gives students a second nonacademic reason for choosing a course–cheapest books. (The reigning nonacademic reason is, of course, schedule.)

I like transparency, and so am in general favorably disposed to these sorts of disclosures. And it’s good that everyone has to do it–lots of us used to put textbook information on our websites or blogs before, but now, at least in theory, it’s all available to the students, right at the decision-point where they register for courses. And while sometimes it’s possible to ditch a textbook, it can’t always be done. Likewise, the current state of e-books doesn’t seem geared to support in-class discussion, yet. (If I’m wrong about this, let me know.)

That said, I think that while rules are great, I *also* think that there’s a way to reach out to students before the semester starts and establish the ethos of your course, and textbooks/prices provide the best opportunity to do that.

For example, this semester, my department has redistributed some course assignments, and so last Monday (!) I got assigned a course that had been assigned to someone else. (They didn’t lose their class–actually, they got a fancier one. Also, that’s not as last-minute as it sounds–we don’t start classes until the 24th, which is probably smart, given all the snow/ice removal over the past week.) That means that my course is 1) full of students, who 2) think that the other professor’s booklist is what they need to buy. Problem is, we design courses in a very different way, judging from the book order. Rather than wait for the first day of classes, then, I e-mailed everyone in the class a message that said three things:

  • The instructor’s changed,
  • The book order has changed–here it is, and
  • There are some places you might go online to find the books. (I like isbn.nu, but there are others.)

Since the bookstore won’t have a lot of time to process my order, this will give more students an opportunity to get the books. Also, the message firmly establishes that I take price concerns seriously, but also that, by gum, there are going to be books, and people need to have them. Sometimes, I’ll identify books as likely victims of end-of-semester triage, but that didn’t really apply here.

In upper-division classes, I usually send out a slightly different message:

  • Here’s the book order,
  • By all means, find cheap editions, but pay attention to ISBNs! (I teach Victorian novels, and if you’re trying to discuss a 900-page novel, people need to be on the same literal page. Also, not-all editions have the same text–there are different versions of Oliver Twist floating around, for example. These things matter, given the way I run my in-class sessions.)
  • Also, please read [very short, freely available texts X & Y] for the first class.

This message usually goes out even before the end of the previous term. Victorian novel classes usually also get the likely sequence of books, for students who want to get ahead of, or just manage, the reading. In general, this e-mail sends the same message: On the one hand, I’m persnickety about the books, but, on the other hand, here are tools for finding them as cheaply as possible.

A drawback of this pre-semester e-mail strategy is that I have to pay more attention to changes in the class list than is entirely sane. After all, if some students are getting information about the class, then you have an obligation to make sure others are getting it as well.* Also, you will very occasionally get a tightly-wound student who wants to conduct the entire course over 1-on-1 e-mails, even before the semester starts.

But those are small prices to pay for letting students know that you recognize they’re in your course, and that you have thought about issues that concern them. When you walk into the first day of class, you’re not doing so cold, but rather as someone sharing a common intellectual project for a few months. Also, explaining a bit about how you put a class together can forestall a certain amount of resentment. Students might not *love* the fact that you ordered 25 coffee-table books for your 1-credit class, but they’ll at least recognize that you weren’t just adding books willy-nilly.

What strategies do you use to mitigate textbook costs? Do you contact your students before the semester starts? Let us know in comments!

Image by Flickr user wohnai / Creative Commons licensed

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