The way we choose a textbook

Most of the students in Paragraph City are poor. Financially, I mean. If we had bouncers at the doors of our classrooms who upended each student as he or she entered the classroom and gently shook the change out of pockets as a tip for the faculty teaching the class – I’ll save the argument for faculty gratuities to another day – we would find more money in the professor’s couch than in the collective pockets of his students. Very few of our students – let me guess at 5% — do not have jobs, and most of those that do are working more than 20 hours a week.

Every semester a few new students haven’t budgeted at all for books, and most first-semester students underestimate the cost of books. Every semester I have students trying to get through my course without buying the books, an act as foolish as my thinking I can demand they get the books and they will.

How do you get anything out of a literature course if you don’t read the books?

How do you justify buying books when Niagara Mohawk is threatening to cut off your electric?

It is certainly not the professor’s job to get books into the hands of the students, but I’ve been thinking, as I write book orders for the Paragraph City College Book Emporium, what I can do. Nationally students are spending something like $500 a semester on books. I want to put a little, English shaped dent in that, so I’ve been taking these steps:

  • List the ISBN of my books on my syllabus. Starting with July 2010, colleges will be required by law ( ) to list ISBNs on their websites so students can comparison shop online, especially for used books. New York’s Ofice of the State Comptroller estimates students could save $245 per semester if they dumped the college bookstore and bought online. And that doesn’t even factor in the used book market.
  • Make my first reading assignments from work that’s available for free online. This helps two groups: those that are ordering online and need an extra week to get their books and those who need another paycheck before they can buy books.
  • Balance these three factors: quality of the editorial work of the anthology vs. cost vs. what’s available free (but with my considerable organizational efforts) online. I ask myself how important is the supplemental material that comes with the usual anthology, and how many of my students actually read it. Often I can give that material more effectively myself in class or in a handout. So in my introductory lit course syllabus I provide links to all the literature assigned in the course, all available for free online. I use one book which is just lit and one which provides instruction, sample student essays, definitions of terms and so forth. The lit book is optional, the instructional book required. About half of my students don’t buy the optional book and print out the lit of the day for discussion in class. The college gives a generous printing allowance, so students save the $35 that book costs.
  • If the print version is still superior, look at new vs. used. In the Brit Lit course I’m teaching this summer, I need the anthology for its Whitman sampling (and accompanying headnotes) of so much literature that students need to taste if they are to get Brit Lit but have no time to read in its entirety this summer. I dug around some and decided on the Norton three volume edition. I only wanted two of the volumes, but they are selling for $40 each, or three for $60. When I went to Amazon, though, I found dozens of used copies of the volumes I want selling for a dollar or less apiece (plus that $4 shipping charge, you know). So I’m not ordering an anthology through the bookstore; I’ll have students buy them used online.
  • Look past the usual academic presses. I’m tapping Barnes & Noble classics for Gulliver’s Travels this summer ($5) and Dover Press for Robinson Crusoe ($5). They have hardly any supplemental notes at all, but I can supply that in class as needed, and there are good articles in the college databases that will serve nicely. And other options sometimes present themselves. In last semester’s World Myth I found a fine online translation offered free-for-the-asking from Ian Johnston ( ) He kindly sent the Publisher file, formatted to print out like a booklet which our secretary copied and stapled and I handed out to the class. He has an interesting, eclectic offering in the same format.
  • Put copies on reserve in the library and in the college learning center, which I’ve done for years and which get a little use.

In the bookstore of the future, students will enter the ISBNs of their texts in the bookstore website and be rewarded with options and their costs: new hard copy, e-book that expires in four months, audiobook, used in-house hardcopy, used copy online. Students will make their selections on the website, including Amazon used books, and pay online one price right then and there, with mailing costs for the Amazon orders and whatever else calculated in, financial aid subtracted and the bottom line run up on a nearly maxed out Visa card. The next morning they’ll stop by the bookstore to pick up the books, receipts, expected arrival dates and a coupon for a $4 cup of coffee at Barnes & Noble, which now runs the library. The future will be a funny place.


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