The Trouble With Textbooks: A Great American Rip-Off

Ulf Kirchdorfer Professor, Darton State College
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Earlier this year Inside Higher Ed reported that “the College Board estimates that students will spend on average $1,200 on textbooks and other course supplies this year.” Citing a survey by the United States Public Interest Research Group of 2,000 students from 150 campuses, Inside Higher Ed reported that “65 percent of students had still opted against buying a book because it was too costly.”

The estimate of the average student spending of $1,200 a year on textbooks and course supplies must be just that, average, because when I checked the bookstore prices at my local state college, I found that one of the two textbooks required for freshman composition, a paperback, is listed for $114.00 (new) and is available as a used paperback rental at the astonishingly high price of $67.26. Add to that a supplementary basic paperback text issued by the English department that is available only as new for $55.00, and your composition writing freshman will spend just about $200 on that one class. Another composition section had a brief edition textbook listed at $120.25, with the low-cost option of used paperback rental for $76.96.

I am very familiar with these texts and I would not want to spend even the “bargain rate” for them. Looking for bargains, I went to to see what a staple of the English classroom, The Hodges Harbrace Handbook, would run, and saw that I could buy it new for $107.76. Clearly something is rotten, and it’s not only in Hamlet’s Denmark.

This rottenness is nothing new, except for the stench of the outrageous pricing. Just about all of us had a professor who said, “I don’t need a textbook to teach. If I need one, this profession is in serious trouble.” I had a well-known professor of rhetoric who said the price of these books was ridiculous and he was not going to make his students pay that kind of money. Instead, he made available his own writings free of charge to the class. But that kind of professor appears to be on the verge of becoming extinct.

One explanation for that kind of professor’s absence could be that too many colleges insist on the use of textbooks, even in an age of plentiful of reading materials available free online, and that includes materials that legitimately can be obtained and used in instruction without breaking any laws.

English and math, to my knowledge, at least on the undergraduate level, cannot have changed that much over the years that we need to have students buy expensive textbooks. Grammar and punctuation, the element of rhetoric, such as ethos, logos, and pathos, they have been around since days of the ancient Greeks.

Surely most of us could, if we are not already doing so, write a version of what just about all English textbooks contain — how to pre-write, how to persuade, what differentiates a narrative from a description, how one does revision as opposed to proof-reading and so on. Is there really a need then for students to buy a textbook that costs about $100.00 to read about what has been standard practice for decades?

I know that one of the arguments inevitably will be that the books contain all sorts of new and exciting readings and are colorful with graphs and photos, and that today’s students need this kind of text to hold on to and refer to.

There is nothing wrong with giving students black-and-white textbooks containing common knowledge about composition basics, making it available online for free to students who do not want to read text on the printed page, and supplementing this kind of textbook with newspaper articles online or literature in the public domain. Nothing more is required to teach students how to write. Ideally, and I know this is the case with the vast majority of us, we have this knowledge inside, it is engrained in us, and we want to share it with students in class.

That this isn’t a widely-adopted pedagogical style has a lot to do with business arrangements between publishers, colleges, and college bookstores. Somehow, as with so many things in education, we have lost our way in the name of progress, including insisting on expensive books cash-strapped or credit maxed out students do not need to obtain an education, and some would say do not open often.

I see the instructors’ editions on my office book shelf, still in their tear-open corrugated cardboard containers, how they keep coming, all professing sophisticated pedagogy and great results. I have thought about giving these books to my students or having a lending library, as I am sure we could navigate through a class, even with a dog’s breakfast of freshman English textbooks, and still be, as they say, on the same page.

When I think about one edition changing to the next, including much of the same text under headings that have been slightly changed or citation styles that have been slightly adjusted, I wonder first how these publishers can sleep at night issuing another edition with such minor substantive changes. Surely these changes, real and perceived, could be taken care of by the publishers for free in one or two pages or with an online posting, or by faculty members who are current in the field.

Let us resolve this year to eschew yet another “new and improved” version of the same textbook. Students and faculty really like working without an expensive and required textbook of basics and, this should not come as a surprise, good things can happen in the classroom without glossy representations and electronic editions. Just ask the Greeks, both the ancient ones and those made famous by “Animal House.”