Textbook troubles: the instructor's dilemma

Is it ethical when professors ask students to buy textbooks that they have personally authored?

[box type=”info”]Correction: The textbook The New Journalist is no longer used in second-year journalism classes.[/box]
By the end of the four-year journalism program at King’s, students will have spent in excess of $400 on required texts, at least if one were to buy them from the King’s Co-op Bookstore.
That total doesn’t include texts for electives, nor classes in other departments.
It does, however, include nearly $250-worth of books written by, contributed to, or edited by King’s professors.
The knowledge that their wallet woes are potentially benefitting their instructors rubs many journalism students the wrong way.
“I remember being a little angry about it at first because I felt like why would I spend money when this person is upstairs and I can go knock on their door and find out what they know?” says fourth year journalism student Emma Drudge.
Oftentimes the decision is made out of necessity, says Journalism School director Kelly Toughill, and the financial gain is miniscule, if present at all.
“Most professors who do a textbook do it because…they need to deliver certain materials in class and it doesn’t exist anywhere,” says Toughill.
She asks her third year students to buy Digging Deeper, which was written by King’s professors Dean Jobb and Fred Vallance-Jones, among others.
“I assigned that because it is far and away the best textbook of its kind available anywhere,” she says. “It can be quite difficult to find textbooks with Canadian examples and perhaps, unlike studying Kierkegaard or nuclear physics, in journalism it’s very important to put it in the Canadian context.”
She notes that she doesn’t find assigning colleagues’ texts a conflict of interest.
Vallance-Jones also contributed to The New Journalist, a text that was until this year assigned to first year students by one of its authors and King’s vice-president, Kim Kierans. Vallance-Jones also uses it in his second year class. He describes it as the only text that provides an overview of Canadian journalism with a multimedia approach.
Vallance-Jones also uses Computer-Assisted Reporting, a text he co-authored, in his Masters class. Again, it’s more or less the only Canadian book on the subject, says the professor.
This year, he had five students enrolled in the class. Vallance-Jones says his contract with publisher Oxford University Press gets him and his co-author 10 per cent of the net sales of the book. That means around $2.50 per book, or $12.50 minus tax for a year of sales per author.
“So, as you can see, it’s certainly not being driven by any desire to make money. I’d give it to them for free if I could but unfortunately Oxford insists on making money selling the book and they get most of it,” says Vallance-Jones.
He adds that most academics sign “extraordinarily one-sided contracts” with publishers — and they’re not weighed in the professors’ favour. The National Association of College Stores in the United States reports that 78 per cent of what students pay for books is publishing costs.
“Most academic writers [with] small royalties, small number of books — they’re not doing this for the money; they’re doing it for the love of writing; for the love of teaching; of sharing knowledge with others,” says Vallance-Jones.
Michael Bishop couldn’t agree more. An instructor in the Contemporary Studies Programme, Bishop is the only King’s instructor outside the Journalism Program to do so, says King’s bookstore manager Carolyn Gillis.
With his courses on contemporary French art and French women’s poetry, he says had little in the way of exhaustive, new, English language material to choose from. He had written books on these subjects, though, which then proved convenient for his courses.
“I don’t get any royalties, no. I’m not interested in that,” he says, noting that he received a $3,000 honorarium for one book.
“I wanted to write those books and that’s all.”
Dalhousie’s main bookstore in the Student Union Building doesn’t keep track of instructor-authored titles, but many texts share a teacher and an author, particularly in first year physics and chemistry classes.
Concepts in Chemistry has 26 authors, all of them Dalhousie professors. The group of teachers developed the textbook, which comes in two volumes, six years ago out of frustration of not being able to find better material, says Joe Boutillier, who now oversees its publication.
The two volumes cost almost $80 each. They are required by the first year chemistry and engineering chemistry classes, which total over 1,100 students this year.
One of them was Emilie Novaczek. The fifth year sustainability and biology student describes the volumes as part of an “entire learning program.” The material in them relates to online quizzes and other assignments.
“The book is also designed so that you take notes directly in the text and answer questions within the book; that’s convenient, sure, but completely unnecessary. For $79 less I took the same notes in a Hilroy scribbler,” she wrote in an email, adding that the books are “genuinely useful and absolutely crucial to completing the assignments.”
If everyone in the intro chemistry classes were to purchase the two volumes of Concepts in Chemistry, the revenue would be in excess of $176,000, minus printing costs. That isn’t going to the authors, though.
Two years after it was created, the Dalhousie Chemistry Department took over the rights to the textbooks. The profit made from selling them goes straight back the department, says Boutillier.
New editions of the textbooks are put out each year. Novaczek says there’s little difference between them other than a reordering of chapters.
“The new annual edition is obviously unnecessary. The field of intro-level chemistry isn’t exactly filled with new discoveries. The density of water hasn’t changed,” she says. “The design of the book, with space for your notes [and] work, is presented as a helping hand for new students, but it’s really a guarantee that you can’t sell your book at the end of the year. It’s a pretty thinly veiled exploitation of students.”
Some universities have adopted policies to avoid this conflict of interest, or at least the perception of it. The University of Pittsburgh prohibits its professors from collecting royalties from selling their books to the school’s students.
On campuses where no such policy exists, professors have imposed their own rules. An instructor at the University of Southern California has his students choose an NGO that will receive his royalties. Ian Ayres, a Yale Law School professor, pays his students back in cash the royalties he made off his books.
Neither Toughill nor Kierans are aware of any King’s policy that covers professors assigning their own texts, or those of their colleagues.
Vallance-Jones says that some sort of policy or approval process involving a committee of professors and students would help clarify why books are chosen.
Toughill sees this clarification as key. She says having these textbooks is something to be celebrated: “We fight to keep good faculty; we fight to keep and get faculty who are going to writing the definitive textbooks [and] articles on the state of the industry and the state of the craft. So, maybe it’s a communications challenge. Particularly when professors aren’t assigning their own book my hope is that students would be looking at the quality of the textbooks produced by the profs and be really glad that they have access to have such expert faculty.”
It’s a realization that, after four years in the journalism program, Drudge has finally come to.
“As I spent more time with those textbooks and my years in the journalism school, I found myself appreciating that those texts were available and I gained a lot of respect for my professors because I wouldn’t have gotten that much information out of them otherwise.”

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

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