The Arizona Desert Lamp

Shopping for textbooks at the Creative Commons

Posted in Campus, Textbooks by Evan Lisull on 28 September 2009

Few issues are more seemingly intractable than textbooks, but the state of Florida has come up with something that sounds pretty nifty. From Inside Higher Ed:

The University Press of Florida, partnering with a state-supported digital library called The Orange Grove, is building an online catalog that the two groups hope will dramatically ease the cost burden on students purchasing textbooks. In addition to allowing students to download textbooks in the digital library for free, the system will also permit them to order a custom printed copy of any book for no more than half the cost of the traditionally printed edition.

The library, which now features fewer than 100 titles, includes only those materials licensed through Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that allows authors to grant copyright permission to their works. The textbooks may have been created as open source documents from the start, or they could be books that were once released by a commercial publisher that has ceased printing editions. Under preexisting agreements, authors will collect royalties only for the printed editions of their work — not the downloaded copies.

While the library features 89 titles now, the five-year goal is to supply textbooks suitable for all of the general education courses offered in Florida’s colleges and universities. There is no discussion of mandating that professors use the library’s textbooks, although organizers are already brainstorming ways to make the library more appealing.

The printing option is key here, providing an alternative to 20-hour daily screen exposure. (Perhaps they’ll get an Espresso Machine?) Professors, perhaps not surprisingly, are opposed:

As appealing as reduced textbook costs sound, there are potential red flags for faculty members, according to Jack Mecholsky, chair of the University of Florida’s Faculty Senate. If the state amasses a library of free books selected without faculty input, it may be only a matter of time before some lawmaker with a populist streak tries to mandate that faculty assign only those books in their classes, Mecholsky said.

“That’s the danger, and I could see that happening,” said Mecholsky, a professor of materials science and engineering. “What happens [when lawmakers intrude] is they have just made an academic decision that that textbook is right for all professors and all students taking that course, and that’s wrong.”

These fears shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but contra Kael, there really is a totemic attachment to books that grants professors more leeway here than elsewhere. Simply waving one’s hands and crying out “Don’t ban books!” is usually enough to prevent even acolytes of the Kingfish from imposing such a requirement. Further, the expanding number (and increasing quality) of books offered through Creative Commons helps to mitigate the fear that this will somehow be extremely limiting and possibly dangerous (only books teaching creationism can be accessed through the library, etc.)

Yet while professors should be able to choose the books that they want to teach, outsiders should also be able to express their doubts in the selection. Deference is certainly due, but consider this hyperbolic hypothetical: an Intro to Physics teacher required her students to purchase five separate textbooks, in order to give them a more “well-rounded” view of the subjects at hand. Readings were assigned from each book, depending on the teacher’s preference. This results in a $750 book cost for the class. Should students, fellow faculty members, administrators, and parents be able to ask the professor to justify their selection? Or are there really no limits on the prerogative to book assignments?

Obviously, this example is a caricature, but I suspect that some professors/instructors opt to use the same textbook year after year, price hikes due to new editions be damned, because it’s the easy way out. Why bother rewriting the test for a new, cheaper book when you’ve already got the old one ready to go? There’s a good side to this, though – the consistency in teaching that derives from this prevents the class from wasting time as the instructor gets acclimatized to the new book.

It’s a reasonable debate – but such a debate does not currently exist. Instead, barrels of pabulum are spent expressing dismay at the “state of textbook prices,” launching diatribes against “Big Textbook,” and generally accomplishing nothing. A general inquiry into textbook usage – to be done on a campus-by-campus basis – is the better approach. It’s not a perfect science, but one could start by looking at the cost of textbooks for each ENG 101, 103, and 109 courses. Since these classes are academically the same, but vary widely in instructors, there are certainly some expensive sections and some inexpensive sections. Instructors – who are second to none in their support of dialogue and free exchange – who require expensive books should justify their decisions publicly, while instructors assigning readings that are inexpensive can offer tips that will hopefully be adopted by others.

For many, the answer is simply, “There’s no other choice.” Florida, however, is offering that choice – and it will be interesting to see what happens to textbook costs in Gainesville as a result.

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