Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Teaching without Books - The Final Frontier

I just realized that this is a really funny post for RfP Wednesday, as it's all about students not being able to read for work. Maybe they will all take this opportunity to read for pleasure instead? We can only hope.

Once upon a time - hark, I believe it was the early-to-mid-1990s - a student could schedule her courses, and in the days leading up to the beginning of the semester, go to a bookstore centrally located on her college campus and purchase the books that her professors had ordered.

Sure, there might be a glitch here or there if she waited too long to buy her books, but in general, students could have a reasonable expectation that the books would be available to them for purchase so that they could complete their first reading assignments.

This was the world in which I attended college. This world, my friends, is no more.

Ok, it might still exist in some places, but my unscientific survey of friends at a variety of institutions - regional comprehensives to ivies to SLACs - indicates that most of us have problems with their respective bookstores filling book orders for courses. What is the common denominator in all cases? The "campus bookstore" is not an enterprise run by the university but rather a front for a corporate entity.

Now, I'm not one of these anti-establishment, anti-corporate people who refuses to go to Starbucks in order to support the local place, even though it would take me two miles out of my way to go to the local place. I've got no problem eating at McDonalds or the Olive Garden. My problem here is not one of principle.

My problem is that since the corporate machine has taken over, students cannot get their hands on the books they need to do the work in my courses.

  1. The bookstore doesn't order enough copies of books. I suppose this is because it costs money to send the books back if students don't buy their books at the bookstore. And so then the bookstore says it's the instructor's fault that the bookstore doesn't order enough books because instructors encourage students to buy their books at other places besides the campus bookstore, which of course we all do because the bookstore doesn't carry enough books.
  2. Even when the bookstore orders enough books, they send them back to wherever they came from approximately 15 minutes after the semester begins, and so if students wait to buy a book that they will not need until after midterm, students will not be able to purchase the book. Now, many students will wait to buy books for English courses until it's time to read them because the cost for books at the beginning of the semester is OUTRAGEOUSLY HIGH. I make an effort to bring in the cost of books for my courses at under $100. (It's actually under $50 for my freshman class.) That said, most of my students take 5 or six classes in a semester. That means anywhere from $500-$600 bucks on books if all of the professors try to be mindful of the high cost of textbooks and can find reasonably priced textbooks that do what the instructor needs them to do. In other words, I'm sure some students spend more. So yes, they might put off buying $50 worth of books until later. But that's not allowed, say the bookstore people, and so the students have to go elsewhere to buy those books. And then the bookstore orders even fewer books in the next semester.
  3. And speaking of the cost of books, it is interesting to note that the campus bookstore charges about twice as much for used books as does even a place like Half Price Books, which isn't exactly a mom-and-pop used book shop. Now, it is true that one can't depend on availability at a place like Half Price Books. But one sure as heck can depend on availability of used books - and great prices - if one goes on the internet for them. And don't even get me started about the buy-back policies of campus bookstores. Outrageous.
  4. But maybe I'm just being a crank and I should be more positive. At least they order some books that some students can buy, right? Oh, not this semester. This semester they just didn't order the anthology that I use in my survey class. Oh, they did order an anthology - just not the correct one. Now, I always use the same anthology for this class - yes, there is a new edition this year, but it's the same fucking book. But apparently the bookstore decided that I would not be teaching out of that book, even though they required that I put the order in for it approximately a hundred years ago, because apparently in the age of computers when Amazon can get you a book in five days without shipping costs the bookstore needs five months to get the books to them (in covered wagons? dragged by enslaved illegal immigrants? what?). And then when I found out yesterday, they tried to tell me it was because I had the ISBN number wrong on my order. Even though their ordering system plugs in the isbn when you type in the title.
This whole "I had the number wrong" issue is very interesting, incidentally, as the competing off-campus bookstore totally got the order right - and I sent identical information to them.

The problem for me is that as an instructor my hands are tied. The faculty at my university have protested, gotten bookstore manager after bookstore manager ousted, and still the problems persist. Why? Because it's not the bookstore manager's fault. It's the corporate entity's fault, because what the corporate entity wants is to make money - as much of it as possible with as little waste as possible. This is counter to what professors and students need, which is for all students to be able to get the books that they need in a timely fashion (because they really do need to do the reading, even in the first week of the semester). But I still have to order books from the fucked up corporate entity because if students get a book scholarship, or if their parents buy their books and will only do so if it comes from the campus bookstore, or if they live on campus and can't get to another bookstore, or whatever - they should be able to get the books on campus.

The problem is, they can't.


undine said...

Too true and eloquently put, Dr. C. No wonder the students always want the ISBN so that they can order from Amazon or and have some assurance of actually, you know, having a book to take to class.

psychgrad said...

Campus bookstores piss me off. Although...publishers (or authors/editors) that create new editions that are essentially identical to the last edition piss me off too. Thankfully I had the option to order all of the books through the student association bookstore that is just a block off campus. When they e-mailed me to notify me that 29 copies had arrived I told them that they had to have enough copies for all of my students because there would be an assignment handed out on the first day of class.

phd me said...


University buyback policies really irk the crap out of me. I used to have hissy fits when I was an undergrad: buy $500 books, get $34.60 back. I'm surprised more students don't go postal.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oh, so true! This completely describes the experiences I've had here. One semester I submitted one of those electronic request, and then about 10 days later I revised it to add more books. The bookstore didn't find the revision until *3 days before classes started*!! I will say that some of our problems were due to a previous manager, and that the current guy is MUCH better, as well as completely nice and apologetic when things screw up. But it's amazing how complicated it's become.

BikeProf said...

Wow--it's good to know that my school isn't the only one to be this stupid. I was at a school once where the bookstore always ordered exactly half the number you said would be enrolled in the course. If I said 30, the bookstore ordered 15 books. It was their standard policy, I was told.

Hilaire said...

Hallelujah! Yeah, what is *with* this? The part about the needing a book order 5 months in advance is what kills me the most. Completely, absolutely absurd.

CMT said...

Ha. Yup -- totally frustrating. I've started posting links to the texts at Powell's and Amazon, for lack of a better solution. This doesn't solve the first reading problem, but I make sure the library has the book(s) on 1 hour reserve (typically, of course, I have to take over my own copy of it, because why would they have it?).

Oh, and hi, all. I'm the new kid.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hi CMT and welcome!

luolin said...

It's even worse when the books are in other languages and come from other countries, and the bookstore can't send them back if they don't sell them all. Well maybe I just think it is worse; it sounds like your bookstore is ordering English-language books as if they were not returnable either.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I've had bookstores mess it up every way possible, as of this semester. Sure, at some schools they've done the classic 'lost order' bit -- others they screw up someone else's order for the same book and then my students can't get them -- other places they don't carry the book on the satelite campus where I teach etc... They've also listed my ethics books for my intro class and vice versa (that was the worst -- I ended up with a book trade list between classes) this semester they listed an optional book as mandatory.. which is the one way they hadn't done it.

I'd love it if our publishers would go all digital -- we could go on-line and indicate a set of readings, our students could pay the publisher directly for access and download it onto their computer or get a CD in the mail. Get rid of the bookstore, they are really all about selling crappy candles and sweatshirts anyway, no?