Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Annoying Things at the Start of a New Semester

My teaching semester began yesterday with a query from some students in my general education literature course about whether it would be fine if they just "shared the books for the course."

If you are a student, and you've wondered about the answer to that question yourself in regard to a literature class in which you enrolled, the answer is NO. NO, SHARING THE BOOKS IS NOT A GOOD IDEA. (And, in fact, my course policies, which state that you need to have the literature we're discussing in front of you each and every class period or you'll be asked to leave and charged with an absence does underscore that fact.)

I wasn't actually going to blog about the above. I posted a one-liner on Fb about it, and that was going to be that, I thought. But I forgot that my Fb friends are not all academics, and in fact I have a goodly collection of former suitors among my Fb friends, and I've had a history of fraternizing with suitors who are exceptionally irritating and who like to pipe up in ways and at times that are completely wrong, and so of course, who comes along to put in his two cents but this fool, also known as The T., with whom I cavorted for like a month in 1998 and who remained a bizarre (and usually drunk) fixture until approximately 2001, who was all, "You are a compassionless cog in the corporate machine, for the students are poor and how dare you expect them to purchase the required materials to learn your subject?" And then when I accused him of being a malcontent (jokingly, sort of) in his comments to my status updates he was all hurt and prickly (or just a prick, take your pick).

Fb for me is like a dream where you show up at a bar and all of the ghosts of your past are milling around and either blabbing about their children (mainly high school and elementary school people) or or leaving random comments to you about your current life (guys from your misspent youth), while at the same time all of your current friends are there and look confused at who all these other weirdos are, and also your family is there shouting (in all capital letters) over the din and giving updates about family illnesses and such. In other words, it is surreal.

But anyway, I was very irritated not only by the students who asked about sharing the books but also by The T., who made it his business to take up for them. Because here's the thing. I spend a lot of time and energy working to keep book costs low. (The books for this course cost students around 60 bucks if they buy them totally brand new, much less if they get used copies.)

But the reality is that in my discipline, where the entire object of study are those texts on the syllabus (in other words, it's not like the books are just "about" the subject - they in fact are the subject):
  1. You need to be able to consult the book after you've done the reading.
  2. You cannot write a paper without the book.
  3. You cannot participate in class discussion without the book.
  4. You cannot think about the literature without the book, not in a way that has any depth.

And if one is going to teach literature that was written anytime in recent memory, one is dependent on making students buy actual books because you can't access stuff under copyright for free. And let's be real: in a general education type course, if it's possible, you want to convince students that literature is something that connects to their lives and that is worthy of their time even outside the classroom, and while you might teach some historical stuff, you also probably are going to want to show them that literature didn't stop being produced somewhere around 1900 (given the constraints of the course, naturally).

I suppose the thing that underlies all of my irritation about the above is that I think that the idea that the books in my courses are somehow unnecessary is really about people thinking that reading literature and analyzing it requires absolutely no training. I think that people assume that the study of literature isn't important or serious or meaningful. And that makes me want to pinch people.


gwinne said...

Wow. That's a new one. Sharing books in a lit class?! I have to say I've had students check out copies of books from the library, which seems like a reasonable way of dealing with the money issue, if one is the type who doesn't take notes *in* books, anyway...

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I see the irritation - on the other hand, I suspect your students and mine are probably in similar financial situations -- and many of my students share books for financial reasons.

When students discuss sharing books with me, I tell them that they are responsible for having access to the books at all phases of the course. Usually this works for students who live together.

annieem said...

I, too, have yet to hear THAT question, though of course now I'm anticipating it (Despite using 2 dollar Dover editions for a few texts this term, three of the books are $15.00 each, new--but they are saving on that spendy anthology).

On another note: LOVE your metaphor about Facebook, as horrifying as that sounds (a bar, with alcohol flowing, and ghosts of boyfriends past, mixing with the cousins who are barely know, current colleagues and friends, and that girl I sat next to in 5th grade! Eech!).

life_of_a_fool said...

"I've had a history of fraternizing with suitors who are exceptionally irritating and who like to pipe up in ways and at times that are completely wrong."

Ha. I have this problem as well.

Janice said...

Reasons why FB will not replace blogging: this post.

I have a lot of students who want to get away without the book in my history classes and I warn them that, while we won't be using most texts for close, in-class work, that they need their tutorial readers at the very least and if they don't read the book (which many don't, whether or not they own the text), their learning suffers: I can't spoon-feed them the entire course content in lecture form!

Of course, the worst for costs in my discipline are the freshman survey texts that seem to start at $100 for a semester's worth of material whereas we can often get individual historical sources for about $12 a pop.

heu mihi said...


(Although I would add that one *can* show students that literature connects to their own lives and is worthy of time spent outside of the classroom *even if* one only teaches literature that was written before 1900--but now I'm just needling you.) (And of course there are Gen Ed students who fail to get excited about Aphra Behn and The Wife of Bath--but they perplex me, they do.)

Anastasia said...

i get the part about not being able to afford books--been there, done that--but literature classes are not the place for this frugal impulse.

as for the comments, saw it, read it, rolled my eyes at it. Prick gets my vote. Or tool. I'm partial to tool.

Bardiac said...

I have a secret hope that my students will take notes in their books and hold onto them, and then their kids will find them someday and know that their parents were in college and said goofy things in their books.

I have my Dad's poetry textbook from when he was a freshman, I think. It makes me happy, because my Dad was SO not a poetry person, but I'm guessing that was the intro to writing class back in the 50s?

Maude Lebowski said...

I have a feeling, too, that those same students wouldn't bat an eye at dropping $100+ on a science book because that is important and requires training, which as you point out, there's the assumption that what we do requires little training and books are optional and frivolous.

FrauTech said...

I once took a humanities class and never bought/read the books for it and got an A. I suspect I could not have pulled that off in a literature course, especially one where formal papers with references would be required.

I once took a lit class on the Canterbury Tales and the prof wanted us to buy this huge hardcover $100 compilation. Since The Canterbury Tales is public domain, I printed each tale as we went over it from the internet and brought it in with me. She wasn't too pleased with my resistance to buy the book but I had access to the same identical text everyone else did (I also had a smaller paperback of the Canterbury Tales with translation, but this was missing a few).

$100 is about the price of a USED science book. I suppose the difference is why is the student taking your lit class. If it's a GE they're not going to be serious about it and not want to spend the money. People don't take science classes for fun, so they tend to buy the book. Also, depending on the class, it might be useful to hang on to the science book because you are likely to need to reference it in your career. I still have my old Thucydides The Peloponnesian War with all the post-its and hand written comments I added when working on the paper, but honestly I've never taken it out of the bookcase, not even out of curiosity.

As for sharing a book (what is my comment, an essay?) I pondered the same thing recently as my husband and I are taking a foreign language class together. I was trying to figure out if we needed two copies of the student workbook or not, figuring we'd buy just one copy of the text book (about $150 for used one of each). My husband was shocked and insisted that if we needed to work out of our textbook OR workbook in class he did NOT want to share a copy with me. So looks like I'll be buying two copies. For literature I could see sharing a copy if the two people live together, otherwise I doubt it would work...but then any student that asks permission for this sort of thing without just making their own life choices and dealing with the consequences probably has other problems. And thanks for giving me reason #102 I'm never joining facebook.

Prof. Koshary said...

I am equally comforted and disturbed by the idea that you (and, as the narrator, my putative stand-in as the reader) can still be shocked and offended by the questions students ask. I thought my first semester of teaching had already burned away every bit of capacity for shock -- I'm not being melodramatic here, some crazy shit went down that semester -- but there always seems to be some new jaw-dropper the next semester. So you're saying we just have to get used to the fact that we will never be fully jaded to students' capacities for cynicism and narrow-mindedness towards intellectual engagement? Sigh...good to know now.

Psycgirl said...

Wow, how did you nail my FB experience so accurately? (Especially with the relatives!)

Dr. Crazy said...

IPF - I'm sure those students were trying to save money. The problem is, in a class where you're going to need to have the book in front of you during each class period, sharing just doesn't work. I should note that the students then asked whether they could get library books, and I said, "why surely you can, but you will need to make sure that you take extensive notes outside the books, and you will need to realize that keeping up in discussion with a book with different pagination is on you - I'm not going to stop the whole class to help you figure out where we are when we discuss a passage." I get being a student without a lot of cash. I worked summers for book money in college, and I worked part time in grad school and trolled used book stores in order to afford my books. I am not unsympathetic to the underlying causes of this. It's just I can't teach students who aren't prepared, and there is no way to be appropriately prepared if you don't have consistent access to the texts in the course.

LoaF: I'm sorry. Also, we must stand together in solidarity :)

Heu: i don't want to give the wrong impression - I teach a LOT of pre-1900 stuff in two of the three gen ed courses that I teach, and even a bit in the course that lends itself least to that. I think in some respects my bias as a person who studies later stuff comes through in this post, but also I'd argue that it's a lot less work for me to convince students of the connections when I teach later stuff. In other words, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a much easier sell than Eloisa to Abelard. BUT Eternal Sunshine helps me to sell Eloisa to Abelard, if that makes sense :)

Frau Tech - I've got to say that I don't care if the students buy the readings, but I do care that they have them in front of them. In other words, what you did in the Chaucer class could work out ok (though I'd say that it might be a problem if you had to do a paper on the tales with citations? Though I suppose you could borrow a classmates' book for that, which would work). As an instructor what I care about is that my students understand that if they choose to find a way not to buy the books that I ordered that they are responsible for that choice and it's not my job to accommodate that choice in any way other than allowing them to do so. So, for example, if I choose a text because it has a particular introduction or something, and I refer to it, and I student got another edition so doesn't have it in front of them, that is not my problem. And in my discipline, that stuff does matter.

You also write: "People don't take science classes for fun, so they tend to buy the book. Also, depending on the class, it might be useful to hang on to the science book because you are likely to need to reference it in your career." I've got to say, that is entirely untrue for most people not in a science field. I took three (yes three) science courses for general education as an undergrad, and while they most assuredly were not fun, they also have absolutely nothing to do with my career and I remember just about zero of what I learned in any of them. I took those courses because I had to take them in order to graduate. But I bought the required books, and I did my work, even if it didn't match my interests or my goals or my idea of a good time. I respected those courses, even if I didn't want to take them. That's all I expect my students to do with my courses - to respect that they have some sort of value, even if they wouldn't have chosen to take the course without the requirement.

Susan said...

Your description of FB is classic! Although I'd say that my groups pretty much keep to themselves; and fortunately, none of my unfortunate and ill-chosen former suitors (or not suitors, as the case usually was) are FB friends... so it's just my weird cousins, 5th grade classmates, and real friends and colleagues.

Bardiac said...

I was a science major, but I doubt any science majors save their basic chem, biochem, o-chem, basic bio, intro physics books. I sure never did. Science textbooks aren't good reference texts, usually, and they're REALLY expensive.

I think a decent paperback is way more likely to get saved, even by science majors. Most of my science major pals have shelves and shelves of paperback novels and such, some even from classes!

Dr. Virago said...

Frau Tech said:
"I once took a lit class on the Canterbury Tales and the prof wanted us to buy this huge hardcover $100 compilation. Since The Canterbury Tales is public domain, I printed each tale as we went over it from the internet and brought it in with me. She wasn't too pleased with my resistance to buy the book but I had access to the same identical text everyone else did."

No, actually, you didn't have access to the "same identical text everyone else did," and if I had been your professor I would have asked you to bring in the full citation of *which* public domain edition you were printing out to make sure it was at least a good one. (And btw, not all editions of Chaucer are public domain. Editors and publishes hold rights, so many are still under copyright.) Anyway, here's why I would've been a bigger stickler: not all editions of Chaucer (or Shakespeare or _Frankenstein_ or all sorts of text from the 19th century and earlier) are created equal and there are *substantive* differences between them. That is, everything from a word here and there to whole passages could be different. With Chaucer that's because his texts have come down to us in manuscripts -- texts copied by hand -- and as scribes copied them, the texts changed. And even the two most famous manuscripts of the C. Tales, copied by the same scribe, and likely under Chaucer's supervision, are *very* different. The tales are in a different order in each and one tale is completely missing from one of them. (I think it's only one.) So, what modern editors do is look at multiple manuscripts (and some of the early print editions) and decide, line by line, what's the "best" reading. (And what order of the tales is "best," etc.) One editor might decide differently than the next, and over time scholarship in the textual editing field has found errors and problems in earlier editions.

If you downloaded a 19th century edition of Chaucer (the likeliest to be in the public domain), for instance, I can guarantee you that there are *major* differences between the Riverside Chaucer (which is probably what the prof ordered) and the text you downloaded.

That said, there's more than one cheaper paperback of the complete C. Tales that your prof. could have ordered for the class or at least suggested you get.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comment, Virago. I was definitely responding with my own syllabi in mind, and I hadn't considered the issues specific to The Canterbury Tales that you elucidate here. There are actually similar issues that come up when a student doesn't get a particular edition that I order, with different words here and there or of different punctuation. My typical response is that it's on the student to deal with the discrepancies, and that I chose the edition I did for a reason, and that this is the "authoritative" edition for the purposes of the course, particularly in an upper-level context. This stuff matters much less to me in a gen-ed setting, but then, who offers a gen-ed Canterbury Tales class? :)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

The same is true of the sources I assign. Few things piss me off more than when I say I want the students to buy the Penguin (hello, usually the cheapest) edition of a book, and they get it off the web. Because I assign that edition for the notes, the introduction, often the translation, and because it's also a pain in the ass when students can't find where we are, because their skills in their native language are not up to equating Dryden's (e.g.) English with a more modern translation. This semester, I'm using the Heaney Beowulf, which I know is not a great translation, but the Norton edition has great essays in the back, and we're reading them. So no other editions, please.

I've got to the point where I will say things like, "Dude, I know you drop $15 in a night at X/drink lattes/go through a couple of 12-packs of soda a week. This book? Brand-new, is the cost of three lattes/two cheap pizzas (which are not on your meal plan, so you are wasting money!)."

Kids these days.

Dr. Virago said...

Crazy - Yeah, I was directing my comment at Frau Tech's original comment more than at your response.

ADM -- I use Heaney in some contexts, too! It may not be great translation, but it's awesome poetry! :)