Skip to main content

Textbook orders

Like Grinnell students, Grinnell faculty have a two-week spring break. Ostensibly, both Grinnell faculty and Grinnell students can take these two weeks off from work. In practice, most faculty necessarily let some work accumulate that has to be done during spring break. I’ve already described most of my accumulated work; I assume that many colleagues also have a backlog of grading and paperwork and want to get a bit ahead for the second half of the semester. Of course, students also have work during spring break. Some must earn money. Some are on service trips. Some have work due immediately after spring break [1]. Some manage to combine enough work that they really don’t have much of what most of us would call a break, other than a break from classwork. For example, I just talked to a student who went on a tour with Grinnell Singers for the first half of break, got home at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, leaves for College-sponsored week-long leadership training on Monday, and someone has to fit the preparation of a poster for the College research fair into what is left of spring break.

But that’s not what this musing is supposed to be about. This musing is about one responsibility that gets imposed on faculty members for spring break. That responsibility is selecting textbooks for the fall. You may think that fall classes are far away. You’d be right. Nonetheless, we are required to have selected the textbooks for our fall classes by April 6 [2,3]. In some cases, that’s easy. But most faculty I know like to review options to make sure that they are choosing the best possible books for their classes. But choosing books carefully means thinking about a syllabus and reviewing multiple options. It used to be that happened in early summer. But new rules mean that substantive thought needs to happen during spring break [4].

You might think that those rules are the work of some crazed administrator, such as the one who wants us to add measurable course outcomes to our syllabi. You’d be wrong.

It’s the law.

No, really. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 indicates that Colleges must

To the maximum extent practicable, each institution of higher education receiving Federal financial assistance shall– "(1) on the institution’s Internet course schedule and in a manner of the institution’s choosing, the International Standard Book Number and retail price information of required and recommended college textbooks and supplemental materials for each course listed in the institution’s course schedule used for preregistration and registration purposes[.] [5]

Why does this part of the law exist? At the time the law was passed [6], I remember the claim being that students choose courses based on textbook prices. But the price of a textbook is comparatively small compared to the price of a course [7]. Let’s see … Grinnell charges about $47,000 per year. That’s eight four-credit classes, more or less. So one might say that a four-credit class costs about $6,000 [8] or, if we decide that only about half of that tuition goes to courses, about $3,000. A $300 textbook [9] is 10% of the price of the course. I take it back; I guess that is a lot. Still, I would hope that price would not have to be the determining factor as to whether a student takes a class or not. If it is, we should address that issue in other ways.

In addition, students don’t always have the opportunity to choose which course to take. For example, if a student needs to take a required 300-level course for their major, or the second semester of a foreign language course for their GenEd requirements [10], there is likely only one option for that course or for the textbooks for that course.

There are, of course, other reasons to let students know their textbooks early. For example, I realize that giving students more time to find used versions of textbooks or alternate sources is a good idea. But more than four months is a long time. We could give faculty members most of June to make their decisions and still have two months for students to find the best possible deal.

It also concerns me that our current system does not provide a clear way to notify students about options. For example, for my upper-level software design course, I would prefer that students buy the Kindle version of Fox and Patterson’s Engineering Software as a Service. However, it has not generally been possible to put that in the textbook listing. I also assign Michael Hartl’s Ruby on Rails Tutorial, which has a [free online version]. We should make that option clear, too [11].

In the end, it seems we’d all like to see faculty have time to select appropriate and cost-effective texts for their courses. Telling them to select the texts during spring break is not the way to achieve that goal.

[1] I would hope that most faculty would not assign homework during spring break, but I know that some do. I will admit that there have been times that I’ve been tempted to do the same.

[2] Like others on campus, I use the term textbook to mean a book that is assigned and that students are expected to possess for a class. While some textbooks are designed primarily as textbooks, other are really trade books that faculty members have adapted for their teaching. Certainly, most language and literature classes use texts (or books) that are not strictly textbooks. Even in CS, some of us have a tendency to use books that are written for professionals rather than for students.

[3] I say we are required. But that’s not quite accurate. Since I’m not teaching this coming fall, I don’t need to have books selected for the fall. I do, however, have to select books mid-fall for spring. That’s somewhat awkward since I’m supposed to be spending all of fall semester designing a new course. It’s hard to select books for a course before it is completely designed.

[4] I suppose that people who know in the summer of one year what they will be teaching a bit more than a year hence can think about such issues. But I’m in a department in which teaching schedules vary enough that we don’t generally know our schedule until right before spring break.

[5], Section 112 (d), if I understand the numbering.

[6] Or perhaps discussed.

[7] I realize that textbook prices still feel incredibly expensive to most students and their parents. They do to me and I’m (a) a faculty member and (b) relatively well off.

[8] That claim would be inaccurate. A significant portion of tuition revenue goes to things separate from the instructional program. And the net cost per student (i.e., total budget divided by the number of students) is actually $10,000 or more higher than the tuition and fees, even after you set aside room and board.

[9] Yes, I’ve seen $300 textbooks. If I recall correctly, I listed some in a musing on textbook prices.

[10] Not that we have those at Grinnell.

[11] We did so last semester using a new book selection system. However, I’m told that that product was not successful so we are going back to the online form [12]. I’m still waiting to hear whether our step backward will still inform students about options. And, now that I search the College’s Web site, it’s not even clear to me that the product that was supposed to list options really does so. Bleh. I’d swear I’d looked earlier and saw options.

[12] Email from bookstore entitled Textbook Adoptions for the Bookstore and dated 16 March 2018.

Version 1.0 released 2018-03-25.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-03-25.