Who’s to blame for excessive textbook costs?

By Professor Audrey DeLong

I’m going to don my Professor Obvious cape for a minute and say something stupendously Self-Evident: Textbooks are ridiculously expensive. Slightly less obvious: we, the faculty, don’t like it either. Honestly, I derive no Snidely Whiplash mustachio-twirling delight at the thought of inflicting financial pain on my students.

The truth of the matter is that there’s plenty of blame to go around. Let’s start with the faculty: Faculty didn’t intercede when prices were merely ‘a little crazy’ or ‘a bit much.’ Why? Because anyone with the advanced degree needed to teach college has somehow internalized the phrase ‘academic penury’. It makes us feel all educated that we know what ‘penury’ means, and it sounds slick. Ask your local faculty member about college and money, and they’ll regale you with tales, like this one, related in a tone of masochistic nostalgia: I remember one year, when, after paying for my rent, car, car insurance, tuition, books, and utilities, I had a grand total of $17 per month for ‘incidentals’ like food, gas for the paid-for-and-insured car, and the odd bit of entertainment. Ahhhh, good times.

Education is supposed to be a painful process, right? Artists have to suffer for their art; college students must pay in more than money (blood, tears, semesters of unreliable used cars and having God and prayer as your health plan) to get the much-vaunted Whole College Experience. So when we started hearing students complain about book prices, most of us probably donned our Grumpy Old Man hats and mumbled things about ‘building character’ and learning virtues like hard work and thrift. And sure, there may be some merit to the idea that if y’all couldn’t afford your unlimited texting plans and had to do without, you might learn a little something about how to deal with the flesh and blood people sitting right in front of you, and maybe engage in deeper and more worthy conversations than who got like so totally wasted Friday night, but that’s a debate for another time.

You students, though, also come in for a slice of Blame Pie, when you allow your generation to be written off and described as the MTV Generation—the ADD set that won’t deign look at anything unless it’s in four-color glossy print, with a kickin’ techno soundtrack, a video clip of someone getting hit in the face with a stop sign, and a hefty dose of trendy Jon-Stewart-esque sarcasm. This sort of generational typing is what led a book rep once recommend a textbook to me for one of my classes by pointing out that ‘students liked the book because it has sunglasses on the cover.’ (This really happened.) The only reason I did not hit her in the face with a stop sign to a kickin’ techno soundtrack is that no road signs were within easy reach. Why is this your burden? Because textbook publishers have made a lot of progress promoting books that condescend to that notion that if you are not being entertained, you are incapable of learning. That leads directly to the fact that your math textbook now feels that for you to learn algebra, you must pay for a book with a four-color glossy print of someone buying a bag of apples, or else you’ll never possibly stoop to answering that word problem. You let yourselves, as a generation, be condescended to and patronized, and the textbook publishers are now snickering at your MTV mindset, at the same time that they’re plucking your wallet empty.

But the group that deserves the heftiest slice of Blame Pie, a la mode, is the book publishers themselves. They don’t care about educating you—make no mistake. They care about separating you from your money before you’re educated enough cotton on to the con. New editions every year? Who profits by that? Not us faculty. Sometimes publishers will merely flip-flop two chapters—voila! Instant new edition! How’s that work for your professor again? We know it doesn’t work for you.

Publishers also want to cut down on the used book market, for the simple reason that they’re not profiting by those buybacks and resales. They only win if the books are brand new. Hence the rise in special computer access codes that automatically invalidate after a semester or ‘customized readers’ or a host of other tricks designed to make sure you, the student, are stuck with this book as a handy doorstop, or trivet, or ballast….

Now, our lawmakers have put forth two laws, one state, one federal, so, problem solved! Ummm, not so much. Both laws are, first of all, inherently toothless—there’s no real penalty for noncompliance. Secondly, and more importantly, they’re both the typical huggy-wug pap that passes for ‘leadership’ in lawmaking circles these days. Be not fooled, scholars: these laws were made and passed solely so that the politicians could have something to flap in front of their constituents come election time, bleating about how they ‘care’ and that they’ve worked really hard on legislation.

When I was in the Army (oh, you knew this was gonna come up somehow), one of my mentors, a man who had never set foot in anything even approaching a college, but who knew more about people and right and wrong and life than probably anyone I’ve met since, once gave me the following advice: Never, said SSG Trinkle, just complain about something, because that’s just bitching. It’s easy to tear something or someone down (face it, TMZ’s made it a national sport!); it takes a real leader to put oneself out there and suggest a fix. I don’t have all the answers (umm, here’s a hint about that: I’m junior faculty at a community college—that’s not exactly Cobra Commander level omniscience), but I do know one thing: as long as we keep pointing fingers of blame at each other, you and me, faculty and students, precisely NOTHING will get done. We each have our share of culpability, but you are not the problem. Your professor is not the problem. Holding on to this notion that we are adversaries and that your professor picked your class’s textbook as a new way to cause pain and suffering in the world because torturing kittens got boring will not lower the cost of texts one penny. We need to come together and work on this issue as allies. Only when and if we stand united against not only fluffy legislation but predatory publishing and pricing practices (hey, like that alliteration?) do we even stand a chance.

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