Required: Did your professor write your textbook?
As students glance over their syllabus while standing between the shelves of the UO Duck Store, they might notice that the name of their professor seems eerily similar to the name on their required books list.
For students in almost any field, this can be the case — the professor not only wrote a textbook, but requires it for their class.
To some, it might seem wrong for a professor to use their authority in the classroom and profit from the sale of a book, with potential concerns for bias in their own books and withholding the opportunity for students to read other texts on the subject.
On average, a textbook author can make anywhere from five to 15 percent in royalties for their textbooks, according to an article written by Dr. David Rees of Southern Utah University.
So if a University Math II textbook costs $110, at 10 percent per 30 students in their class, that’s $330. After teaching five, 30-student classes, that’s $1,650 in royalties alone.
But if a professor is an expert in their field, why wouldn’t they use the text they wrote — a text that is likely on the forefront of the discipline’s research, and perfectly suited for the course?
At the University of Oregon, there is no policy in regard to an instructor or professor writing or requiring a textbook they’ve written, according to UO Spokesperson Tobin Klinger.
Different universities have different policies. According to the American Association of University Professors, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University doesn’t allow a professor to require their written text unless the use is approved by departmental, collegiate and university-level committees. Professors at the University of Maryland cannot “personally profit from the assignment of materials” without authorization from a department chair. Along with UO, neither Oregon State University nor Portland State University have policies either.
Beth Peters is a science major at UO who has had professors write many of her textbooks. For her, it’s a fine line of what is ethical and what is not.
“I believe that the books that my [science] professors have written are more acceptable because they are less factual and more procedural,” Peters said. “But I can see why it might be inappropriate for some professors to write their own textbooks if they only include their opinions and not the other side of the argument, and if they do it just to benefit themselves by having people buy their material.”
And in liberal arts, some students in that field find it questionable when a professor writes their own textbook, because of the limited points of view.
“I don’t think professors should regularly be assigning books they wrote for their courses, even if it is in their field of expertise and is within the subject of the course study,” said Jill Tydeman, a UO graduate. “Liberal arts subjects necessarily require a more broad perspective than would be allowed if the professor were teaching their own point of view and used their own work to support and contextualize it.”
Faculty at UO such as Janne Underriner, the director of the Northwest Indian Language Institute, are writing their own texts, but doing so with the intention of improving their classes and filling in gaps they might find in other textbooks.
For those who are specialists in their field, it might be the best way to teach in their subject. Underriner says writing a textbook is something that she and her colleagues have wanted to do with the Lane Community College program Chinuk Wawa for a long time.
“Every year we create handouts and edit them and add to them,” Underriner said. “We just really want more speaking activities, students want more opportunities to speak the language with each other and for us to create more audio material so students can hear the language. It’s been a dream for many years, and last year I just said, ‘let’s do it.’”
Underriner has taken to studying textbooks from Spanish or French, but with a language that has a smaller community, it’s difficult.
“There’s no place to go. There’s no other books to look at,” Underriner said. “It’s not like if I want to write a new Spanish textbook, then I can sit down and review 20 textbooks.”
It’s not only linguistics professors who write textbooks. John Russial, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communications, wrote his newspaper editing textbook in 2003 and still uses it in his classes.
According to Russial, the motivation to write a textbook for most professors is not in the money, but in filling gaps they see in the available textbooks. With his textbook, he can cover topics like search engine optimization in class.
“I wrote the text because a publisher asked me to, and I wanted to write several chapters on subjects that I didn’t think were covered well by other texts available,” Russial wrote in an email to the Emerald. “Plus, the other texts were expensive. I said I would write a text if the publisher would keep the price low.”
A Price Tag for Your Materials
For many students, a major concern when it comes to school is how much they will spend on textbooks and other supplies. According to UO’s Institutional Research, students are spending roughly $1,125 on books and supplies alone.
According to Alex Lyons, chief information officer for the UO Duckstore, textbook prices are driven by the publishers, despite what they try to do to circumvent those costs.
“We’ll try and source from wholesalers that work in a used marketplace. There’s also channels where we can offer rentals so we can further discount those prices for students,” Lyons said. “Because if we go direct publisher, that’s where our costs are the highest, and we pass along those savings to the students. But if we have to buy it new, our cost also goes up.”
In a survey done by Cengage, 85 percent of students are financially stressed by textbooks and class materials, and 87 percent said that textbooks and course materials were overpriced and “not worth the money.”
Many students rent books through sites like Amazon or Chegg, but sometimes a textbook isn’t popular enough to be available.
“There were very few alternative options for textbooks when I was at UO,” said Jill Tydeman, a UO graduate. “I’m sure if I had been more tech-savvy I could have found them online, but I bought all of my books through the campus bookstore and tried to buy used whenever possible. I also leveraged friends and their connections to try to buy used books directly from other students.”
At a Financial Aid standpoint, the amount set for textbooks and supplies is averaged instead of using a nationally set figure, according to Associate Vice President and Director of Financial Aid, Jim Brooks.
“It’s up to the institution — they can use a figure, or they can use an average,” Brooks said. “Most institutions I know, including this one, use an average because it’s really hard to know what a student is going to spend.”
According to Brooks, students can get an increase on their allotment for class materials, but only with proof that they’re taking more than the average class load.
For many students, the ability to take a class may come down to their ability to afford the textbook.
Some professors are writing textbooks to advance their field of study, others to lower the cost of texts by arguing with a publisher to keep the price low. Despite these good intentions, textbook writing is an area where money can be made by anyone who is a professional in their field.
With UO having no policy on the matter while other universities have stricter requirements for one reason or another, the jury is still out on whether it’s okay for a professor to require their own text.
“If the professor is a subject matter expert and the course is so specific that there is little other source material on the subject, then I think it’s okay,” UO Alumna Allie Gavette said. “Otherwise, it feels kind of like they’re taking advantage.”
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