Sunday, March 29, 2009

Textbook affordability

Apparently UC Berkeley has assembled a task force on textbook affordability. (No evidence yet, so far as I can see, of a task force on not raising student fees every year while simultaneously cutting course offerings and freezing faculty hires so that a higher proportion of undergraduate courses are taught by non-tenure-track academic staff.)

The task force doesn't seem to have come to any earth-shattering conclusions yet; for instance, the "Why are textbooks so expensive?" section of the web site concludes that textbooks are expensive because their prices have risen. Imagine that.

The recommended actions all involve adopting cheaper textbooks or finding cheaper sources for textbooks (e.g. used). Ludicrously, they suggest allowing students to use older editions of a textbook and combing through different editions to identify the differences. We call that kind of labor "collating," and it is an enormously tedious process only worth undertaking in an editorial or scholarly capacity -- say, to establish a variorum of the poems of Marianne Moore. Performing many hours of tedious unpaid labor is not really a solution for the high price of textbooks; it just relays the cost to the instructors (who are increasingly employed contingently, which, you may have heard, does not really leave them with hours of leisure time for combing through multiple editions of textbooks). And that's quite apart from the fact that older editions may contain significant problems -- something particularly common for literature anthologies.

What seems to go unrecognized in the task force's recommendations is the fact that publishers' tendency to issue new editions every few years is designed to prevent the resale of used books from replacing, or significantly undercutting, the purchase of new ones. No matter what, there will rarely if ever be enough used books to accommodate a given class, and some students will be left in the lurch paying an unacceptably high price for a new textbook. Encouraging the use of used textbooks cannot address that problem; moreover, it won't cause publishers to lower prices.

Perhaps we should be talking not just with instructors and students but also with publishers. I was fascinated to read the California legislation urging publishers to adopt measures that are likely to undercut their sales (like performing the aforementioned collating on instructors' behalf, or publishing supplements rather than new editions). I don't think it's likely that publishers will adopt these policies, but it would benefit everyone, I think, to stop thinking of college students as a necessarily privileged class that can bear incessant gouging. What we need are not piecemeal tactics (like assigning old editions) but rather a thorough reconsideration of the economic system that surrounds academia, one that reconceives the college student as a member of the scholarly community, rather than a customer demanding (and paying for, at the highest rate we can charge) goods and services therefrom.

But that, of course, would also involve the University of California refraining from constantly raising fees while also lowering the quality of instruction. Students are not widgets.


Jeff said...

Publishers of books we don't usually think of as "textbooks" do the same thing: A few years back, I noticed that there were two or three versions of the Penguin Classics Canterbury Tales in modern English. The content was identical, but Penguin made slight changes in the size of the pages, which in turn affected the pagination--and which caused big problems in a text with (I suspect deliberately) unnumbered lines. I haven't checked to see if they've done it again since they redesigned all the Penguin Classics covers. I'm sort of afraid to find out.

Natalia said...

How irritating! I think university presses are less likely to pull such shenanigans, but they also tend to publish more expensive books. The closest thing to a decent edition of Marianne Moore so far is a $55 hardcover, which is absurd.