Letter to the Editor: Professor: new book program could hurt students’ education

There is no doubt that the high cost of required course textbooks is an issue for Rider students as well as for just about everybody attending a college or university in the U.S. However, making textbooks available via an optional on-reserve system in the library, a program recently instituted by the administration here at Rider (and to my knowledge without any faculty input), despite its good intentions, doesn’t seem like a particularly well thought-out solution to this problem.
For one thing, it seems to send a message to our students that perhaps they are not really expected to acquire a copy of that text or book their professor has determined is required for the course. I wonder if there is any evidence that students who choose not to acquire a text (and I doubt that this decision is always an economic one) actually make use of the copy on reserve in the library, a copy that in any case can only be accessed for a short period (assuming no one has beaten them to it), cannot be marked up and made their own, or used to access supplementary material that publishers often make available online to purchasers of textbooks. Without their own copy, they won’t be in a position to follow along in class when the instructor refers directly to material in the text, or have a reliable aid for exam preparation and review.
Acquiring required texts for courses seems to me to be a reasonable and essential expectation of academic life, part of what it is to be a college student.  We should be encouraging students to acquire required books and texts, not encourage their belief that somehow you can get through a course without them.
Apart from these pedagogical issues, I foresee any number of bureaucratic obstacles. If I give up to the library the complimentary copy the publisher may send me for adopting the book, then what do I use to prepare for class? In my department, many faculty may teach the introduction to sociology course, but each is free to select his or her own required texts; if faculty don’t give up copies for the on-reserve program, then the library may well find itself buying lots of texts that may be used only once or twice as faculty change texts, or as adjuncts are not rehired.  Also, I’m not sure our new bookstore operator, not to mention the academic publishers, will be that enthusiastic about a program that undercuts its economic expectations.
During my time at Rider, although we are all sensitive to the issue of textbook costs, I don’t recall any forum where this has been discussed. Alternatives to a textbook reserve system might include asking faculty to seriously look for lower-cost materials, or establishing some kind of per-course maximum expenditure, taking into account the nature of the course and the state of textbook competition in that area. I have made an effort this semester to select what I think is a pretty reasonably priced textbook for my courses. Putting that on some kind of reserve system in the library, especially given the number of students that I have this semester, is not going to help my students to excel, nor particularly assist me in teaching the course.

–Professor James Dickinson
Sociology Department


Printed in the 09/23/15 issue

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