Things I Know 217 of 365: Textbooks are killing me

A people’s literature is the great textbook for real knowledge of them. The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can.

– Edith Hamilton

It’s been a while since I’ve bought a textbook.

For the online master’s, the textbooks were part of my scholarship. They showed up at my door, pre-paid and ordered for me.

All publications of Person or one of its imprints, the texts amounted to free books to gather dust on my nightstand as they were remarkably outdated when compared to the research I could find and access online.

This semester has turned that model on its head.

In an attempt to savvy it up, I tried to find as many workarounds as possible.

I made my way to the COOP, Harvard’s central student bookstore (a B&N-owned property) to see how deeply into my pockets I’d be reaching to study this semester.

With only three of my courses confirmed, the tab came in over $200, and I noted the likely fourth class called for 6 more texts. Altogether, books were about $300. That was minus the recommended texts for my stats class in which the professor advised us he’d be supplying us with all the handouts we could need. Had I acquired the recommended, we’re looking at a total of approximately $400.

But the fun doesn’t stop there.

Three of the four courses (stats is the winner, again) also require course packs of journal articles and selected chapters for the semester. Those three totaled $200.

If I’d purchased all the texts, my outlay for reading materials would have been around $600 for the semester.

I should stop here and note some things:

  1. I realize students in other disciplines are spending much more on many more texts.
  2. I appreciate and accept the need for reading materials for class. I’m not advocating a text-free approach to classes.
  3. I get that this is the way things are done, and thereby, part and parcel of higher education.

Since collecting all of these texts, I’ve been thinking of how we might shape a new model of for texts that might lower the materials cost of higher education and thereby make it more accessible who find it cost prohibitive.

Certainly, I realize tuition far out-paces course materials as an item on students’ higher ed budgets.

Still, every bit helps.

Some steps I took:

  • I downloaded Amazon’s student app and used it in the COOP to scan course texts for their Amazon.com partners. Where the Amazon texts were less expensive, I added them to my cart. (This was the case in all but two instances.)
  • When I got home, I compared the items in my Amazon cart with used versions available through amazon. Whenever possible, I chose the used version.
  • I took advantage of amazon’s offer of 6 months of free Amazon Prime membership for students. This secures free 2-day shipping and other as of yet unknown “deals.” (When selecting used texts, I only purchased those qualifying for Amazon Prime.)
  • When it was possible, I purchased the Kindle version of texts. I’ll be reading them on my iPad, but I’d take advantage of the new Kindle Cloud feature if I didn’t have a Kindle or iPad.
  • I opted against texts that were recommended but not required (with the exception of the APA style guide).

As a result, my possible costs of $600 ended up at around $450. That’s a chunk of rent or more than a month’s worth of groceries.

Still, though, the course packs linger as a confounding problem. The readings are required and weeding through each course’s syllabus to find out which texts are in the course pack/available online would be a tremendous time suck. This is not to mention the fact that packs are purchased in all-or-nothing style.

I know the answer lies somewhere in movements like the Flat World Knowledge project and other open-source options, but they’re not quite there.

Teachers and professors know what they want their students reading, and I’d imagine the course packs are a result of culling the available scholarship for specific texts. As such, any project attempting to replace the usual way of doing things is going to struggle to reach critical mass until it can offer all or nearly all of what’s available to those with appropriately-sized budgets.

So, there’s the conundrum with which I’m dealing.

It seems to me there’s a better way, that the tools and channels already exist to cut this as a burden to students.

Someone have this million-dollar idea.

4 thoughts on “Things I Know 217 of 365: Textbooks are killing me

  1. And the most frustrating thing to me seems that, a lot of these books, I don't even use *during* the course, let alone afterwards. “Recommended” texts always seems to translate to “things you don't need but the professor thinks are cool” and as you mentioned earlier, so much more (and similar) can be found online.A workaround I've found extremely helpful has been renting books. A few sites have started doing this, and I tend to like chegg (they plant a tree!) – particularly for things like statistics, if I won't be using the book again (because either the info is online or not useful after the course!)

  2. I'm surprised that this is your situation. It's not what I've encountered in grad school. Looking at my bookshelf I'm totaling seven books that look like text books are 6 quarters of classes.  Unlike Rachel, I find it very helpful to keep old statistics textbooks around. They've been better references for me than the internet is. For the non “textbook” books, I know that if I buy it, I'll hang on to it forever. So instead, if it's not one I think I'll be referencing again, I'll check it out from the library. If it's not in my university library, say a classmate has checked it out, I'll try to find a copy at another local university or the city library. Also my department is big on more advanced students loaning out books. “You're taking that professor? Here's the books you'll need.”A few of my courses have the course packs–usually a collection of book chapters instead of a collection of journal articles. But more often my courses have readings posted on Blackboard or Moodle for students to download. Some people read on screen. Some print each week. Some take the files to the local print shop and make their own course pack. Maybe not million-dollar ideas, but a different starting point than what you're describing.

    • Sarah,One of the pieces that strikes me first is the workflow you're describing. For me, I don't need (or necessarily want) the tangible book to live with me forever. So much of my reading takes place online and lives in the cloud, that having the tangible book makes less sense to me.I like the idea of students within the program loaning books to other students. My program is only a year long, so the communication and channels for loaning is a bit difficult to create. Again, I like the idea very much. Another piece I've noticed in reading in preparation for my first class meetings – for the classes whose readings are available as PDFs initially, I find myself making much more frequent annotations using apps like GoodReader than when I'm tangibly reading on paper. It's also proving helpful once I get to class because I can keyword search within a text to find an idea or thought quickly.I realize what much of this has to do with transitioning from a hard-copy to digital workflow. That can, and should, also mean transitioning from a pay to open model of acquisition.Thanks so much for adding to my thinking.- Zac

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