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Textbook ethics: Write it, publish it, make your students buy it?

What happens when a professor has written the textbook he or she assigns for a class? Are they making money in royalties? Is it ethical, or even in the student’s best interest?



By Michael Scoular (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: September 25, 2013

John Liu/Flickr

Textbooks are expensive, mostly because students are a captive market. Professors and university faculty are quick to point out that they don’t set the prices, and therefore it’s out of their control. But what happens when a professor has written the textbook he or she assigns for a class? Are they making money in royalties? Is it ethical, or even in the student’s best interest?

University professors have many responsibilities, but two of the major ones are teaching and researching. A tenured position at a university can provide stability that allows professors to further research or write for peer-reviewed periodicals. Keeping up with current work then influences future choices for in-class materials. Over time, instructors can come to be considered an expert in a field and given the opportunity to write a book-length work. The end result of research is often a published work, which a professor has to decide whether or not to use in a relevant class.

Ron Dart has been teaching in UFV’s political science department for over 20 years and has come to be known as an extremely well-versed writer regarding traditions in Canadian political history obscured by the current divide between Liberal and Conservative ideologies. Dart is using two of his own works in courses this semester: Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism and George Grant: Canada’s Lone Wolf.

Dart explains that his writing and subsequent use of the books as texts came from a dissatisfaction with what’s typically available.

“The reason I include a lot of my books is to fill in for what I see is missing in standard texts,” he says. “A lot of books, for example in ideology and politics, they either ignore the Canadian side entirely, or, if they do [include it], it’s just standard liberal Canadian.”

In an area as subject to opinion and staunch judgment as the political sphere, a professor’s own work could be seen as problematic, potentially too authoritative, but Dart justifies his work by the way it’s presented in class as a complementary piece.

“An honest teacher will say this is, in my research, the conclusions I have tentatively come to, but these are other scholars, these are other articles, these are other books that critique my conclusions and I want you to read them so that you can come to your own conclusions,” he explains. “The task of teaching is not to create echoes of the teachers, it is to create thoughtful people who can separate wheat and chaff, gold and dross.”

Other professors have come to different conclusions about teaching their own work. Creative writing teacher Andrea MacPherson has two novels and two collections of poetry in print, with her most recent novel Beyond the Blue receiving positive reviews after its publication by Random House in 2007.

Poetry and prose writing both require a considerable level of debate and defense in a class setting; it comes down to story, style, and what that communicates. The potential problem of being too close to a text and thus unable to discuss it exists on a personal level for everyone when it comes time to workshop assignments.

“I’ve never been comfortable with making my work required reading in my classes. I’m not convinced students would be comfortable critiquing the work, and this is a core component of writing classes. A bit of distance is helpful,” she says.

With creative writing, there is also a difference in what is available. The endless diversity in languages and literature is a different case from the representational gaps in Canadian political history. Where Dart is able to contextualize his work, in MacPherson’s classes it could be a distraction.

“Students often have questions about my work. I’m happy to answer those questions, and point them to where they can find my books if they so desire. [But] personally, it would be detrimental to my classes to ask students to read my work,” she explains.

Another major question with textbook assignment is how it effects sales, revenues, or possible publicity.

Both Dart and Darren Blakeborough, a professor in UFV’s media and communications studies (MACS) department, said they stood to gain nothing financially from sales of their respective books. But that doesn’t mean there are no effects whatsoever.

Blakeborough teaches a variety of courses, but is perhaps most well known as the instructor for MACS/SOC 385: TV & Social Value: The Simpsons. The show’s omnivorous attitude toward culture makes it particularly ripe for a variety of readings, and Blakeborough made it the subject of his master’s thesis, looking at its depiction of aging. After his thesis was published in 2009, Blakeborough used it as a supplementary text for the course. But repeated use of the text has not gone well.

“My publisher, I think after that first slew of book orders came in the first time I [assigned it], got all excited, so they jacked the price,” Blakeborough says. “I used it one more time after that and I felt horrible about it. It went from [about] $40 to $80.”

The combination of it being the instructor’s own master’s thesis and sold at an inflated price (for a book only 116 pages long) outweighed whatever benefit it might have had as a well-researched text.

“It was hard to get over the price of it… I think that [students] understood that it was directly related,” Blakeborough says, adding that he will not assign the book again in the course, likely meaning the end of its circulation in both new and used copies.

While course and instructor listings stay mostly the same from semester to semester, prompting pre-registration questions of what each is like, textbooks, which can often drive a course, are subject to change as suggestions filter through the academy and new releases enter the market each year.

Blakeborough says he’s had a potential opportunity to write a Canadian version of an existing MACS textbook. Should that happen, the ethical dilemma would put the philosophy behind Blakeborough’s previous decision to the test once more: would students be comfortable challenging their professor’s ideas?

“It’s not me as an expert saying this this and this,” Blakeborough says. “It’s me moderating a debate.”

UFV’s official policy and how it could change

UFV does have policy on the matter of professors assigning their own textbooks, though it is currently limited in scope. Dean of Arts Jacqueline Nolte says the policy, which was last amended in 2003 and reviewed in 2008, will soon be put through a rewriting process, which she says “realistically [will] take a year to go through the system.”

Excerpted from the Conflict of Interest (142) piece of policy, it currently it reads

Where copyrighted materials are assigned in a course, and where the faculty member stands to gain royalties or any other kind of benefit from assigning the materials, the materials must be initially pre-approved by a review committee convened by the Dean of the area consisting of faculty members familiar with the purpose and nature of the course. The committee would ensure only that the material is relevant to the objectives of the course.

The policy in its present form focuses on the financial benefits of assigning textbooks: increased sales and keeping a book in print result from a text being put on a syllabus, which benefits publishers and, potentially, writers. The policy requires textbooks that could potentially cause this to be put under formal review, which has happened once since Nolte entered the position in 2009.

There are other professors currently using their own works in classes. In their cases, the process was bypassed in part due to the absence of royalties that would result from the text being used.

Nolte has since made a departmental effort to increase awareness of the existence of the policy, and is planning to review the instructor-authored or edited texts already in use.

“I can commit to [a review process] and I think I should,” says Nolte, who will be working with the policy in its current form until a newer one can make its way through the review process.

Key parts of the policy that will likely undergo revision and clarification include the “other kind of [benefits]” and “ensure only…relevant to the objectives of the course” wordings to which Nolte says, “All texts communicate a point of view, and if students are assessed and graded in relation to reflecting that point of view, I mean that’s contrary to what we’re trying to do with an educational context…I think the review committee would have to look at how those texts are prescribed in relation to other texts.”

Recognizing both sides of textbook use, Nolte says she’s listening to comments and questions from professors in response to the issue, and that “I’d be really open to feedback from students as to further problems they might have… [as well as] recommendations.”

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