Sunday, January 13, 2008

Shameless plugs?

The worst course I ever took in undergrad was an American Lit course. From the description in the course reader, I'd expected to read the American greats - Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner. Instead, the reading list reflected the professors attempt to perform self therapy. Every book we read had as the protagonist a man undergoing a mid-life crisis. They all bore an eerie resemblance to the professor. Ever since, I've been wary of taking courses where the reading list focused more on the professor than the students.

This semester, I've got two courses in which the textbook was authored, either in full or in part, by the professor. This concerns me. There's always the possibility of the professor being so certain of her theories that she refuses to allow students to bring up alternate explanations. Then there's the question of kickbacks - did the professor really choose the best book for the course, or did she choose the one that would make her more money? It also makes me wonder if this is a professor who's so caught up in academia and research that she doesn't have a clue how her theories stand up outside the textbook.

On the other hand, the fact that the professor wrote the book means (theoretically) that she actually knows what she's talking about. It won't be one of those first year classes where the professor knows as much as (or less than) the students. It also means that the professor is (or should be) intimately familiar with the text and can answer student questions thoroughly and effectively. Plus, the professor has the option to give the text to the students for free - eliminating the question of whether the prof chose a book that would put more money in her pockets.

Thoughts on this from people who've taken courses from profs who've assigned their own texts?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had four courses so far with professor-authored textbooks. Based on those classes:

- In three of the classes, the prof has been exceptionally open to contrasting student arguments, and in the remaining course, I don't think the professor's unwillingness to deal with student challenges had anything to do with his book authorship, since we didn't use the book all that much. I think most good profs who use their own books actually welcome student arguments as a way of challenging and improving their books for future editions.

- The profs have all been almost ridiculously well-informed and prepared.

- I don't worry so much about a kickbacks issue - based on a limited knowledge of the publishing industry, I don't think the mediocre royalties from book sales are are big enough to be a real incentive, and I've had one author/prof recommend that people buy an older version used instead of buying a new text.

- On a similar note, I don't think profs actually have an option of giving the book away for free. Most get a handful of comps from the publisher, but not nearly enough for even one year's class. An undergrad prof I worked for once got 10 comped copies of a book he authored - anything more than that, he had to buy like anyone else.

I think that actually the only drawback of an author/prof is that you don't get a contrasting informed view of the subject from the prof and author; instead, you just get the author/prof. On the other hand, you get more expertise and a prof that can often clarify a somewhat opaque text. I think it's a wash, but your mileage may vary...

1/13/2008 11:13 AM  
Blogger Armen said...

I'm starting to devise a Rosetta Stone of sorts for Bekki's posts and I think the Melville, Hawthorne, etc. line was tongue in cheek for the reasons mentioned by Patrick. Second, instead of working as Bar/Bri stooges, our profs write textbooks (sorry, I don't want to flame anything, but I just didn't react pleasantly to gloating by that school across the bay re bar results).

More seriously, I had profs in undergrad state that the royalties they get from sales at the bookstore go to a charity of their choice to eliminate any conflicts. In law school I haven't heard anything. But the more troubling issue remains Boalt's disgusting practice of not releasing reading lists in advance and using textbook markups to fund BHSA.

1/13/2008 3:25 PM  
Blogger Disco Stu said...

I will never forget first day of law school in Fall 2004, first class I ever had. Torts. Sugarman. He co-authored "Torts Stories." I don't know if the book still exists of if he's back to teaching the subject. He asked who had bought a copy. Maybe a little more than half the class raised their hands. His response: "Oh good. I can go out to dinner tonight." I liked him right away.

1/15/2008 8:55 PM  

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