Thursday, March 8, 2007

Textbook prices

Earlier this week, Holly K. Hacker wrote an article in the Dallas Morning News about the soaring price of textbooks used in college courses. Subsequently, she was nice enough to point me to the July 2005 report prepared on this issue by the GAO for members of Congress. So, thanks a bunch, Holly!

The GAO report is quite informative and I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in digging deeper. For example, the markup (percentage of the selling price that the bookstore keeps) on used textbooks is close to 33%. The average markup on new textbooks is 23%. Of course, the publishers and authors don't see a dime from used book sales. But, unlike Garth Brooks who passionately argued against sales of used CDs, I have no problem with that. Students, who are not fond of collecting books, have every right to recoup some of the money spent on textbooks.

In my opinion, parallels can be drawn between publishers of textbooks and pharmaceutical companies. Both:
  1. Claim that they have to invest a considerable amount of money in developing textbooks and supplementary material.
  2. Sell books in several countries at prices that are significantly lower than the prices in the US.
  3. Are opposed to reimporting cheaper medicines/books from abroad.
Obviously, the cost of developing a new medicine is many orders of magnitude greater than the cost of developing a new textbook. Also, an effective medicine can be a best-seller and result in handsome sales for several years. However, sales of new textbooks decline significantly after the first year. So, now the time between successive editions of a textbook book is shrinking. This affects students who hope to sell their used, previous edition, textbooks.

I find the claim of publishers that they have to invest heavily in course supplements, and that is the reason they have to keep increasing the price of textbooks, dubious. In my experience, most of the supplementary material is provided by the authors. This includes PowerPoint slides, laboratory exercises, programming projects, multiple choice questions. I am not aware of the publishers offering significantly higher royalties to authors for such material. As for the software that enables instructors to assign online tests from a question bank, it is the same or similar for multiple books from a publisher. So, the cost is amortized across them. These supplementary course materials that come in a nicely sealed CD or DVD that is stuck to the inside cover of a textbook are like the "mandatory optional" upgrades that the car dealers are so fond of offering.
The reason why I refer to them as "mandatory optional" upgrades is the insistence of publishers to bundle them with the textbook. In my opinion, publishers vastly overstate the pedagogical value of these supplements.

When politicians start worrying about things like the price of textbooks, one starts reading about "wonderful" solutions like sales tax holidays, and using the same textbook at all state universities. The former cures the symptoms, not the underlying problem. The latter shows a lack of appreciation of the uniqueness of each college course, and the unique perspective that each instructor brings to a course.

Finally, in her article, Holly alluded to the unethical actions of some college instructors with respect to the choice of textbooks. Over the last few years I have come across similar claims in several other articles, and wanted to investigate further. It appears that most of them refer to an article in the June 27, 2003 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to that article, a small California publisher named North West Publishing supposedly offered $4,000 to instructors in various colleges to adopt a book printed by it. The book in question had gone out of print, and North West Publishing claimed to have obtained the rights to reprint it from the original publisher. The original publisher disputed this claim. That makes me ponder how upright a citizen North West Publishing is of the publishing world. But, this single incident has tarred the reputation of the entire academic community. To all those people who took the money knowing quite well that this was a kind of bribe: what have you done to atone for your lack of good judgement?

If any reader (at this early stage, perhaps I am the only reader of my blog!) is aware of other ploys adopted by publishing companies to manipulate the choice of textbooks, please drop me a line.

  • Interesting factoid, courtesy the GAO report: Attending a community college, as opposed to a four-year college, doesn't reduce the cost of textbooks.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Faculty recruitment

As I write, several universities and aspiring faculty candidates are in the midst of an elaborate dance known as faculty recruitment.

Let us consider one specimen: a graduate student, about to finish his Ph.D.; high on ambition, energy and hope, but low on experience and bank-balance. His notion of sartorial excellence is a pair of shorts that aren't torn and a T-shirt that has been washed in the recent past. He applies to various departments, and finally gets an interview call. So, at great expense, he makes himself the proud owner of a nice new suit, a matching tie, shirt, shoes and socks, that for a change, go with the rest of his outfit. This is, perhaps, the best dressed the poor sap is going to be during his academic career.

Our protagonist is received, with a lot of warmth, at the airport by someone from the department that has invited him from the interview. From that point on, the beauty pageant-cum-mating ritual begins in all its earnestness. The protoganist expresses genuine interest in the department. Due to his inexperience, which is more than made up by his energy level, he lists fifty different things that he would like to do as a faculty member. The equivalent of this in the insect and avian worlds is aggressively flapping ones colorful wings to draw the attention of a potential mate.

The department that has invited our protagonist may have X members on the faculty and X+delta factions (every self-respecting department should have a few faculty members who are always/occasionally at war with their other personalities). Yet, it will present a unified front ... one big, happy family ... where our protagonist will have every opportunity to flourish.

During the interview our candidate will ask someone, say the department chair, how many papers he needs to publish and how many research dollars he needs to bring to get tenure. That person, with great (avuncular) charm, will reassure our protagonist that he needn't worry ... that the department looks at the overall performance ... excellence in teaching, research, and service ... it is the quality of the work, not the number of papers that matter ... when making tenure decisions. Barring a few enlightened departments (their number is on the decline), this answer ranks right up there with the following words uttered in beauty pageants: "I will strive to remove world hunger and poverty."

Someone please tell our protagonist: "Dude, your future colleagues are too lazy to actually read your papers. Do you think they have the time to determine whether your work is good, or if your papers deserve to be shipped to Kimberly-Clark to be lovingly rolled into soft, two-ply sheets to be sold in packs of 24 at Costco? While they may not be able to read, they still have the ability to count papers and money."

Once in a while the real character of the department and university does shine through the veil. Let me recall a few of my own experiences. I was interviewing with a very well respected department and was looking forward to joining them, if made an offer. During my colloquium there were half-a-dozen people in a rather large room ... the department chair was in the first row, an assistant professor in the second row, and four more people in the very last row. This department was really trying to show how much it wanted me. Later, I was supposed to meet their Ph.D. students for half-an-hour in a conference room. I sat their, admiring the sound-proofing tiles on the ceiling, and nobody showed up. Now, I was sure they wanted me. A week later they did make me a very generous offer ... but I decided I belonged somewhere else.

A few weeks earlier I had visited U.T. Dallas which I eventually joined. I was supposed to meet the Dean of the School of Engineering for half-an-hour. Minutes before I showed up for the meeting a Regent of the University of Texas system had walked into the Dean's office. So, the meeting was off. My host did some quick thinking and arranged a meeting with somebody else. Later, when I walked into the lecture room for my colloquium I saw a big man, dressed in a suit that was far nicer than mine (of course there were only two people in the room wearing suits!), walking towards me. I immediately realized that he was one of those academic types who had crossed over to the dark side of the force: university administration. He extended his big hand towards me in a handshake. My cold, sweaty palm just disappeared in his. I still remember his words, "Young man, my name is Bill Osborne and I am the Dean of the School of Engineering. I am sorry I could not meet you earlier. I don't know how to make up for it. So, let me try my best. I will attend your colloquium." He sat through the colloquium, paying attention to what I had to say and the discussion that followed. Here was a Dean that led by example ... I was smitten. In the years that followed, there was no doubt in my mind that this action of his was genuine, and not part of the elaborate dance.

I wish the number of such Deans multiplies.

P.S. Today is Holi, the great Indian spring festival. So, pour some colored water on yourself, apply some gulaal to your face, banish past animosities, and saw Holi hai! I won't advice you to go eat bhang ... in this land of milk and honey it will land you in jail.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Icebreaker

Welcome to my blog! Namaste aur Swagat, as they would say where I come from.

Six years in graduate school at The Ohio State University (Go Bucks!), and over ten years since then teaching undergraduate and graduate students have been extremely enjoyable. I have a few stories ... and lots of opinions ... to share ... on a variety of issues including teaching, research, accreditation, academic freedom, the persistent pursuit of misery (proposal writing).

This is a forum for me to express my opinions. I might occasionally succumb to the temptation of presenting facts and data, provided they are supportive of my opinion. If they have the temerity to contradict my opinions they shall be banished to ... choose your favorite holiday destination ... Siberia, Cellular Jail in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, or a super-fund site.

Through your comments, you, the gentle reader, will have the opportunity to be as opinionated as I am, if not more. Remember, we are in Cyber-Texas here. So, if you are a quick draw with your opinions you will get a lot of admiration from me ... not that you should seek my admiration ... that would be very unhealthy.

My graduate students might wonder why I would waste my time on this rather than read the latest draft they gave me. My department chair and Dean might wonder why I am not putting my time to better use by increasing my publication count and federal funding. But, a man's got to HYPER-VENTILATE once in a while.

So, stay tuned for future posts.

P.S. Every now and then you will encounter words or phrases that are italicized. If you are not from India and have no idea what they mean, remember Google and Wikipedia are your friends.