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Teaching from Your Textbooks

There's a raging debate going on at Liberty and Power Group Blog and the Volokh Conspiracy (discussion here). Aeon Skoble posted a very thoughtful discussion entitled, "A Textbook of Cluelessness," in which he criticizes Law Professor Ian Ayres, who argues that it is "borderline unethical for profs to assign textbooks they have produced."

Here is how I replied to this assertion today on L&P:

My, my, I've just looked at all these comments and the ones at Volokh too! Some are calling for Aeon's prosecution now for "profiting" from the pittance he makes in royalties if he assigns his books to his students.
Frankly, I'm at a loss.
If you teach a course on Marx's concept of alienation, and you happen to have written the book on Marx's concept of alienation, what's wrong with assigning the book to the class? That's what Professor Bertell Ollman did when I took his course on Marxism. And I profited enormously.
And when I teach cyberseminars on my own work, I have to assign my books. I'm teaching them! In a sense, what could be more fulfilling than reading and studying a text that your own professor has written? If you have questions about the book, what better source to ask?
I realize this is not the issue at hand: People are just ticked off that somebody somewhere might be making 4 cents in royalties. Clearly those who are upset over this have no clue about the standard academic contracts that require an author to sell 1000 or 5000 books before even making a dime on anything, on a sliding scale that nets you a couple of hundred dollars a year if you are lucky! (There are exceptions to this, of course, but they are exceptions). If some think we're in this for the money, well... we picked the wrong profession, folks!
As an aside, I've done some work on pre-Bolshevik education in Russia, prior to the Communist takeover. One of the things that really irritated Narkompros (the "Commissariat of Enlightenment") [once the Bolsheviks took over] was the fact that Old Guard professors were... HORRORS!... lecturing and using their own books as texts in their classes. Such books projected the individual professor's interpretation of history or philosophy, rather than the politically correct and approved version. As the Old Guard was exiled or shot, the requisite PC texts slowly replaced everything else. If you happen to have been an approved Marxist, you could teach your own PC text at that point. Otherwise, fuhgedaboudit!

Comments welcome.


I'm with you on this one Chris. Back in my university days I remember some students complaining about one particular lecturer profiting when a textbook he co-wrote was used for a course he was teaching. What nonsense! Like you'd seriously expect him to use somebody else's textbook when he helped write a perfectly good one?

~~ Upon reading through the 'discussion' you link, my 1st thought is a wondering about how many complainers wrote relevent texts...that weren't used in his class.

Have to go with you on this one, too, Chris. Since writing a book on the subject often provides the opportunity to make yourself knowledgeable enough to be qualified to teach, it's ludicrous for one to then be expected to use an inferior book--if one thought one's own text wasn't the best for the chosen focus on the subject, what was one doing considering it finished? And would you want to be a taught from a book even the *author* thought incomplete?

Hmm, in my field, some textbooks only came into existence because they were based on the course material the authors developed or assembled when teaching the course. Needless to say they got to be some highly successful and popular courses! Like Feymann's Lectures!

The following comment has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic at hand; however, I strongly believe Mr. Sciabarra will not mind.

Chris, did you happen to notice that the Yankees have moved into first place! Small is 9-0, R. Johnson "might" finally be healthy enough to be a play-offs factor, and Rivera continues to be brilliant.

If the BoSox miss the play-offs, Francon will be crucified in Boston. My only fear (and I suspect) is that after Francon is fired, Torre will be the new BoSox manager for next year.

Is there some distinction I miss between charging people to hear you read your lecture (perhaps with some impromtu asides) and charging them for the same lecture after it is written down and bound together?

If I ever teach a course on Kant's version of altruism, I'll consider Ayer's suggestion---just as a concrete example for my students.

Having taught at a law school for several years, I would consider a products liablity suit against legal texts, in that most law books are inherently dangerous to human life. (Just kidding about the lawsuit; not about the danger.) Legal texts basicly take the concept "A is A" and modify it to "A could be A, B or C. Argue both sides and explain the policy considerations behind your answers."

George, you prompted a separate thread with that Yankee query! :) See here.

Matthew, John, Jason, Hong, st, eve ... thanks for your good points!

...well, IMO the real gripe here is not the 'professor' making a few bucks on textbooks --- but the generally OUTRAGEOUS prices of college textbooks... no matter who actually pockets the profits.

The student/consumer/buyers are at a severe economic disadvantage to the textbook 'sellers' ... and
'dictators' of required course books.

It is a major, longstanding rip-off.

The poor quality of textbooks is separate but related consumer issue.

IMO well-composed textbooks obviate the need for 'any' classroom teacher/professor ... in most routine college coursework. Any 'words' that a teacher routinely speaks/presents to students in a classroom --
can be clearly communicated in pre-packaged course materials (...like textbooks). A 'good' teacher knows what the students need & what their questions will be.

A well-written textbook is worth a legion of teachers/professors for standard college courses.

"well-composed textbooks obviate the need for 'any' classroom teacher/professor"

Um, no. You can't get it all from the teacher without the book, and you can't get it all from the book without the teacher, and you can't get it all from either without discussion. Lecture + reading + explanation/extrapolation + discussion + writing = learning.

I agree, Aeon: There is something about the best of teachers that can never be replaced by even the best of textbooks.