The incentivized university

By mid-April, I’m urged to turn in my book orders for classes that begin in August.  Why?  Because the university is just dying to see what new book titles and pedagogical innovations I’ve got up my sleeve for the fall term?  No.  Because book buy-back programs want to know which books will be used again and which won’t be, so that they can offer students a few dollars for their books that will appear on someone’s syllabus in the next semester.  Leaving aside the fact that I never teach the same course two semesters in a row (with a 2-2 load, they just don’t come around that often), my incentive–if I’m going to make this artificial deadline–is to teach the same damn syllabus over and over again.  Don’t think about revising your course over the summer.  Add no new books.  Don’t add new lectures or even revise old ones.  Standardize the product, and keep it coming, like a MacDonald’s franchise. 

My special correspondent Indyannna took this snapshot of a poster advertising book buy-back dates at his university before exams have started.  Yes, that’s a great plan:  sell your books before you study for the final exam or write your final papers.  The incentive for students is to slight their grades and learning in favor of the chance for a few dollars per book.  (Is it too much to ask that book buyback schemes start only during finals week?)  I know that books are expensive–but I’m not apologizing for asking students to borrow from a library or purchase five $20 monographs, when science, economics, and business courses routinely ask students to buy $150 textbooks, plus additional books and materials.  Besides, spending money on books isn’t “extra,” it’s part of the expense of college that students should budget for.  (I consider University parking passes and beer money “extras,” but I’m afraid they’re things that get budgeted in before books.)

(Note to textbook companies:  By the way–haven’t you noticed yet that I never assign your books?  If so, why do you keep sending me six to eight free samples per semester?  You’re like a spurned suitor who thinks ze’s being charmingly persistent, when really it’s just stalkerish and creepy.  Your books irritate me, because I know the cost of your “gift” is just handed on down to the students who buy your books.  I give my freebies away to students, especially those studying to be history teachers, so they find good homes where they’re appreciated, but would you please re-examine this wasteful policy of yours?)

Historiann has been criticized in her course evaluations by students complaining that they can’t sell as many books back as they had expected to.  How disappointing–I’m sure they were in mint condition.  I suppose I should assign only best-sellers by David McCullough or Joseph Ellis, or boring textbooks, because students might get something back for them, instead of assigning the best books in my field–the ones with innovative arguments and evidence that, you know, might make you think.  (And, until my next book is published, there just aren’t a whole lot of bestsellers on women’s history, strangely enough.  Going with the bestsellers only approach would pretty much bump all women and people of color off the syllabus.)  Naively, Historiann had supposed that college students buy books because they’re sort of interested in the ideas inside them, not for their possible resale value.  Does anyone else think it’s strange that students would want to try to scrub their bookshelves (and brains?) entirely of course content?

0 thoughts on “The incentivized university

  1. I was surprised this term by the number of grad students who didn’t buy the required texts for the class. I know money is tight, but it would have never occurred to me to simply depend on library copies for my grad courses.


  2. Actually, I get that more in grad classes than undergrad classes, for poverty reasons. Grad students are generally not subsidized to the same degree as u-grads by their parents, and they have to read a lot more assigned books. Plus, in a grad class with only ten students or so, if about half the students buy the books, the other half can count on getting a copy of the book if they plan ahead and do interlibrary loan or intrastate university loan, whereas the competition might be rough in an undergrad class with 30 or 40 other students.


  3. As a grad student I borrowed the books that I knew I wouldn’t use again (even though I generally enjoyed them) and bought the books that directly spoke to what I do as a professional. Since graduating I have used quite a few monographs to help me present new ideas to my high schoolers (three from your class Historiann!)
    I do think for many grad students it isn’t necessary to buy books- they know where to get them when they do need them and don’t cost a cent. In addition to monetary concerns, moving books sucks (books make up most of what I own).
    I’ve never considered whether or not to get a book based on its resale value- I just budgeted $300-$400 a semester (ouch).


  4. There was a good article about this several months ago in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. A commentator noted that high prices are a function of students using used books — the fewer the publisher sells, the higher the price for the new books. Of course, the reverse is true too. The higher the price for the new book, the more likely one is to seek out a used copy. The author’s suggestion was a flat licensing fee for the material per course. An interesting idea, if it could be worked out.

    I’m disappointed that students would have the gall to complain about not being able to sell books back. It shows a lack of respect for their education and the professor’s discretion to choose the texts that best suit their class.


  5. Nicole–I’m so glad you have found your books useful! (How strange: to think that I traffic in useful information…)

    And Geoff–thanks for stopping by to comment. I think you’re right that it’s a vicious cycle. Friends of mine who have published textbooks or readers are always revising, so that their publisher can market a “new edition” every three years or so. (Beware, those of you thinking of publishing either a textbook or a course reader–it will become your life’s work, and you’ll never get back to primary research again…!)


  6. What really astounds me is that students sell their very expensive books back for mere pennies- and they can’t wait to do it. The buy-back value does not even come close to what they initially bought the books for- even used. Usually these books are political science, history, philosophy… liberal arts in general. I guess I’m one of those weirdo’s who has kept every single book since freshman year of u-grad. Although, the books I have tried to sell back, like math and science, I couldn’t because they come out with a new addition every year for those kinds of books (they probably only change a few words too and slap on a new pretty picture on the cover).

    Oh, historiann please don’t start assigning Barnes and Noble history. I like to think for myself.


  7. Rachel–yes, book buy-back is a total ripoff. But, if you hated HIST 150 and you can get $2 instead of hauling around a book you never read and will never read for the rest of your life, you’d take it. In Fort Collins, $2 will buy you a cheap beer (or half a decent beer) in a bar.


  8. Note also the Taco Bell tie-in. Cross-branding and multi-platforming (or is it cross-platforming and multi-branding?) are the ubiquitous partners of campus incentivity. I wonder if T-B has a program for buying back “used” meals, however? A very prominent early American women’s historian and lead author on a U.S. History textbook once told me that every third year belonged to the company, for revising purposes, but that it did pay for a very nice summer house in a prominent location. Carrying around your college books does suck, but it used to perform the work of building character. For a decade or so after graduation I was in a de facto ten or twelve person moving collective. Everyone moved maybe every eighteen months, and everyone helped everyone else. This meant that that treasured copy of Steppenwolf (or whatever) was forever being boxed and unboxed with hundreds of its neighbors and hauled from place to place, to testify to the literate and maybe even literary status of its owners. When the legs and back begin to give out, this practice finally stops!


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  10. Those “free” examination copies do indeed raise the price of the textbook to the student. But is the reader aware of a practice far more reprehensible than the student sell-back?

    It’s the faculty sell-back — to jobbers who come to campus to buy those “free” examination copies from the faculty. Yes, the faculty are making bucks (not big bucks, but bucks nonetheless) and raising the cost of books at the same time.

    Hint: Almost every textbook publisher would be pleased to send an instructor a free postage-paid label for the return of un-needed examination copies.

    But that’s just too hard for many faculty. Far better to raise the cost of the textbook for the student — and make a few bucks besides….


  11. Yes, I’m aware that some faculty sell their unwanted, unsolicited books. Some faculty I know do it. I never have. However, I think that textbook companies should target their marketing more effectively, instead of expecting faculty to unwrap their books and re-package them for shipment. I don’t really have time or any interest in unwrapping and re-wrapping their books. And, I never did anything to get on anyone’s mailing list aside from ordering books for classes.

    Around mid-semester, the piles of textbooks in their cardboard boxes totally engulf the mailroom in my department. I say cut the waste where it originates, rather than spending money and burning oil to ship books to and from. (And I’ve never heard of a textbook company offering to send me a box or envelope to return their books.)


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