Just after yesterday's MN House hearing on a state textbook report, I talked to Rep. King Banaian (R - St. Cloud), who is on the House higher education committee.
Banaian is a St. Cloud State University economics professor and director of the Center for Economic Education.
He agreed that professors need to be more aware of the cost of their textbooks, and that the report's recommendations "aren't unreasonable."
Although he thought one suggestion in the report -- department-wide adoption of introductory textbooks -- was worth considering, he was more enthusiastic about a different idea: that of letting faculty adopt a new book only every two years.
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A few impressions from the discussion:
Chief among the report's suggestions was that professors submit their textbook selections early enough (a number of weeks ahead of class), so that bookstores can stock enough used editions and alternative formats, and so that students can bargain-hunt online.
Although a number of the late submissions are caused by last-minute course additions -- usually due to higher-than-expected demand -- Banaien said yes, a number of faculty have put off submitting their coursebook selections because they're busy:
"In the past, the bookstore would send e-mails asking, 'What's the text? What's the text?' You find them annoying, and kind of push them off to the side, thinking, 'Yeah, I'll get to that later.'"
Keeping cost in mind while choosing a textbook necessary, but may require a change in the faculty mindset. New instructors may also be too inexperienced to know which textbooks offer the most value, Banaian said, but may look to more experienced professors for textbook selections. Some professors don't realize till too late that the great new text they admired packed such a high price.
"Faculty are caring, but they may need a nudge by the administration. You have to decide to make it a priority."
Professors sometimes start with a new textbook they think is great, only to sour on it several weeks into the semester. So they stick with it till the end -- but get a new one for the next class. So much for the resale value of the first one.
Banaian thought departments should consider choosing a textbook that all of their professors would use for their introductory courses. That said, faculty might resist it and raise the issue of whether being forced to adopt a book violates academic freedom:
"I like being able to choose my own books ... My course on psychology or economics 101 is going to look different from other professors', and we should respect those differences. Calculus may not have changed (over many years), but the pedagogy may have. The question is whether (faculty) may agree on the method. Universities are great sources of experimentation – including in teaching. .. And if you give a faculty member a book they’re not comfortable with, they’re not going to be very effective."
That said, administrators could make a case for department-wide adoption by stressing the financial benefits to students:
"Once you put it to the faculty that way, they may think about it."
Two-year textbook cycles
He seemed more enthusiastic about allowing professors to change a textbook only after using it for two years. That, he said, would allow faculty members choice while providing enough stability to ensure decent buyback prices on the used textbook market.
Banaian saw no looming state proposals on textbooks, and said he was "hesitant to put anything strong in legislation. As soon as a law kicks in, the entire market has changed."