Questioning the Textbook Rep Culture

Publishers’ sales teams can freely visit professors on many campuses. Steven J. Bell asks, shouldn't academic librarians promoting alternatives have easy access to the faculty, too?

September 18, 2019
 
Istockphoto.com/shcherbak volodymyr

Here’s a simple question for my faculty colleagues. Why can sales representatives from commercial textbook publishers just walk into your departments and offices any time they like and get your immediate attention?

Granted, that’s a generalization. No doubt local institutional and departmental practices vary. But my academic librarian colleagues and I have heard this from too many faculty we know to suggest that carte blanche textbook rep access is the stuff of urban legend. Related tales of sales reps dropping in with snacks and assorted goodies may be more the exception than the rule, but yes, we’ve heard that, too.

If the academic library’s departmental liaisons came by unannounced with a box of doughnuts, would that help them get past the gatekeeper and into faculty offices?

This may strike instructors as a serious nonissue in the grand scheme of all that ails higher education. Here’s why it needs more attention. The current textbook rep culture of carte blanche access to faculty needs to change because our students are paying the too-high price. The problem is threefold.

First, textbook representatives’ in-person sales calls to faculty members encourage instructors to adopt costly textbooks, and students pay the price, in more than dollars and cents. When students are unable to afford textbooks, it directly affects their ability to learn and succeed academically. According to an NPR interview with James Koch, an economist, textbook sales reps rarely mention what their textbooks will actually cost students, which leads faculty to adopt textbooks without thoroughly considering the financial impact on students.

Second, it detracts from what higher education was always meant to be and should be: accessible and affordable to everyone who seeks advanced learning. Third, it limits faculty freedom of choice for the development of learning content.

How do I know this? Over the last two academic years, my library colleagues and I have conducted something we call a textbook listening tour. To learn more about faculty behaviors and practices for textbooks, we visited academic departments across the disciplines at my university. Our goal was simply to ask open-ended questions and listen with an agenda-free mentality. While we would certainly want our faculty colleagues to adopt open and other affordable learning material options, we were intentional in avoiding sales pitches about the merits of open educational resources and alternative textbook options.

That meant just listening without promoting how much the faculty who participated in our Textbook Affordability Project had already collectively saved our students, the benefits to student engagement and learning achieved in those courses, or the personal rewards for faculty members who contribute to student access and an affordable higher education.

What we consistently heard about textbook sales representatives in our tour visits enlightened us, but it was less than surprising. Faculty described regular drop-in visits from the reps, throughout the academic year, who come to tout their latest wares or describe associated teaching tools.

Academic departments respond to it differently across the spectrum, from freely allowing it to enforcing a variety of restrictions. Wherever departments fall on this spectrum, we learned that textbook sales reps are persistent and will ultimately find ways to access the faculty. Hearing all this left us librarians feeling rather envious of those textbook sales reps. Getting access to our faculty is an ongoing challenge, and many of our academic librarian colleagues share this experience.

I know of few, if any, academic librarians who would claim the authority to casually stroll on into any academic department to talk about textbooks or pretty much anything else we offer in the way of resources and services. How is it that a culture developed in higher education where external agents representing profit-generating corporations can walk right in just about any time? Yet well-intentioned academic colleagues need to subject themselves to Doodle poll hell just to get in the door.

Despite this essay’s somewhat disparaging tone, textbook affordability advocates do understand that textbook sales representatives are an important part of the learning content ecosystem. The goal of an accessible and affordable higher education for college students is achievable without demonizing textbook publishers or those who work for them. The representatives are expected to make sales calls, perhaps even needing to conduct certain numbers of them, as part of their work. Like us, they have a job to do.

It would be unrealistic to expect faculty members to monitor or eliminate behaviors, practices and even traditions shaped over many years of relationships with textbook publisher representatives. No doubt some professors have established productive relationships with the reps and look forward to their occasional visits. As the nature of learning materials and the systems for delivering them advance and increasingly depart from the practices of the past, the free-range textbook rep culture may more frequently be called into question.

Across the disciplines at any institution, there are departments that have placed limits or even outright bans on these textbook publisher representative practices. We heard that from several departments that participated in our textbook listening tours. Others still allow the reps wide, open and unfettered access to their departments.

What textbook affordability advocates would like to change is the academic textbook culture that is wide-open to commercial publishers yet mostly closed to academic library colleagues. These colleagues have valuable information and resources to share in support of textbook affordability. Formal OER surveys and anecdotal information indicate that a significant barrier to faculty adoption of affordable learning content is lack of awareness or difficulty in finding relevant OER or related resources. This is an easy barrier to overcome, because every campus has local experts ready, willing and able to assist faculty in identifying appropriate affordable content and developing strategies for connecting students to it.

Those experts are your campus librarians. Let’s change the textbook rep culture at our colleges and universities so that academic librarians are just as welcome as those reps are to drop in to offer the latest solutions and options for achieving textbook affordability.

Opening up the door and letting your campus librarians know they are just as welcome as textbook reps is the first step to reaping the rewards of contributing to our students’ accessible and affordable higher education. Of course, there are no guarantees that academic librarians will show up with a box of doughnuts.

Bio

Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple University Libraries.

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