Chuck Pearson (not related to Pearson publishing) posted a piece that got me thinking. It’s about his habit of buying his own copies of books at the university bookstore. Buying his own books there functions as a way to stay in touch with the bookstore, to see the reality of what’s available to students and at what prices, and to ensure that he has the same editions they do.
It reminded me of an old habit that might be more practical for adjunct faculty and others who may not make enough money to make the bookstore purchase habit practical.
Browsing the stacks yourself.
In my teaching days, I made a habit of visiting the campus bookstore(s) to see what was offered and at what price. It’s worth doing. Back then, rentals weren’t an option in most places, but used books certainly were. And you could see both the sticker price of what you had assigned, and the sticker prices of what other folks in other classes were assigning.
It’s eye-opening. If you teach and you haven’t done this recently, I recommend it. The beauty of browsing, of course, is that you don’t actually have to pay for the books.
Sometimes books are listed online, and that’s certainly better than nothing. Sometimes that can give you a range of prices, from “purchase new” to “rent used.” But it can be helpful to see the condition of used books, which can only be done in person.
In Prof. Pearson’s case -- again, to distinguish him from the publisher -- he checked the prices of hardcopy versions of Open Stax OER textbooks. As he correctly noted, in some cases, the same content is available to students online for free, but some students are still more comfortable with an actual, physical book. In his case, he notes that a hardcopy of the physics textbook is less than fifty dollars, and it covers two semesters. The chemistry book that covers two semesters is available for less than sixty dollars. Compared to what commercially produced science textbooks generally cost, that’s more than reasonable. And if that’s still too much, the same content is available online for free.
OER isn’t yet a solution for everything, but it’s well-suited for introductory courses in which the content is largely agreed upon. It might not work for Contemporary Lit, but those books tend to be relatively affordable already, and are frequently available in public libraries. The books that do the most economic damage, oddly enough, are often the easiest to replace with OER.
I’ll admit enjoying a good bookstore browse anyway, so there’s some bias there. Some of my earliest pangs of consumer longing were stoked as a kid at the Scholastic Book Fair at school. As my long-suffering bride can attest, I buy more books than are strictly necessary, or prudent, or, frankly, fire-safe. We don’t really need to discuss how many boxes of them are stacked in the basement, next to overflowing bookcases. It got worse a decade or so ago, when I reached a stage in life at which I gave myself permission not to finish books that didn’t earn it. (I remain convinced that many works of nonfiction would thrive at about 100 pages, rather than 300, but that seems to be a minority opinion.) At that point, the “demand” constraint was basically lifted, so the supply ballooned.
So there’s that.
But booklust aside, getting a direct, personal sense of what students are facing when they get to the bookstore for your class can only help. And if it satisfies a bit of nostalgia for bookstores past, well, that’s okay, too. Just try not to buy more than the basement can hold.