Assigning one’s own books to one’s students

by Harry on March 30, 2014

The Ethicist has a problem that will interest Henry:

I am a graduate student at a state university. One of four required texts for a course was written by the professor, and the subject matter of the text is also the content of his lectures. A significant portion of my grade is based on a ‘‘review’’ I write of his text. Is it ethical to require students to buy a book that you wrote? Aren’t I already paying tuition for this professor’s expertise and knowledge?

The ethicist makes some sensible comments (scroll down a bit). I have a further comment and a question. The comment: it is relatively easy to avoid making money on a textbook that you assign to students. If you REALLY think it is the best one, figure out what your royalties will be, and make a deal with the local bookstore that they will sell it at regular price minus your royalty, and just pay the bookstore the difference for each copy they sell. I don’t think that Greg Mankiw has responded to Henry’s occasional jabs about him using his monopoly power to assign his textbook, but that’s probably because he does what I have described, but doesn’t want to undermine his credibility by telling anyone.(One alternative: an undergraduate professor of mine who wrote a rather good textbook which he wanted to use, just xeroxed the final draft and kept giving it to his own students; another alternative, calculate the royalties, and either give them to a scholarship fund for low-income students, or use them to invite struggling students out to lunch in small groups to build up their confidence – that might be the best strategy for Mankiw, given where he works).

The question, about non-textbooks. I have never assigned one of my books to a class, though I have co-taught a class in which my co-teacher assigned one of my books. It’s not that I am inhibited about making money of the students (I am but, above, propose a solution, but that when I assign texts, my aim is to have the students both understand and criticize them. Its not that I am uncritical of my own work, far from it, but I want to treat a text as something I am exploring critically along with the students, and that just seems a bit odd when I wrote it. Once in a while, in an upper division (or graduate) class I assign a paper or two that I have written, and with graduate classes I have assigned works in progress. But even then, with the undergraduate classes, I only assign papers that I know will invite very strong criticism from the students, and I make them do the presenting (this resulted, last semester, in one of the best presentations I have witnessed, in which a student ripped into this paper with such vehemence that her co-presenter — and I think most of the other students — were horrified). Anyway. In fact students regularly criticize me for my policy of non-assignment, arguing that they want, and want other students, to see their professors as producers of intellectual work, and want to see that intellectual work and have it discussed in class; both because it makes them see their professors differently, and because it is a rare chance for an undergraduate to discuss serious intellectual work with its producer. What do you think?



Main Street Muse 03.30.14 at 1:28 pm

Do you know for a fact that Mankiw donates or declines royalties? From reading his writings (not his textbooks), he seems constitutionally incapable of giving anyone an economic break. Laws of the market, etc. And the theory is that Mankiw’s Harvard students don’t pay a markup for his royalties but all other students do? Seems unequal for many reasons. His books are quite pricey too.

I am more concerned about the “review” of the text, which is a “significant portion” of the grade. Some professors may be willing to listen to criticism from students. I know many who are not.


JW Mason 03.30.14 at 1:36 pm

it is relatively easy to avoid making money on a textbook that you assign to students. If you REALLY think it is the best one, figure out what your royalties will be, and make a deal with the local bookstore that they will sell it at regular price minus your royalty, and just pay the bookstore the difference for each copy they sell.

This doesn’t sound easy at all, it sounds complicated and difficult. Especially given that “the local bookstore” in most cases is a branch if Barnes and Noble. Have you ever known of someone doing this, or did you establish its easiness from first principles? (Or maybe you are being sarcastic?)


Dan Cole 03.30.14 at 1:54 pm

I have authored textbooks, and have no trouble accepting royalties from my students, when I assign those books for class. True, they’re already paying me to teach them; but they’re not paying me for the work of making the course better by authoring a book, which I wouldn’t have wasted my time and effort authoring had other satisfactory (to me) texts been available.

For those who are skeptical, I might note that I have actually co-authored a textbook that I never assigned because I believed the final product was on the whole inferior to other available texts. So, I have some confidence that I can do what’s best for my students regardless of the (frankly, very minor) impact on my income.



Harry 03.30.14 at 1:59 pm

I’ve known several people do it. The local on most large campuses is a university bookstore which is usually pretty cooperative. Calculating the exact amount isn’t so easy, in fact.

MSM — I was being…. generous, or ironic, I’m not sure which. The Harvard issue is why I said the other strategies might be better in his case.


Julian 03.30.14 at 2:02 pm

I wrote a textbook because I didn’t like the existing choices and thought I could do better. Why would I assign someone else’s book to teach the course I wrote a book for?


Anon 03.30.14 at 2:13 pm

“they want, and want other students, to see their professors as producers of intellectual work…because it is a rare chance for an undergraduate to discuss serious intellectual work with its producer.”

This strikes me as a pretty important consideration overlooked by the article. To assign your own text could be an act of humility: the text isn’t canonical, lofty knowledge to be kept out of the dirty, open-ended business of critique and discussion or safe from the bush-league trivial thoughts of mere students; to make it a subject of a class is to treat students as colleagues, as equal participants whose responses to the work count. That’s more appropriate to grad courses perhaps, but not entirely unreasonable for advanced undergrad courses.

Where I had an interest in the professor’s work, I would have, as a grad student, much preferred focusing on their work in its critical relation with other key scholars in the field–for a scholar who is an important voice in a field to exclude only their own work strikes me as irrational and artificial.

“Aren’t I already paying tuition for this professor’s expertise and knowledge?”

I wish the article had addressed this claim, which I find pretty offensive in its objectifying implications. You’re paying for access to professors’ expertise, not for that expertise itself. To be able to purchase someone’s knowledge and expertise would be to purchase the person, since it’s an attribute of character and personality. You’re not even *renting* it, which would be prostitution. I find the easy, casual way so many use such humans-as-property language nauseating.


Farah 03.30.14 at 2:34 pm

I edited the CUP companions to Science Fiction and to Fantasy. The first was the sole text book in the field for five years and the second is one of two; I wrote the other one. I don’t have a lot of choice but assign them.

What I do is to put the *essential* material on the intranet, make sure the core points are in the lectures, and ensure the library has copies. This seems to me fair. If the students are taking it on to dissertation level they may choose to buy copies, but I always point them to second hand when I can.


JG 03.30.14 at 3:51 pm

It’s not just the money. Even if the professor is fair, most students will assume that a critical comment on the teacher’s book = bad grade, and will or won’t adjust their views accordingly. Either way this is pernicious.



Chaz 03.30.14 at 4:55 pm

I studied science and engineering in school so I come at this from a different perspective. Texts in those fields are basically factual (although some phenomena still aren’t fully understood), so the critical and opinion aspects doesn’t really exist. My profs assigned a lot of their own textbooks or the books of retired profs from the same department. They usually were draft copies printed by the school and sold cheap. They usually said they chose these books because the classes were different from similar classes at other schools and these books were custom-tailored to the program. But I didn’t like this too much. I felt that the draft copies were sometimes bad and usually too concise/incomplete (didn’t fully explain everything). And they were too concise in exactly the same spots where the lectures were too concise, which made it worse. They also didn’t have really good indices, tables of contents, section labeling, charts, figures, clear derivations of equations, etc.

But on the other hand I had some pretty awful third party textbooks assigned as well. I think in those cases the prof assigned the book without really even looking at it; they were going to present their own custom material in lecture anyway and they didn’t care about the textbook. These were the worst of the worst classes. I think the real moral of my story is that if you intend to offer a course (on a common topic) totally with your own lecture notes and without relying on a good third-party book(s) (because you assign your own book or assign a book you don’t use), back the hell away and rethink. Unless you’re a dedicated wonder-prof who’s going to actually put in the time to pull this off.


Colin Danby 03.30.14 at 6:49 pm

Re critique, it really depends on the culture you can build in the classroom. I had a grad school professor who specifically asked us to critique, not “review,” one of his current papers. This worked – he made a joke about being wounded by our criticisms, but we then spent class time working through the multiple ways the paper could be challenged. And it was very helpful in learning the craft of writing an academic paper.


Alexander Pysarov 03.30.14 at 7:04 pm

I experienced this last year when taking an Open University masters’ unit. The cost of the unit was expensive enough without forking out an extra twenty-odd quid for the course-chair’s textbook. (He was my tutor too!)

The subject was fascinating, but the book was poor: fortunately the OU did enable digital access to some good online resources. I also spent a small fortune on buying relevant texts which I was happy to add to my little library. It’s not that I couldn’t afford this book too. However, unlike most OU masters’ units, there was no proper course guide separate from the textbook, and the gentleman seemed to have minimal interest in interacting with his students: so this extra (private) fee seemed merely to add insult to injury.

That being said, this is really small fry compared to what’s happening elsewhere in education. The biggest public examination board in the country in the country is now somehow owned by a publishing company, so p-poor A level courses are designed to sell uninspiring and educationally abominable textbooks. In 2010, Mick Waters, the former director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority called the exam system “diseased” and “almost corrupt”. Exam boards were also accused of “insider dealing”, that is, head examiners wrote textbooks giving pupils tips for answering questions which they would later mark.

BTW I don’t want to burn my bridges with the OU, so unlike my normal practice I’m posting under a pseudonym.


adam.smith 03.30.14 at 7:28 pm

At least half of my grad school profs assigned their own papers or manuscripts for seminars. Obviously these were grad seminars, so there was a lot of other readings and these weren’t text books, so there was no money to be made (IIRC two profs assigned their own recent book, in both cases a cheap paperbacks <30$ and both were superstar profs.)
I always considered that a plus for a number of reasons, among them:
As Harry notes it's fun and useful to directly talk to the person who wrote a paper. It's also useful to be able to place the person teaching you in the broader debates that they're teaching. While in a grad seminar that's pretty much a given, in an undergrad class it's good to establish that the prof is part of an ongoing scientific debate and that they may very well be wrong. If anything I would say that placing the profs paper in a context of other papers who are routinely criticized as part of the seminar makes it clearer that s/he's not infallible etc. etc.

As for text books – I think it'd be weird if a prof wrote a text book on a topic and didn't use it – after all, I'd assume the main motivation for writing a text book is that you find the existing texts insufficient – and so I'd disagree with The Ethicist, but what Harry says about not pocketing the royalties of that sounds right to me.


ingrid robeyns 03.30.14 at 7:29 pm

In my Contemporary Theory of Justice MA course, I prescribed on average 2 papers a week, 15 weeks, and tend to have one (perhaps once two) by myself over 15 weeks. I had several more in the recommended reading list (which is long, often 5+ additional papers/books). Students who commented on this in their anonymous evaluations always did so in positive ways – they liked being taught by someone that is taking part in the scholarly debates they are trying to master.

But I would never assign them to write a review of work of mine. I think that’s unethical because as a teacher one should never forget that one is in a position of power viz-a-viz the student.

As for royalties: one could also give away all the money to a charity that commands general support, such as Amnesty International. It may for fiscal reasons cause some extra administration (since my experience is that publishers don’t want to donate directly, so you have to cash the royalties, pay taxes, and then calculate what’s left and donate that to the charity), but I think it takes away all suggestions that one has financial interests in prescribing a particular textbook.


Phil 03.30.14 at 7:32 pm

There are three different issues here. Telling students indirectly to give you money (firstly) seems little better than doing so directly. Once when I was a (postgraduate) student, a lecturer set a reading list with a very strong MUST BUY for book 1 plus a MUST BUY AT LEAST ONE OF books 2-5; he was author of one of books 2-5 and co-editor of book 1. I wasn’t impressed. (To be fair, there was some good stuff in book 1.)

Secondly, telling students to write about your work – and marking what they write – rings lots of ‘mixed message’ bells for me. Sure, you would mark a thin and pedestrian eulogy much lower than an intelligent and perceptive polemic – wouldn’t you? Of course you would! Never mind if the eulogy was well-written and showed a real understanding of your way of thinking, and the polemic had spelling mistakes and incorrect attributions and made a few points that were just incorrect or downright ungenerous… you wouldn’t let things like that affect your mark, would you? Of course not!

But (thirdly) refusing to set your own work at all strikes me as overcorrection. I set my work as background reading, or show it to individual students (sometimes in draft), as often as it seems appropriate or useful; it seems to go down well. Admittedly that’s not very often; the effect would be a bit different if I was doing it every week.


Eric Titus 03.30.14 at 7:56 pm

Maybe there should be a question of how ethical it is to assign textbooks anyways? In the social sciences and humanities, at least, I think the better courses shy away from just powering through a single textbook. Even in math/science, I remember that many of the better classes either chose their textbooks very carefully or relied on a concise set of notes generated by the instructor.


otto 03.30.14 at 8:06 pm

It’s tricky because sometimes the reason you write the book (etc) is that you believe that existing scholarship in that area is terrible. It would be a little odd then not to use it for teaching on that issue. Perhaps one standard might be whether other professors at other institutions are also using it for their teaching?


js. 03.30.14 at 8:38 pm

I agree with the general consensus that assigning your own work in grad seminars and smaller upper-level undergrad classes where students are comfortable criticizing what you say is perfectly appropriate—better than not doing this, even. I think the reasons for this are ably laid out by Anon @6 and adam.smith @11. I am a little less sure what to say about the textbook case—in part because beyond undergrad intro classes, I didn’t take many classes which used textbooks—but I can certainly see why someone would be inclined to use it for non-monetary reasons. Leaving aside whether it’s the best, or whether one thinks it’s the best, it’s quite plausible that the way the text is organized fits well with how one organizes the class—for obvious common cause type reasons. It would depend on topic, discipline, etc., but this doesn’t strike me as obviously problematic.

The “review my work for a substantial part of your grade” is just weird and creepy and should probably be avoided at all costs.


Matt 03.30.14 at 9:39 pm

Ian Ayers of Yale Law School has written about just giving the royalties back to his students in cash form:

I’m not actually sure it’s morally required, though I suppose it’s nice and avoids the impression of impropriety. If I had prepared a textbook (or anthology) that I thought was especially good and useful for the class as I wanted to teach it, I don’t see why it would be wrong to assign it, unless it was itself unreasonably expensive. Lots of textbooks and anthologies are unreasonably expensive, and it seems problematic to me for professors to assign those no matter who will get the royalties, and probably problematic for people to produce such things. (The “review my work” part just seems a bit odd, though I have assigned a paper of mine in a class, and got some quite helpful discussion of it. There was no requirement to write about it, though.)


Lisa Ellis 03.30.14 at 9:47 pm

When Michael Rogin assigned his book to graduate students twenty years ago, he would order copies from the publisher himself and sell them to us at cost. This always struck me as a sensible solution, though unworkable on a larger scale. Speaking of which: the degree to which accepting royalties from students to whom you have assigned your text is wrong varies according to the book’s reputation among your peers. It is one thing to assign the best book written just for a particular course, but quite another simply to force hundreds of students a year to subsidize your income.


JakeB 03.30.14 at 10:33 pm

Harry, I don’t have a login to Can you give another link to that paper? Vehemence interests me, mwa ha ha.


Metatone 03.30.14 at 10:54 pm

I guess my first reaction fits well with Matt’s comment @17.

I teach undergrads at the moment. I’ve taught other levels in the past, but that’s a story for another day.

1) A big issue here is the cost of any required book and the financial situation of the students.
How ethical is it to be assigning the textbook “The Ethicist” would recommend (“single-best text for that explicit purpose”) when it puts said students into financial difficulty. And make no mistake, Sage UK has put up prices on all new editions in my field, we’re heading towards £50 on average.

2) The quality of textbooks really depends on your field and your institutional setup. Our terms are set up differently to many schools, so a custom textbook could make a lot of sense. In this field, there are only 2 undergrad-level textbooks in the field that are not written by professors from the USA, for students from the USA. And those 2 have their own issues. There’s certainly a gap in the market. It’s no surprise that The Ethicist is writing in the paper of record of the USA…

3) If I wrote a textbook for that gap in the market, my institution wouldn’t pay me for it. (Guess what – I’m an adjunct!) So, I’m really confused to hear that The Ethicists thinks I should do it for free…


Tabasco 03.30.14 at 11:19 pm

Tech literate students, as I understand it, manage to download whole textbooks.

It’s completely illegal, of course, but with the prices of textbooks being what they are, the incentives to do this are large, and the chances of being caught are small.


Z 03.31.14 at 12:01 am

In the academic world I inhabit, the idea of making students pay for a textbook is unheard of so I realize that my situation is quite different from what is being discussed here. Even so, all the authors of textbooks that I know (including me) simply mention at the onset of the course that an electronic copy of a draft of the textbook they wrote is freely available to anyone, for instance by e-mail request. I admit I see many advantages to this policy and no obvious shortcomings.


Ken_L 03.31.14 at 12:03 am

“Is it ethical to require students to buy a book that you wrote? Aren’t I already paying tuition for this professor’s expertise and knowledge?”

Along with Anon #6, I find this argument completely flawed. It implies that somehow the student is entitled to get access to the “professor’s expertise and knowledge” as if it is a commodity s/he has bought. It totally misconceives the nature of learning. The student has access to lectures and other teaching materials including 4 prescribed textbooks, to help him or her learn. S/he is “paying for” scholarly guidance in the learning process – “expertise” if you like – but not “knowledge”.

The only problem – if there is one – lies in making a “review” of the text an assessment task. As others have suggested, this is because the text author will inevitably be inclined to have preconceived positions about all the important points in the book, which may not matter if it’s a maths text but would be problematic if it’s something like history or political economy. However there are three other prescribed texts and it’s unlikely the assessment is as straightforward as the student has claimed. In any event if there is a problem the solution is to change the assessment, not find an alternative textbook.


afinetheorem 03.31.14 at 1:45 am

I agree with Z – just give the students a digital copy for free on the intranet and tell them they are free to buy a print copy should they choose.

More broadly, ought I assign a textbook *at all*? I am teaching two new courses next year and it is not at all clear to me that even well-regarded textbooks are more useful for students than a curated set of papers (provided free via the JSTOR link) plus my own notes. I am not sure how many faculty understand the utterly exorbitant cost of texts these days, and the burden a $600/semester bill puts on many students.

And on a related point – is there a good auto question-bank grader available in open source? For the larger course, I’d like to automate the grading of weekly assignments using software that dynamically changes the number/difficulty of questions for students having trouble with the material.


mpowell 03.31.14 at 2:53 am

It certainly never bothered me if the professor assigned his own text as long as it didn’t suck. They’re all expensive anyways. Why do I care if he’s getting paid if it’s someone else? The only thing that matters is making a smart choice in the textbook selection. Am I really supposed to believe that the prof went to all the trouble of writing a textbook for the sole purpose of assigning it to his students to make some money off of them even though his textbook sucks? That’s simply absurd. If you are thinking there might be a problem with the professor’s motives that suggests such a lack of respect for their integrity, I can’t imagine why you would be taking the class.


jack 03.31.14 at 3:27 am

oh and how much in royalties would you get off those few hundred students you coerce to buy your textbook each year? maybe a buck per book? who cares. the real issue is that students may be less inclined to criticize the text, or may waste too much time trying to gain favor by flattery.


praisegod barebones 03.31.14 at 6:50 am

‘ If you are thinking there might be a problem with the professor’s motives that suggests such a lack of respect for their integrity, I can’t imagine why you would be taking the class.’

Well, it might be a required course for the major you’re signed up for, for one thing


Zamfir 03.31.14 at 9:37 am

Also, it’s not a binary division of trustworthy and untrustworthy teacher. I have known good teachers who did not see the flaws in their own textbooks. Or at least, did not see the flaws clear enough.

Teachers who want to prescribe their own texts, should verify this with colleagues who give honest answers. “I think my book is the best fit for the course, for reasons X and Y, but I might be blinded. What’s your view?” In my experience, this check does not always happen.

Another issue: it’s nice for students to have another view on the topic. If you wrote a textbook and another textbook is just as good but not obviously better, it might be best for your students to use that other textbook.


Jack 03.31.14 at 10:16 am

The one exception to my general non objection is the following real life example: an instructor requiring proof of ownership of textbook in order to pass the course.


Barry 03.31.14 at 12:16 pm

First, I’ve not heard anything about Mankiw suggesting one bit of honesty. Second, the biggest factor here is what level of book. I’ve taken grad courses where the best book on the world might have been written by the professor teaching it (possibly the only applicable book in the world).


Barry 03.31.14 at 2:54 pm

…to continue, if Professor X assigns his book on Y to his grad class on Y, and it’s the best/only book on topic Y, that’s one thing. If Professor M teaches a class on E101, and assigns his bog-standard book, that’s quite another.


QS 03.31.14 at 3:04 pm

I’m aware of an adjunct professor who teaches an art history class and requires her own self-published textbook, which runs nearly $100. I get why she’s doing it, adjuncts are economically insecure and it helps pay the bills. Not sure how to judge the situation. I suppose if the book is quality, then it’s fine. But since it was not vetted by an academic/trade press…


mpowell 03.31.14 at 3:44 pm

Weird cases like self-published books and requiring verification of ownership aside, if it’s a required class and you really don’t like the professor, having to buy his/her particular textbook is a very minor issue.

The idea that the professor might be overlooking the flaws in their own textbook and therefore shouldn’t assign it is absurd. What about the fact that they are running the entire course! Yes, not everything is perfect because they are human and make mistakes. But it is more probable than not that their textbook best enables them to teach the class the way they think it should be taught. The few dollars they get in royalties are an absurd thing to get caught up in. The notion that in this world we should be concerned about such minutiae in potential conflicts of interest is absurd. It is not worth anyone’s time to worry about (and if you’re spending enough energy to contact local bookstores and negotiating payback deals you could be spending your time on much better endeavors to reduce injustice in the world even if you think this is an injustice).


Trader Joe 03.31.14 at 3:50 pm

I’ve had both experiences. In more cases than not the book was very good and the fact that, for obvious reasons, the teaching focus and the book focus was tightly correllated tended to provide a very good learning enviornment (i.e. book readers could get the material one way, class attenders the other and both reinforced each other). More examples at grad level than undergrad, but definitely both.

I’ve also had cases where the book was all but worthless and the professor either a) basically gave lectures that were verbatim from the book so added nothing or b) the actual lectures and materials were so far removed from the book I questioned what purpose it served apart from lining pockets.

In no case was I ever prompted to critque said texts (although I did in some of the evals particularly in the latter cases).

I suppose it depends on the course, but as noted above if both the prof and the text are good, no one much minds who gets paid and when….its when one or the other don’t meet expectations that people become interested in following the loot.


James 03.31.14 at 6:24 pm

These things vary.

When I was a graduate student, I was never assigned a text written by an instructor. But it would have been suicidally stupid to be in a seminar with Hugh Kenner on Pound and not have read The Pound Era, or a seminar with Stanley Fish on (among others) Herbert without having read Self-Consuming Artifacts.

In Law School, on the other hand, it was standard practice to have to buy casebooks assembled by the instructor.


js. 03.31.14 at 6:37 pm

The few dollars they get in royalties are an absurd thing to get caught up in.

I don’t have super-strong feelings about the royalty issue—Matt @18 sounds about right to me—but it’s worth noting that it needn’t just be a “few dollars”. Suppose it’s a class with 100+ students that the prof teaches every year, or at any rate quite regularly. This is hardly an unheard of scenario, and in it—assuming non-superstar level salaries—we’re quickly talking about a very decent chunk of money.


Barry 03.31.14 at 7:44 pm

One of the examples used was Mankiw, at Harvard, who exacts rents teaches Econ 101 (or whatever numbering system they use). How many Harvard undergrads take that every year? It’s probably not his biggest source of income, but it’s easy (just fill out the required book form), which might make it sweeter.


Barry 03.31.14 at 7:47 pm

Jack 03.31.14 at 10:16 am

” The one exception to my general non objection is the following real life example: an instructor requiring proof of ownership of textbook in order to pass the course.”

Publishers have taken to combining books with online materials; you need the code from a physical copy of the book to login. Once used during a semester, that code is no longer accepted.


Rick 03.31.14 at 10:21 pm

I’m glad to see that my home state (MA) and undergraduate alma mater (UMass-Amherst) have a pretty student-friendly policy:

“…a faculty member who wishes to assign his or her own textbook or other materials to students, and will thereby benefit financially, must first disclose this potential conflict of interest to the Provost and receive written permission from the Provost to proceed. Copies of the disclosure and the Provost’s written decision must be forwarded to the Commission. A faculty member who did not follow this procedure might be deemed to be in violation of the state conflict of interest law and subject to sanctions. The Ethics Commission recognizes that faculty members have the right to decide what textbooks to assign but points out that state law prohibits them, as state employees, from gaining personal financial benefit from their work.”


krippendorf 03.31.14 at 11:23 pm

Rick @40. I dunno, I think the U-Mass policy is frightening. My decision about what textbook to use is going to be reviewed by an administrator who doesn’t know the first thing about my field, let alone about the subfield or the specific course within it? Either the Provost-level review is a meaningless rubber stamp that’s only there to pacify legislators, or it’s an intrusion by administrators into an area about which they know nothing.

“state law prohibits them, as state employees, from gaining personal financial benefit from their work.”

This also seems to be poorly thought out, or at least poorly written. I gain personal financial benefit from my work — scholarship included — on the 1st and 15th of every month. If my work is good, I gain personal financial benefits in the form of raises. Does the U-Mass policy also prohibit faculty from receiving paychecks or raises?


Alan White 03.31.14 at 11:23 pm

One concern from my own pedagogy. I teach an intro/phil “single-topic” approach that I developed over the course of my career. (I have published in many venues on this so please know I’m not a kook.) Because of this, no text exists to teach it, and I must use my own materials, xeroxed and sold/rented to students for cost. But some day I might reach out to a real publisher to put my stuff in print for others to use, and in that case I would naturally use my book for my own course.

So my question is: if one uses materials that also are unique to one’s approach (rather than mere content), might that then justify assigning them?


JW Mason 04.01.14 at 2:20 am

As a product of UMass I can offer the reassuring/disappointing news that professors there do frequently assign their own books, with no apparent bureaucratic difficulties.


L.D. Burnett 04.01.14 at 3:06 am

I’ve had a few of my profs assign their own journal articles in grad seminars from time to time, and I really appreciated the chance to connect their work with what we were working on/with as a class. Discussing their writing in the context of the class gave me a sense of how research and pedagogy could fit together; it humanized and (sort of) demystified the work and workings of scholarship. In any case, I can’t see any reason for a prof not to assign his/her own work if the work is relevant to the subject/scope of the course, unless — as a commenter noted above — the instructor believes that there is another book that would be a better fit.

As to the ethics of making royalties off of students, there’s a difference between a required text — which one could borrow from the library, buy used at a bookstore, share with a friend, etc. — and a required purchase. Requiring proof of purchase for a particular text seems creepy/shady. Requiring a particular text is just part of putting together a syllabus.

I suppose the moneymaking possibilities would be big in some fields or large intro courses where there is a single, pricey textbook that covers the whole semester, and where one section of a class can have 300 students. In the case of history, I would hope that class sizes are generally smaller. As a matter of scale, survey textbooks may sell tens of thousands of copies nationwide, so having a survey co-author assign that textbook to his/her two sections of U.S. history would have a negligible impact on royalties. But lots of history profs don’t use a textbook for the survey, and even at the introductory level will assign a few smaller, less-expensive works, or pull primary sources from online. And for upper-division courses, where there might be 10-12 books assigned for a grad class, maybe 5 or 6 for an undergrad class, and where class sizes are generally small, whatever money the prof might make in royalties off of a monograph that will be required reading for 50 students a year hardly seems worth worrying about.


hix 04.01.14 at 5:49 pm

Well, Mankiw has enough pull to negotiate a contract that forces the publischer to

a) Sell the book much cheaper, the price is insane for that type of book
b) allow Mankiw to give pdfs/printout versions to his own students at leaest.

Heck Mankiw could just make sure everyone can get the full pdf/online version for free and still publish that book. And yes i do think that would be the only ethical way in his situation. Without such negotiation power things get trickier.


Harold 04.01.14 at 5:51 pm

The publisher probably makes more on the book even than Mankiw. It’s a nice racket.


Matt 04.01.14 at 8:56 pm

When I was in grad school a decade ago I bought cheap editions of books from India. I felt like I was behind the curve; people just entering the program were downloading scans to their laptops.

I assumed that a decade later, especially now that tablets and smartphones make electronic reading more convenient, students would be fleeing bookstore prices for pirate editions in droves. The skills required seem to be roughly those involved in getting music/movies for free. Are students not as cash-strapped and tech-savvy as I assumed? Or is obnoxious stuff like requiring proof of purchase for a book happening precisely because most students no longer pay?


hix 04.02.14 at 11:53 am

My normative claim was not based on real life hardship or personal expirience.
I just dont think tenured rich Profs should extract a fortune, if any money at all from a natural monopoly massmarket intro book like this, no matter how rich the students are. The work writing the book itssself is just to close linked to the job they are already paid for with a monthly salery and the high income for a few too much of a random outcome. Again, the lines are more blury in other circumstances.


Paul 04.02.14 at 11:26 pm

Not my own text, but in one of my classes we used a single, expensive ($90) book.

I got a desk copy, and on the first day of class I auctioned it. It brought about $60. I then distributed the proceeds equally to the remaining students. A Benthamite solution?


Ben Milner 04.03.14 at 9:28 am

From a student’s perspective, I don’t think I have been taught by a professor that had written a textbook, but I would be stoked to read the textbook of a professor that had taught me, even as unit material. Many of the professors that have taught me have introduced the class to their scientific publications, and I have always enjoyed that and found it interesting – it is good to know that the unit’s subject matter is not just their teaching job but their vocational passion. If a professor does use their own written works in a unit, I don’t think it is done for profit or vanity, nor do I think any of my fellow students get that impression either. I have it on good authority that even a successful textbook author is lucky to make even $30,000 in profit, which it pittance when you consider the amount of work put in, plus the push of regular new editions by the publisher – I trust an academic professor is smart enough to know that there are easier ways to scam people if one is to assume such impure intentions.


Fu Ko 04.04.14 at 6:21 am

Xerox? Really?

I’m not a student and likely never will again, but I know what I would like if I were: email me the PDF. Or, even better, email me some HTML.

It’s largely monopoly power that has kept us sending words via dead trees in the first place.

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