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Despite university policy, questions about professors assigning their own books remain

Debate persists on whether faculty should assign textbooks they authored, but students and professors agree it’s often a case-by-case basis. Credit: Kevin Stankiewicz | Editor-in-Chief

Jennifer Siegel knows how it looks — a professor assigning students a book they authored. She tries to avoid it as much as she can; since her first book was published in 2003, she’s done it just twice. Both were small seminars; both no more than 15 students.

Each time, Siegel calculated the money she would receive in royalties and then brought in snacks for her students “just because I felt that my students shouldn’t be paying me.”

“I’d love it if other people were assigning my books, that’s the goal,” said Siegel, a professor in the Department of History. “But I think that there is — it’s a gray area as to whether or not we should be assigning.”

Controversy around professors assigning textbooks they authored to students isn’t new. But the issue often receives renewed focus at the start of each semester as students see their syllabi and learn what books they need to buy. The reality is the answers to questions about ethics or about the instances in which it’s appropriate are not clear-cut, or easy to find. It’s often a case-by-case basis, students and professors said.

At the end of the day, they said it comes down to trust.

The issue is addressed in the Office of Academic Affairs’ “Policies and Procedures” handbook. It states faculty who plan on requiring “a book or other material that would result in them receiving a royalty” must have it approved by their “chair/program director” and dean; and or, it must be reviewed and approved by “an appropriate committee of the department or college.”

When Siegel served as the history department’s undergraduate studies chair, she reviewed only a couple of these instances per year, and said “no one was abusing the system. There were always good reasons.”

Siegel said these review policies, as long as they’re well-thought out, are valuable because “more than anything, it makes people think about what they’re doing, how they’re assigning books.”

Even with the policy, the issue still draws ire from students. The best thing professors can do to alleviate some concerns is explain to students why they feel their book is best suited for the class, said Jerry Swanson, a fourth-year in logistics management.

“It’s a trust thing,” Swanson said. “It’s a relationship between students and professor, and you’ve got to trust each other.”

In the fall, Swanson took Supply Chain Management, a class in the Fisher College of Business taught by Doug Lambert. The required text for the class was “Supply Chain Management: Processes, Partnerships, Performance,” edited by Lambert.

To order the $75 book, Swanson said he had to go through its Florida-based publisher. Its shipment was delayed by a hurricane, so Swanson had to wait about two weeks for it to arrive. He said Lambert didn’t have copies available at Barnes and Nobles or the now-shuttered Student Book Exchange. He also said he couldn’t find it on Amazon.

A Lantern review of publicly available syllabi also showed other Ohio State supply-chain management courses not taught by Lambert assign his book.

“It could be a really good book,” Swanson said. But when Lambert, who didn’t respond to an email asking for an interview, is teaching a section, Swanson believes he should address the fact he edited the book. He did not, Swanson said.

“I’m not going to drop the class because the professor is doing it, but it’s going to put me in a bad mood on the first day of class seeing, ‘Oh my professor is trying to gyp me out of some money.’ It kind of affects your morale going in.”

Sam Rocco, a second-year in political science, said it’s not inherently wrong for professors to be assigning their own books.

“They do a lot of research on it. They’re well-educated on the topic,” she said. “If you genuinely think it’s the best book and you explain, ‘This is why I assigned it,’ then that’s fine.”

Greg Anderson, a professor in the Department of History, has never assigned a book he has authored, but he understands why it is done. If he were to do so, it would be because “this book best matches the way I want to present the material for this class.”

“It isn’t just pure self-interest or greed,” Anderson said.

In the hard sciences, Anderson said the standards could be different. “In say a field like calculus, I don’t think there would be any basic disputes about what the contents [of a book] would be,” Anderson said, therefore a professor in that subject might be more likely to assign their own work in an effort to align the way the information is presented with the way they plan to teach it.

Anderson, a scholar of Ancient Greece, said if he was going to assign a book he wrote, he would make sure he addressed it up front with his students. He also wouldn’t keep the profits, however small they might be, and instead donate them to charity (when Siegel was an undergraduate at Yale, she said her art history professor did just that).

The other option, Anderson said, is to try and find a way to distribute the text to students for free, like through PDF scans on Carmen, which some students have experienced. While it might not be what publishers want to hear, Anderson, who was critical of the textbook industry writ large, said it boils down to him trying to avoid benefiting materially from assigning the book.

“Ultimately it is about trust, and … as a professor, I wouldn’t want to have my motives for that sort of thing questioned by students,” he said.

3 comments

  1. Great topic! I’ve thought about this since my undergraduate days at Ohio State. Even the best professors with the best books are viewed with suspicion when they assign their own books and appear to profit from students. I’ve always felt the best approach would be for the professors to loan their books for free to their students. This was once costly and beyond the financial means of many instructors, but in today’s world of Kindle and pdf books, it is viable at little cost to author. It is also a good way to receive constructive feedback from their students and in my opinion, more relevant than many of the academic papers that often collect much dust, but few readers.

  2. Here is how it SHOULD work. I believe Coleen Cheverko, my professor for Anthropology 2201, had us read a text written by two members of the faculty, McCorriston and Field. She posted the chapters for us to read and download in Carmen. We didn’t have to buy the book. I found it to be an excellent text. This goes along with President Drake’s direction that textbooks be made affordable for students.

    • That should have read:

      Here is how it SHOULD work. Coleen Cheverko, my professor for Anthropology 2201, had us read a text written by two members of the faculty, McCorriston and Field. She posted the chapters for us to read and download in Carmen. We didn’t have to buy the book. I found it to be an excellent text. This goes along with President Drake’s direction that textbooks be made affordable for students.

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