The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
For Astronomy 104, LSA sophomore Katie Charlic had to purchase “Alien Skies: A Travelogue of the Universe.” The book, which retails on Barnes & Noble’s website for upwards of $130, was written by astronomy professor Mario Mateo, who teaches the course.
Charlic stopped reading the book part way through the course because she found the lectures provided identical information to what was presented in the book. She only referenced the book when homework questions required students to look at a specific chart or photo inside. In her eyes, she paid $200 for a few homework questions.
“You’re having to pay hundreds of dollars on top of the tuition price, which is really hard for a lot of people, especially those that are taking out loans or on a scholarship,” Charlic said. “It feels like you’re just putting money in their pocket, which you’re already doing by paying tuition here.”
In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Dana Elger wrote there is no University-wide policy on the practice of faculty teaching and requiring students to purchase works they have played a role in creating. The role of regulating textbooks and determining policies related to textbooks falls on specific units instead. The Faculty Handbook, however, does note teaching staff should not have “direct dealings with students in the sale of books, instruments, lectures, notes, or similar materials.”
The decision on whether to allow faculty to teach books they have edited and authored has played out on college campuses across the country. Proponents find the practice allows lecturers to teach work they know intimately and is sometimes considered the best literature on a particular subject, whereas critics assert it allows faculty to take advantage of students and raises ethical concerns.
At the University of Kentucky, a journalism professor was placed on leave in 2016 after administrators found out he required his students to purchase his book without “special administrative permission” from the school, violating its policy. He had received approximately $6,000 in royalties at the time of his dismissal.
In 2004, the American Association of University Professors weighed in on the subject, writing in a statement the practice of faculty selecting their own works as course materials is protected through academic freedom and, alone, is not cause for concern. The Association noted there is a possibility faculty could purposefully choose a text from which they would gain financial benefits and policies at different schools could fail to address this issue.
Nationally, the validity of the practice has been debated for years, though it still occurs on college campuses regularly. A poll from Insider and Barnes & Noble College Insights released in October found two-thirds of students surveyed at colleges across the country reported having to purchase a book written by their professor.
Tailoring content to the class
When Mateo began teaching Astronomy 104, the norm was to begin the semester with physics then transition to the broad, introductory look at astronomy. However, he developed what he sees as a better way to teach the class: having the physics aspect of the course within the different units as they become relevant, as opposed to it being a separate unit.
For a while, Mateo used other books and relied heavily on his detailed notes to teach the class in the way he felt was most effective. He then decided to create a book reflecting his vision, which was “Alien Skies.”
The textbook, according to Mateo, takes readers to different places in space and describes what’s there and the context needed to understand it. He said this is a far different approach than other textbooks available, which are all similar in structure but different than his vision for the course.
“Honestly, I could cut a page randomly out of every book (published in the area since the 1960s), put it together, and you wouldn’t even notice that they’re different,” Mateo said. “They’re all the same. Every single textbook that’s been done since that time is exactly the same. I decided I don’t like this approach. I don’t think that’s a good approach, so that's why I developed the textbook.”
Mateo noted when he taught the class without the book, he would jump around in a different textbook and add additional notes in class. He said having his tailor-made book provides more cohesion within the course, but also noted what is taught in lecture goes beyond the contents of the book even if there is some overlap.
When working with the publisher, Mateo said he requested the book be reasonably priced to not place an undue burden on students. He said his book is not any more costly than a comparable textbook, and students are able to purchase it from other students rather than directly from the publisher.
Some staff members reject the notion faculty teach their own textbooks as a medium for increasing revenue, which has been a central argument against the practice in the past. Professor of History Victor Lieberman, who teaches a textbook he edited and wrote an introduction for in History 244: The History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, wrote in an email to The Daily he does not receive monetary compensation when the book is purchased.
“I have never taken a cent in royalties on that book, which itself constitutes a fraction of assigned readings for the course,” Lieberman wrote.
Mateo echoed Lieberman’s sentiment, noting he has not made enough from the royalties to balance out the work he put into creating it. Instead, Mateo said the value lies in having the book out there, in hopes professors elsewhere want to use it.
While Mateo said he understands concerns on this issue, he is against having a University-wide policy, as he feels it may discourage faculty from publishing. He said most faculty members who write textbooks do so to put their notes into a structured document for student use.
“These are not bestselling books,” Mateo said. “The reason you do it is because it probably reflects the vision that you want to have for the for the course you're teaching, and what’s wrong with that?”
Charlic noted the issue is difficult to solve, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“It’s not necessarily something you can apply to every situation,” Charlic said. “If a professor wants to use their own textbook, it needs to be approved individually.”
LSA sophomore Ben Dieffenbacher was required to purchase a course pack from Ulrich’s for a Political Science class that included a collection of chapters the professor of the class wrote for the course, according to the syllabus.
Like Charlic, Dieffenbacher said he would feel comfortable with the practice if there was a University-wide approval system. He felt the collection of chapters he purchased contained information all covered in lectures and said he recommends students planning to take the course not purchase it if they attend class.
“Looking back on it, it does seem a little bit questionable,” Diffenbacher said. “Why would you assign your own (book)?”
Diffenbacher said it’s important for the University to oversee this to ensure students do not have to purchase unnecessary books. He said this is especially an issue for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Diffenbacher also noted he has no issue with instructors using their own content when it is provided for free, but it becomes a gray area when there is a cost associated.
“When they brought it for free, not a problem. If you’re providing it for cost, I think it gets problematic in our current system,” Diffenbacher said.