In the midst of purchasing course materials yesterday, I found myself dancing on the grave of a local business — the recently deceased Shaman Drum. Although I felt some empathy for those harmed by its fall, it made me giddy to realize that I had escaped the jaws of the bookstore’s overpriced course materials and that, with a little more effort on the part of students, University officials and certain professors, textbook affordability may be a reality for students. But some students may not remember the infamous Shaman Drum, so I shall tell its story.
Once upon a time, there was an overpriced bookstore called Shaman Drum that sold course materials for many professors. Despite its community contributions, charming décor and whimsical moniker, Shaman Drum was much despised by students as the impending symbol of a struggle that raged across campus — the epic battle between a number of instructors who wish to support local bookstores and frugal students who wanted to get their textbooks cheap.
While most professors have traditionally treated their serfs with respect and dignity, some once held that serfs do not make good textbook purchasing decisions without help. Professors of this sort used controversial tactics to support Shaman Drum. In many cases, Shaman Drum was designated as the only local merchant for course materials. A number of professors also routinely failed to provide textbook lists and ISBNs that would’ve allowed cash-strapped students to buy books elsewhere. Having perhaps studied basic economics, Shaman Drum flaunted its monopoly with a maniacal laugh and sold at prices often double those of online sellers.
Why some professors in the ruling class opted to subsidize Shaman Drum with students’ money is still shrouded in mystery. It was alleged (and in at least one case substantiated) that certain instructors owned stakes in the store. In rare cases where professors were asked to explain their behavior, they would point to the value of supporting local business or make bizarre claims that their behavior was environmentally beneficial. They perhaps thought that Shaman Drum’s books were being delivered via bicycle or assembled from recycled materials on site by solar-powered robots — and that the reused books delivered by UPS are made of dead panda bears and baby seals.
Brave revolutionaries resisted textbook imperialists by e-mailing their professors to explicitly request textbook information, before retreating for supplies to their bastions: Amazon, Half.com, student book exchanges and old or international editions. For many years, University royalty left students to fend for themselves against the textbook affordability monster. But it was decreed that there would be a website that would provide transparent textbook information on Wolverine Access and that professors should put course materials on CTools for free when possible.
Shaman Drum went under. “Better late than never” was the zeitgeist of the time, as the Wolverine Access textbook list went online. Many professors used it and received fewer incessant demands in students’ emails for textbook information. Students saved tons of moolah by ordering their books early online. Well-to-do students still bought their books at Ulrich’s, which began offering the option to rent, rather than sell, books to students for cheaper rates. Students who were struggling to pay their bills had more affordable options available. And professors even attempted to save a few trees and help their students by putting materials online.
Although there has been progress, the conflict remains far from won. Even today, some professors aren’t transparent in providing course material details or do so late with the inevitable result that some students will face a financial burden or obstacles in completing coursework (such as books that arrive late). The University should take action to ensure that virtually all professors use the textbook site. But in the meantime, students don’t have to take that sitting down. They can write professors or department chairs to request textbook information in advance and explain why it’s important for this information to be available. They can ask that materials be put on reserve at the library so that they’re available to students. And they can thank and recognize the professors who are already doing the right thing.
Brian Flaherty is a senior editorial page editor.