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Western debates high price of ‘required’ textbooks

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After four years of paying for tuition, student fees, supply fees and textbooks, the bill senior printmaking major Ali Dalsing regrets paying most is the $200 for a textbook her freshman year.

Dalsing expected to use the textbook for four semesters of art history classes, but never used it once.

“I think she assigned us to buy the book, and then she never spoke about it again,” she said.

Dalsing bought the textbook for Dr. Allison Sauls’ art history class. Sauls cancelled the only project assigned that would have required students to use the textbook, and tests were based solely on lecture and slides posted to the O:drive. Dalsing said she did well in the class without using the textbook and knows that many other students did so as well. Many of the people in her class didn’t buy the textbook at all.

“A lot of people that did buy it are still mad about it,” Dalsing said, reflecting on a class she took four years ago.

Dalsing said the book, “Janson’s History of Art,” was about $180 used and about $200 new. According to the Missouri Western Barnes & Noble website, the textbook is now $179 new and $134.25 used.

Sauls, chair of the art department, could not disagree more strongly with Dalsing’s opinion about the textbook.

Sauls studied an earlier edition of the same text she asks her students to buy when she was an undergraduate. She has this original textbook in her office: it’s falling apart and has her dorm address and a stamp with her maiden name on an end page.

“To an artist, this is the Bible,” Sauls said. “They’ve got their brush, their canvas, and they’ve got their Janson.”

The art department is not the only place on Western’s campus where students and instructors disagree about the value of textbooks. Across the disciplines, students complain about required textbooks that end up not being necessary in order to pass a class. Textbooks are a major investment, and sometimes that investment doesn’t pay off in class.

 

Background reading

Faculty members agree that textbooks are best used as supplementary materials for in-class lecture. Students should use the texts in order to prepare for lecture; reading allows students to gain a basic understanding of the concepts before learning from their instructor’s expertise.

Dr. Dan Trifan of the history department said that he can definitely tell which students have prepared for lecture and which have not.

“If you’re talking about Napoleon for half an hour and someone raises their hand and says ‘You are talking about France, right?’, you can say they didn’t keep up,” he said.

Trifan said his lectures highlight the details which he feels are important, but it is crucial for students to have an understanding of the historical period overall.

Jesse Bowe, a junior nursing major, is in Trifan’s Modern Europe: 1789 to Present class this semester. He hasn’t done the reading for the first two tests, and believes he is doing well in the class. He said that he pays close attention in class, follows the study guide before tests and uses Google to supplement his lecture notes.

“I’m not planning on reading for the third test, to tell you the truth,” he said.

Trifan agrees that his tests are more lecture-based than text-based.

“Those things which I feel are more important to illustrate are going to find their way onto the exams more frequently,” he said.

Dr. Jeff Poet of the math department said in an email he uses textbooks in his courses to supplement his own instruction and problem sets.

Morgan Russell, a junior math major, started off buying all the books for her math classes, but soon felt that wasn’t necessary.

“If you feel like you need the extra instruction, then get the book,” she said.

Poet feels students could get more from their classes if they studied their textbooks outside of class.

“I am only half-joking when I suggest that students may find more value in their textbooks if they would actually read them,” Poet said.

Dr. Cindy Heider, associate provost and associate vice president for Academic Affairs, believes that students are not inclined to read their texts because they may be stuck in a high school mindset. Higher education, as Heider said, is a very different medium.

“You’re not sitting in class from eight to three every day. You have the opportunity to get some expert advice for fifty to ninety minutes during a class period,” she said. “The intent of that structure is to support reading and study outside of class.”

Professional library

When students reach their upper-level classes, they are often required to purchase textbooks that will help build their professional library.

Sauls still refers to her Janson art history book frequently, and believes her students will do the same if they are serious about art.

“I’m not asking for them to buy something just for the course; I’m asking them to buy something that will enrich them as an artist for life,” she said.

She said that if students break down the cost of the book over their lifetime, it will cost just fractions of a penny each day.

Heider said she still refers to some education texts she used while earning her degrees.

Senior history and sociology major Gary Weidemann doesn’t mind the professional library building.

“I buy the books because I’m a history major, but I rarely used them for lower-level classes,” he said.

Amanda Johnson, a senior double major in political science and sociology, doesn’t think that instructors should require texts if they are just being used for library-building purposes.

“I wish instructors would use more consideration when choosing textbooks,” she said. “It’s important for us to gain a library for our major, but there’s a lot of them I wouldn’t use again.”

 

High prices 

No matter who is speaking about textbooks, the issue of high prices comes up over and over again.

Poet encourages students to use money-saving tactics when getting their textbooks for the semester.

“I don’t care if students share books, check them out from a library, use an older edition or even another author,” he said.

He said if instructors are using the textbooks simply for problem sets, there are cheaper ways to supply those problems to their students.

“Texts are great things if used to the full extent that they can be used,” he said.

Trifan also considers the book’s cost when assigning a class text.

“Textbooks are way too expensive. I would dispense with them if I could, to just give students a break,” he said.

Heider said that administration encourages faculty to make conscientious decisions regarding textbook selection.

“The ways that we can control textbooks’ cost are to ask our faculty to very carefully select textbooks that are absolutely targeted towards the class,” she said.

She encourages students who are dissatisfied with textbook use to let their instructor, the head of the department or administration know.

“We certainly don’t want things like that to happen,” she said. “Textbooks are very expensive.”

Even the bookstore works to make sure students are getting the best deal possible. Greg Nikes, bookstore manager, encourages students to check each title on their booklist to see which format is cheaper: buying a new or used print text, renting a book from the bookstore or purchasing a digital copy.

Students who sell back their books will get the best buy-back price if the text they are selling back is being used the next semester on campus. Sometimes this means holding on to a book for a semester or two before selling it back, Nikes said.

“My goal would be to have nothing but used books and to be able to sell used books and have them all reused so we could buy them all back for the best buy-back price,” he said.

 

Required reading

Dalsing is not the only student that has been disappointed by a textbook purchase.

Adam Bailey, a management major from the Craig School of Business, remembers buying an $80 textbook for his English 104 class. He said that the instructor never assigned any readings from the text.

Bailey pointed out that he sees this problem as more of an issue in general education classes.

“In Music 101, we had to buy this packet of CDs, and we never used them once,” he said. “Once you opened it, you couldn’t sell it back. It was pointless.”

In major-specific classes like Sauls’ art history courses, only declared majors can enroll. Because of this, Sauls feels it is fair to require a book for class even if it is not directly used in the course.

“Students should have a book like this,” she said. “Janson is the foremost authority on art history, period.”

Students like Johnson and Dalsing argue that they shouldn’t be made to buy a book if it will not be used in the class.

Sauls claims that assigning a “required” book is not the same as forcing a student to purchase the text.

“I do not make them buy the book; they don’t have to buy the book,” Sauls said.

Dalsing said that since the text was “required,” students felt as if they had to buy it. She was sorely disappointed by the texts’ fate as a coffee table decoration.

“It’s a nice book,” she said. “If we used it, it would be worth the $200 that you pay to get it.”

 

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