A textbook scam: Potter - Macleans.ca

A textbook scam: Potter

Some book publishers giving kickbacks to US colleges


For years, it has been standard practice in the college-textbook biz to churn out “new editions” of textbooks, even in such slow-moving fields such as formal logic or metaphysics. In fact, in order to even get a textbook contract with most publishers, profs have to agree to produce x-number of new editions within a set period of time—typically, something like three editions in five years.

Everyone knows it is bogus, that the sole purpose of the new edition is to undercut the used textbook market; it’s effectively a tuition surtax on students (or their parents) that gets paid directly to profs and publishers.

Now some colleges in the US are going one better: They’re publishing department-specific textbooks—usually some standard text with an added chapter that consists of something like the department style guide—and printing an (illegal) notice on the book that reads “This book may not be bought or sold used.” The publisher then sends a royalty (aka a kickback) to the department, which usually forgets to tell the students about this arrangement.

Real classy stuff. Attention students and profs — anyone know of anything like this going on in Canada? Send me private emails if you like.


A textbook scam: Potter

  1. The composition course as the site of fraud as seen in the featured text in the excellent Wall Street Journal report: “A Writer’s Reference,” by Diana Hacker. Ironically, Rupert Murdoch is best positioned to put an end to university composition frauds, but he has not been able to integrate The Australian, The Wall Street Journal, The TLS, and COBUILD to explain why the handbook approach to English just rips off students. The WSJ analysis, however, is a good start.

    The Canadian federal government should ask some tough questions about the teaching of the official languages, especially about practices in English, the most parasitized language in history. To obtain any SSHRC funding, every university should have to prove competence in teaching English composition. The government’s official position should be that if you are teaching Hacker and school rhetoric, you will be deemed non-compliant.

    The best books for first year composition are the Collins COBUILD Intermediate English Grammar, the COBUILD English Grammar, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the Longman Language Activator, and poems, plays, novels, and stories of sufficient complexity that they can be triangulated with a grammar and dictionary.

    A sensitive program would be study of Emily Dickinson’s “The Tint I cannot take–is best–” while meditating issues of cohesion as explained in the COBUILD English Grammar, chapter 9. Equally valuable would be careful analysis of conditions in the COBUILD grammars and meticulous examination of counterfactuals in “The Turn of the Screw” and “Great Expectations.”

    Slapdash English is damaging all students, not only second language speakers. The practice of garbage English–handbook trash, TOEFL, LPI–opens up a space for academic fraud on a grand scale. At UBC for years, the former head of the English department peddled his own inferior texts to first year students in many sections of courses. He resisted the introduction of far better texts, such as the COBUILD English Grammar.

    In Toronto in the fall, the media–CBC and CTV Toronto, Globe and Mail, National Post, Varsity, and this website–should conduct a forensic analysis of all the textbook, ETS, and Kaplan scams. They should zero in on English frauds as represented by the handbooks and the pathetic trash of TOEFL.

    Could you learn how to read and write intelligently about Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” through these handbook composition courses? You could not. Meaning that the courses are not acceptable.

  2. Another offending practice is professors having their students buy the prof’s own books. In more ethical colleges, the royalties are handed over to the department. Many don’t, though. I’ve also seen a senior prof (i.e. tenured) force new and sessional instructors (i.e. untenured) to use the senior profs texts in order to generate royalties.
    Whereever people are free of accountability and standards, we find abuse. Shouldn’t surprise us to find it in academia.

  3. Andrew Potter might consider examining in detail “The Little Brown compact handbook,” 3rd Canadian ed., by Jane E. Aaron of NYU and Murray McArthur of the University of Waterloo. The WSJ article contains a fair amount of material about Pearson, and this compact handbook is now “in use” at SFU.

    The time line for a careful study of textbooks and materials should be from now until the first of July 2009 since the various patterns of parasitic infestation of universities by ETS, Kaplan, and Pearson, for example, exist because of limited understanding and short attention spans on the part of the media and provincial governments. However, in BC the Province has sent out a Government Letter of Expectations to UBC, for example, which is an excellent development.

    By the end of this September, it should have been possible to identify most of the major patterns of abuse in the peddling of over-priced trash to students. Some could be documented even earlier. There could be no clearer contrast between extremely good books and exploitative garbage than in the composition and ESL fields. If we were to compare Murray McArthur on conditional sentences (tagged ESL at pp. 177-78) with the Collins COBUILD Intermediate English Grammar, Units 66 and 67, we would easily see that it would be impossible for ESL learners to learn the conditional system of English from the LB compact handbook.

    They would also be unable to learn the modal system, so important in conditions, from McArthur, while the COBUILD Intermediate contains an extensive account of possibility, probability, and certainty in the modals units.

    Whether by chance or malice, publishers often choose “politician” types to write their composition handbooks or produce their broad view readers of second rate essays. It seems that often the best choice is a departmental chair or former chair and associates. The chair of the English department at UBC who sold his own books in bulk felt no remorse about making rulings on his own trash, mixing his duties as chair and professor while his colleagues and the university senate declined to intervene. Herbert Rosengarten, if not the most corrupt professor in Canadian history, a good second choice.

    This is not the first time that Herbert Rosengarten’s name has been published in this context. If you are guilty, the best thing to do is keep quiet about it. That has worked out well for Herbert to date.

    Is there any comparative substance in “The Little Brown compact handbook,” Canadian edition, or is it a factitious product, somewhat like some of the most absurd psychoanalytic interpretations of literature, as in the botched analysis of “The Turn of the Screw” by Shoshana Felman? This is a subject on which Murray McArthur will be eager to comment, I am sure. Let’s begin the discussion right here. Let’s talk about the Norton Critical Edition of James’s novella.

    One of the mysteries of the trash English trade of Cambridge, Oxford, Pearson, and even HarperCollins to some extent, is that these publishers are undercutting their own good books by participating in the trash trade. The Longman Language Activator I would choose as one of the four most essential books for first year university vocabulary and grammar, and Pearson’s Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, although not quite as good as the COBUILD and Oxford advanced learner’s dictionaries, is a valuable reference book.

    Still, “The Little Brown compact handbook,” Canadian edition, is a sick spiral pretender. The symptoms should be examined minutely, and this handbook should be driven out of Canadian university bookstores and courses. Anyone who is prepared to employ it should not be teaching at the university level.

    How is Pearson getting penetration for this compact handbook? What possessed Murray McArthur to get involved in this scam? Why doesn’t his own university rise up and condemn this handbook?