So what if professors assign their own textbooks?

Should professors also have someone else prepare their lecture notes?


The Globe and Mail is in a huff over the shocking fact that professors write textbooks and then assign those textbooks to their students:

The idea of professors assigning their own books presents an ethical dilemma. Students may feel uncomfortable questioning the material, and there is arguably a conflict of interest in profiting from one’s own syllabus.

What precisely is the “ethical dilemma” and why is there a “conflict of interest”? Professors profit from teaching classes, that is they are paid to share their expertise with students. Is that morally suspect? Why is earning an income from compiling one’s expertise into a book different? Professors design course content — within accepted academic practice of course — and present it to their students as authorities on the subject.  If, as the Globe suggests, there is a “power dynamic involved,” certainly such a dynamic is already in place the second a professor steps in front of a classroom, regardless of what textbook they assign.

Presumably if a professor writes a book, that means it is inline with the way he/she plans to teach the course. Why would it be desirable for them to use a book that might not fit the way the subject matter is planned? The Globe does allow that “there’s something to be said for having a professor who knows the course material inside out.” But the bulk of the Globe story winces at the notion that (shudder) students might feel uncomfortable having to read what their professor has written.What if they disagree with it? Well, I might ask, what if they disagree with what the professor says in a lecture? Should lecture notes also be prepared by someone other than the the person teaching the course?

If students are discouraged from asking questions, or critiquing course material, that says more about the competence of the professor (or the students) than it does about who wrote the the textbook.

Related: Conflict of interest and textbooks

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So what if professors assign their own textbooks?

  1. The first student mentioned in the story concedes that he was happy with his professors’ choice, and both professors are given ample space to explain their perspective. This article doesn’t land on either side. It simply explores the issue.

  2. I don’t think it’s a particularly significant conflict of interest, but it’s rather obvious. A prof can assign a required textbook to his students so that they are in effect made to buy it. He won’t really profit all that much from it, but it’s not altogether different from a doctor prescribing only medications produced by a company in which he’s a shareholder (or even owner!).

  3. I don’t really get it either. In terms of practices that unfairly soak students for their money, the real scandal is in publishing practices. Publishers routinely put out new editions of texts with minimal new content – changed just enough to make it difficult to use the old editions. Then they take the old editions out of print so bookstores must order the new ones. Presto – all the used texts out there are obsolete, and students must buy the new ones.

    Compared to this practice, concern about professors assigning their own texts is trivial. There are extremely good reasons why a professor might assign his or her text and only minimal personal incentive to do so. That’s the very definition of a low conflict situation. Personally, if I knew of a faculty member who’d written a text on topic and then assigned someone else’s work, I’d wonder what was so wrong with their own work.

    It’s manufactured controversy, based largely in ignorance of how academia – and most especially academic publishing – really works.

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