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Writing the Text to Fit the Course--and Vice-Versa

The Perils of Bookbuying

By Stephen J. Newman

Few undergraduates mangage to make it through four years and eight Core classes at Harvard without buying at least one course textbook written by their professor. Frequently more than one.

Take, for example, the students in Moral Reasoning 34, "Moral Perfectionism," taught by Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value Stanley Cavell. Of the 32 books required or suggested for the course, no less than seven are written by Cavell himself.

The total cost to students who buy all seven? Around $80.

But while few professors go to Cavell's extremes, the practice of scholars assigning their own books for courses they teach is a common one at Harvard.

Professors cite numerous reasons for their decisions to use their books for their classes. Some say they do it because students learn more when the text they read echoes and expands on the material covered in lecture. Others note that the `standard' texts for many academic disciplines are written by star scholars who teach at Harvard.

The fact that academics earn royalties for each and every new copy of their books bought by eager students, they say, has little to do with the practice.

"I'm certainly not getting rich off this," says Colette Daiute, an associate professor at the School of Education.

Standard author royalties are 15 percent of the publisher's price to bookstores, or around 12 percent of the price charged individual consumers, according to spokespersons for Addison-Wesley and Harcourt Brace Javonovich, two prominent publishers of academic books. Authors with a proven track record of strong sales, however, can command higher royalties, they added.

But because the market for most academic books is extremely limited, royalties tend to be minimal.

Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature Gregory Nagy, who regularly assigns his own The Best of the Achaeans to his perennially popular Literature and Arts C-14, "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization," said that his earnings from the book's sales are "infinitesimally small."

"I wouldn't call it popular," Nagy says of the current edition. "It gets bought," he adds, "especially by graduate students."

Nagy adds that the book--which some undergraduates have simply left in the plastic wrapper for an entire semester--was downgraded to optional reading for the most recent edition of his course this past fall.

But when an academic book makes it into the lucrative market for national textbooks, profits can skyrocket.

"Best-selling textbooks make a lot of money," says Anthropology Department Chair Irven DeVore. "It's a cash cow, there's no doubt about it."

"The real money, of course," he elaborates, "is not at the college level but at the high school and elementary level."

DeVore says that some textbooks are ghostwritten by journalists, and marketed under the names of well-known scholars to improve national sales. Although he says he knows of no one at Harvard who would stoop to such a practice, he believes it is more common among "people at lesser-known universities."

"It's very political how people are assigned to write books, because it's so lucrative," says Charles J. Sykes, author of Profscam and a sharp critic of academia. "It's really quite a racket."

Some teachers at Harvard say they do have qualms about assigning their own books.

Several of the University's first-year expository writing courses use texts by Expos Director Richard Marius. But Marius says he asks Expos teachers not to let him know if they plan to assign either of the books, A Writer's Companion and A Short Guide to Writing About History, in their sections.

"That's an embarrassing thing," Marius says. "I never try to get the staff to use the books that I write."

Marius says he estimates that A Writer's Companion is used in 400 schools nationwide, and that he earns a $1.85 royalty on each $15 copy sold.

An `Uncomfortable' Feeling

Marius says he donates all royalties he earns from sales to Harvard students--a few hundred dollars each year--to the Harvard Advocate, a campus literary magazine.

"I feel uncomfortable profiting from Harvard students," he says.

But even Sykes says that Harvard academics have several reasons to use their own books in courses, explaining that profit is an unlikely motive in most cases.

"If you're a world-renowned expert, it's almost natural to assign [your own book] to your class," he says. "If everyone in the country is assigning books by Steven Jay Gould, there's no reason why Steven Jay Gould shouldn't."

And at Harvard, such practices are widespread. More than 70 courses offered this spring feature at least one work by the professor teaching the course on the required or recommended reading list.

Introduction to Psychology, for example, co-authored by Senior Lecturer on Psychology L. Dodge Fernald, Jr., has long been a staple of Psychology 1, "Introduction to Psychology," whenever it is Fernald's turn to teach the course.

And Dillon Professor of the History of France Stanley H. Hoffmann is well-known for assigning students his weighty texts and weightier reading lists. His Duties Beyond Borders--priced at $12.95--and Janus and Minerva--at $23.50--round out the assigned reading for his Moral Reasoning 28, "Ethics and International Relations."

But the seven texts Cavell uses in "Moral Perfectionism" inspired one graduate visiting to the Coop to remark that the philosophy professor had "out-Hoffmanned Hoffmann."

Professors cite a number of reasons for using their own texts in courses. Several say that they feel they have better control over their course's structure when they work from a text they have written themselves.

Nobel laureate Sheldon L. Glashow, Higgins professor of physics, says he is in the process of writing a textbook for Science A-20, "From Alchemy to Elementary Particle Physics," because he is dissatisfied with some of the books he has used in the past.

Glashow says that in the United States, there is a "dual role for professors to both do research and teach."

"It's a difficult thing to keep in tune," he says. "Kind of like a Maserati." Writing a textbook, he says, can help a professor reconcile the two tasks.

Aside from the course's nickname, "Sex," a pre-printed, hundred-page set of notes summarizing lecture material is one of the principle attractions for students of the spring Core offering. Science B-29, "Human Behavioral Biology." DeVore, who teaches the course with Associate Professor of Anthropology Terence W. Deacon. says he likes students to buy the notes "precisely because there are no books that structure the course in the way we like to do it."

And in upper-level courses, says Daiute, professors often feel that the area of study is so narrow that only one textbook will do--their own.

"When [administrators] look for faculty," Daiute says, "they look for people who are doing research in specialized fields to teach specialized courses, and there just aren't a lot of textbooks available."

Daiute herself, for example, teaches "Computers and Writing," using the basic text. "Writing and computer," which she wrote in 1985.

"The book just serves as background information," she says. "The course has expanded much beyond the book already."

DeVore, however, says that in most graduate courses, professors do not need to assign their own texts--or, for that matter, any single text.

Most fields of graduate study, DeVore says, are changing too quickly for book publishing to keep up with. "No textbook is really adequate," he says.

And some professors say they use their own books because they like to see first-hand the way students react to them.

"I'm interested in re-shaping my own thoughts," Nagy says, adding that eventually he plans to publish a book similar to The Best of the Achaeans, but with signifcant changes. "I've learned a lot from feedback from Core students.

And even when they go unread, pricey books often elicit halfhearted praise from students. Such is the case in this fall's most popular course, General Education 105, "The Literature of Social Reflection," taught by psychiatry professor Robert Coles. On the course's reading list, but not assigned in all sections, were two books from Coles' Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series.

"I'm sure I'll get something out of it when I do get around to reading them," says John Ma '93, who says he spent over $50 on Coles' books, but rarely opened any of them. "None of the reading is absolutely required," Ma says.

Other students in the course says that only between 20 and 30 percent bothered to do a substantial amount of the reading. "I wish I had read more," says Erin O'Brien '90 of Currier House. "It's a wonderful reading list."

And a 1965 graduate looking back at his Harvard years took a philosophical attitude to the practice. "You have to look at the larger picture," he told a book-browsing student in the Coop this weekend. "What are these books going to look like in your living room?"

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