Assigning One’s Own Books to One’s Students

The Ethicist has a problem that will interest Henry:

I am a graduate student at a state university. One of four required texts for a course was written by the professor, and the subject matter of the text is also the content of his lectures. A significant portion of my grade is based on a ‘‘review’’ I write of his text. Is it ethical to require students to buy a book that you wrote? Aren’t I already paying tuition for this professor’s expertise and knowledge?

The ethicist makes some sensible comments (scroll down a bit). I have a further comment and a question. The comment: it is relatively easy to avoid making money on a textbook that you assign to students. If you REALLY think it is the best one, figure out what your royalties will be, and make a deal with the local bookstore that they will sell it at regular price minus your royalty, and just pay the bookstore the difference for each copy they sell. I don’t think that Greg Mankiw has responded to Henry’s occasional jabs about him using his monopoly power to assign his textbook, but that’s probably because he does what I have described, but doesn’t want to undermine his credibility by telling anyone.(One alternative: an undergraduate professor of mine who wrote a rather good textbook which he wanted to use, just xeroxed the final draft and kept giving it to his own students; another alternative, calculate the royalties, and either give them to a scholarship fund for low-income students, or use them to invite struggling students out to lunch in small groups to build up their confidence – that might be the best strategy for Mankiw, given where he works).

The question, about non-textbooks. I have never assigned one of my books to a class, though I have co-taught a class in which my co-teacher assigned one of my books. It’s not that I am inhibited about making money of the students (I am but, above, propose a solution, but that when I assign texts, my aim is to have the students both understand and criticize them. Its not that I am uncritical of my own work, far from it, but I want to treat a text as something I am exploring critically along with the students, and that just seems a bit odd when I wrote it. Once in a while, in an upper division (or graduate) class I assign a paper or two that I have written, and with graduate classes I have assigned works in progress. But even then, with the undergraduate classes, I only assign papers that I know will invite very strong criticism from the students, and I make them do the presenting (this resulted, last semester, in one of the best presentations I have witnessed, in which a student ripped into this paper with such vehemence that her co-presenter—and I think most of the other students—were horrified). Anyway. In fact students regularly criticize me for my policy of non-assignment, arguing that they want, and want other students, to see their professors as producers of intellectual work, and want to see that intellectual work and have it discussed in class; both because it makes them see their professors differently, and because it is a rare chance for an undergraduate to discuss serious intellectual work with its producer. What do you think?

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.