Textbook publisher sues librarian for pointing out that their books suck

(via Boing Boing) According to a public survey ranking 34 textbook publishers against each other, Edwin Mellen Press is the worst publisher of philosophy textbooks.  It's possible that may not be strictly enough to demonstrate truthfulness over the libel suit that Mellen has brought against a librarian at McMaster University, who wrote, "The Edwin Mellen Press was a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books, scarcely edited, cheaply produced, but at exorbitant prices," but it's not an argument much in their favor.

There are not many college students who are thrilled about the common practice of price gouging on textbooks, something I've written about before, but at least in those cases it's a shakedown over access to information.

Edwin Mellen Press has brought a lawsuit against the librarian for Three Million Dollars. For pointing out that their books aren't very good.  This isn't the first time they've done it, either.

I hope what comes out of this, if it goes to trial, is some new case law severely restricting the ability of textbook publishers to do basically anything.  Like, it would be cool if there were a law requiring that textbooks be sold at maximum a certain percentage over cost, so at least if I'm going to pay eighty bucks for a book, it'll be printed on paper I can't see through.

Text book prices: What can you do?

In my sociology class today, my professor discussed the price of the textbook.  She said, and I'm pretty sure I wrote down the quote correctly,  "I know, book's expensive, but what can you do?" I didn't say anything, because a.) she's obviously just using 'what can you do' as a rhetorical phrase, not an earnest request for input, b.) discussing theoretical class structures isn't a good use of class time we could otherwise be spending on the material everyone in the room is paying for, and c.) I figured it would probably just annoy her and make me look pedantic.

But I wanted to answer the question, and this is my blog, so this seems like the best place to do it.

Here are some things you could do:

  • Teach us using direct-source studies of the sociological issues we're discussing; teach us how to use the school library to access original research, and how to read that research to learn about the history and the present-state of sociology.
  • Use Wikipedia for the stuff we're only covering shallowly, and read the articles yourself, and go over in class whatever points you think might be lacking or imperfectly put.
  • Look for public websites that present the information, and build lesson plans out of collections of URLs rather than a $100+ book that can, after all, be substituted by an internet connection.
  • (I realize this one is demanding a lot more of the teacher than it's strictly fair to expect, but) write up some of your own material, and release it under a Creative Commons license.
  • Ask past students who wrote particularly good papers for permission to use their work as classroom material for future students.
  • Teach us using mainstream books, that are subject to the price constraints of free market competition, and are likely available used or through a local or school library.

I'm not angry at my teacher for using a textbook.  Everything I suggested above is probably more work, and gets no additional income.  Especially writing her own material -- which she could then publish as a textbook, assign, and actually make money on.

It would help, though, just to acknowledge that you can teach most classes without textbooks.  That doesn't require that you do anything.  All that does is turn 25 people in the class who are resigned to paying for their books into 25 people who have a little bit of motivation to look for ways to overturn the textbook system, and let all the other teachers at the school know that there's at least someone else there who would support some or all of the above efforts, in theory.

Although, maybe the school requires her to assign a textbook.  That might be the case, I'm pretty sure that's a thing that happens.

Oh well.  I'm not buying the book.

Another thing wrong with America's system for funding education

SourceFed reports on a 14 year old kid who was persuaded, by a for-profit college recruiter, to falsify documents in order to get into an online college before he was 18.  The college, Ashford University, took the government aid money and gave the kid online classes.  Then, when the government found out that he was actually 14 and hadn't graduated high school, they demanded their money back. From the kid, not the college.

PhoenixNewTimes.com reports more broadly on the phenomenon, which they compare to the sub-prime mortgage scandal -- it differs only in that this can't get big enough to implode the world economy.

Overall, the 15 largest for-profit colleges spend nearly $13 billion a year on recruiting and marketing.

It's a terrific business if you don't have to worry about educating students. Nearly 80 percent of them won't complete their programs within six years — almost double the failure rate at traditional colleges.

These organizations tend to charge around twice as much as a state college, and the article describes an approach that leads to a lot of students being flunked out -- not because they didn't do the work, but because the college doesn't have the resources to provide them the opportunities they need to graduate.

This kind of exploitative crap is the result of years of deregulation, and it's poisoning the future of America.  That sounds dramatic, but I mean it.  The institutional-scale failures of the currently dominant generation to prepare my generation to take responsibility for America seriously endanger the country's future.

That college at the top, Ashford University, should be dissolved.  The government should take all their money.  And after using part of it to relocate Ashford's students to real schools, then using part of the remainder to cover the costs of the dissolution, the government should recycle the rest of the money into the education system.

This should be done with every for-profit college that's preying on the weak, wounded people trying desperately to find some way to crawl up the increasingly rotting economic ladder.