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why limiting book choice is a bad idea: 10 reasons

Recently at my institution, we’ve been fighting against some pressure by the administration for First Year Composition department faculty to limit the number of texts used across their department for a single course to one or two. This pressure is coming under the pretense of cutting costs for students, which of course everyone at the institution is in support of–at least in principle. However, what the administration is failing to see here is that limiting choice comes at great expense to the institution and to its students. There is far more to lose than benefit, for all parties concerned. I’ve drafted below ten reasons, in my opinion at least, why narrowing textbook selection is a bad idea. Some of the reasons are specific to my institution, but perhaps they might be useful to people in other places if they find themselves fighting similar battles.

pedagogical

  1. The scholarship in the field of composition studies reflects multiple well-established schools of thought on the teaching and learning of writing. All, with the exception of current-traditional rhetoric, are legitimized by the rigorous scholarship of the field. A given textbook is often aligned with one school of thought or another. To force limited choice of books on composition faculty is to force one way of thinking about the teaching and learning of writing—in a field that encompasses a multiplicity of approaches. Many composition teachers hold deep, philosophical, defining beliefs within their respective school of thought. To challenge their choice of text is to challenge their professional judgment and their identities as teachers.
  2. A major purpose of the book in a composition course is to provoke thought, engage the student in critical and creative thinking, and to provide opportunity for students to join the broader conversation of ideas through their writing. Limiting the choice of book for a course, limits thought, conversation, ideas, creativity, and the opportunity for students to engage in a meaningful way.
  3. Limiting book choice undercuts a core value of the discipline regardless of the disciplinary “camp” a faculty member might subscribe to; all schools of thought—cognitive/process, expressivism, heuristic, social-epistemic/constructivist, cultural studies, post-process, post-colonial, and so on—put the idea of making critical choices and being free to make those choices at the very center of their disciplinary dialogue.

professional and institutional

  1. Narrowing textbooks for adjuncts is not an acceptable compromise; it undercuts our colleagues’ professionalism; it is a compromise that defies the very principles that define us; it will make the full-time faculty look hypocritical and elitist; most importantly, it runs counter to The College’s core values of diversity, respect, responsibility, integrity, and fairness. As a Department, we want adjunct faculty who are creative, critical thinkers capable of choosing their own texts. Choice is central to both the discipline and, fundamentally, to the core values of the institution.

economical

  1. Everyone in the First Year Composition program appreciates the need to provide affordable textbook options to students; however, the blanket policy that is currently slated discounts not only the professional and disciplinary considerations of our field, but the fact that the Department has already taken many effective measures in the spirit of reducing costs for students. Our current Department Policy limits the specific dollar amount that any one section can ask students to spend on books. The Department has already agreed upon an inexpensive pocket handbook as a standard across all sections of Composition I and Composition II. Individual professors tend to use their selected book for several semesters before choosing a new text, hence allowing for a healthy used book market of which students can take advantage.
  2. Recently proposed “solutions” (in the form of a blanket policy) to the problem of book costs, do not effectively convey to Departments and faculty members the true nature of the problem here at The College, nor does it make clear what other cost-cutting measures have been considered and/or implemented. The concern among many is that the “solution” to one problem will create a host of additional, unintended, and far more destructive problems. Before considering anything to the extreme of limiting book choices, a compelling, data-driven case must be presented. What are the current costs? What savings for the students would be realized? What would be the true cost of implementing any measure that would ask faculty to limit book choices? Has there been any cost/benefit analysis done on this?
  3. Moving towards a “standardized” book to realize some savings for students in the bookstore, would ultimately cost students much more, as their education at The College would be cheapened. A “standard” one-size-fits-all book would be a move towards a standardized, vending-machine education, devaluing The College as a whole.

contractual

  1. Article 3.3 of the current faculty contract clearly states, “The individual faculty member shall have the right to determine the textbooks for his/her courses, subject to department policy and approval.” The Department policy currently in place fully supports this right, but asks only that faculty limit the total cost of the books they selected to an amount determined and agreed upon by the Department itself.

practical

  1. Narrowing book choices would likely result in a narrowing of the variety of assignments given to students across all the faculty in the Department. This would make, then, for a greater likelihood that student papers would be “recycled” and could very well result in a further increase in cheating and plagiarism.

ethical/moral

  1. At an institution of higher-learning, where every faculty member is guaranteed the right of academic freedom and where every student is guaranteed the opportunity to pursue a liberal education, limiting book selection is reprehensible. If only certain books are “approved”—all others are prohibited. This is tantamount to banning books.

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