Thursday, August 02, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Should Textbooks Count?

A new correspondent writes:

I would appreciate your insight on a situation I am dealing with at my community college. I am writing a textbook and have been told by college leadership that the textbook project is a "personal project" and that I cannot use any college resources. I haven't asked yet for clarification of what "resources" includes, but I assume it means the usual material things, like paper, computers, post it notes, etc. as well as the materials I create for my classes, such as handouts and syllabi. I am not sure if it includes student work (for which I always get a signed release).

I assume my president's concern is that working on the textbook will take me away from my "paid duties," i.e. teaching and service to the college. As a teaching-focused institution, my college makes no demands for research or publication. This is the first time I've actually been told that research/publication is considered "personal" rather than "professional" by the college, however. My college does provide small amounts of travel money for conference attendance and I am expected to periodically attend professional development events, so I know the college does appreciate some kinds of scholarly activity.

I already knew that I would not get release time to work on the textbook, and I am planning to teach a full load and continue my service duties to the college. My concern is that the textbook I am writing is built on my class materials, and I was planning to feature some of my students' work as examples. You can probably see that being prohibited from using college resources will make my project extremely difficult.

Have you ever heard of a college considering a textbook project to be "personal"? Do you have advice for how to change college leadership's view of my project? I want leadership to see that this project will benefit the college and students as well as me.

The definition you're assuming of 'college resources' strikes me as awfully broad. It's one thing to say you won't get release time or a stipend; it's quite another to say you can't even work on it on your office computer. There's 'cheap,' and then there's 'petty.' But that's a side issue.

On the main question – should textbooks count? -- I'm of divided mind.

Just off the top of my head, I can come up with a few ways that textbooks are different from what usually counts as 'scholarship':

  1. They don't usually contain 'new' knowledge or information, or even new syntheses of cutting-edge research done by others. Since textbooks are generally only relevant for first- or second-year courses, they tend to stick to consensus information.

  2. They actually make money for their authors. A successful textbook can pay major royalties. I can imagine a strapped college saying that royalties are their own reward. If you aren't going to give the institution a cut of the royalties, why should it support your production of the work?

  3. Textbook publishers choose for commercial appeal, rather than quality.

To overshoot badly, one could say that scholarship is for love, and textbooks are for money.

There's something to this view, though I find it much less convincing than I once did.

As any teacher can tell you, a weak textbook is a real burden for any class. If you've reached the point with a given course where you have strong feelings about how it should be taught – and most of us have – then textbook selection often boils down to finding the 'least bad' choice in a given case. So you look for something that isn't actually physically painful to read, that covers most of what you want covered with an acceptable rate of errors, and that costs less than a small car. Then you set about compensating for what the book lacks, or gets wrong, or makes unnecessarily confusing.

A really good textbook is a rare and fine thing. It's a genuine contribution to learning, if not to research as it's traditionally defined. For a teaching college, it seems like that should count for something.

Back at Proprietary U, one of the cooler things they did was to assemble (and periodically revise) their own in-house anthology for composition courses. The meetings at which people suggested selections were always lively and frequently great fun, and the book that emerged was both excellent on its own merits and well-suited to the course for which it was designed. The book was custom published, and, in exchange for some release time, the editors agreed to forego their royalties for copies sold in-house. It was done for love, rather than for money. As a result, it counted as a feather in the cap of whomever edited it at the time.

The labor involved wasn't trivial, but the payoff to the institution – more effective teaching in a core course – made some compensation worthwhile. The faculty got a book they could actually use, and had some sense of ownership. The students got an excellent paperback for cheap, and teachers who actually used the book they assigned. It was a pretty nifty arrangement.

If you want your college to support your endeavor, I think the burden on you would be to propose a deal in which the college gets something for it. What problem are you solving for the college? If you're doing one for a common course which with students commonly struggle, you might be able to pitch your 'personal project' as a win-win. And use the #%*#% computer.

Good luck!

Battle-scarred readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Most textbooks are not written with any guarantees of royalties or sales. But the mere writing will be the best professional development possible--a heck of a lot more useful to the instructor and his students than any number of rubber chicken conferences, seminars, and presentations--attendance at which colleges typically look for as a sign of one's professional earnestness.

So, the college does benefit from textbook writing in real if intangible ways.

The obvious problem for the college that the proposed textbook writing solves is faculty burnout, buyout, and apathy. C'mon, deandad! One of your tenured faculty--those indignant, timeserving ancients who specialize in hanging around forever at deandad cc--wants to write a textbook, and your reaction is: 'What's in it for the school?' No, no, I know you're a better motivator of human resources than that.

My question is not about the chintziness of not forbidding computer use--what about not allowing a writer the use of notes he's developed for his courses? I'd argue vehemently--and indignantly!--that without specific contract language spelling out who owns what, that material is the property of the teacher. (I've developed an online creative nonfiction course from nothing; I'm very proud of it, and it's mine, all mine!)
The textbook I wrote was in a new field where there were essentially no texts before. That's why I wrote it, so there was at least some original contribution in it.

The text was for a 300-level course.

As wayupnorth said, writing a book is the best professional development possible. No question in my experience.

Finally, the publicity for my school has been enormous.

Oh, and the cumulative royalties, while welcome, still amount to only pennies per hour for the time I put in writing it.
I think the cc where you work is notably short sighted and like wayupnorth I agree that there are immense benefits to the college.

I co-author a textbook now in a second edition. I teach at a 4 year college. My co-authors and I did get a modest advance and have made some royalties, but not enough to change my life in any way. While I am not opposed to making money on this it was not the primary motivation. Rather we had a point of view that we did not see reflected in the textbooks that were out there in the market. Plus, I saw the project as fun. And writing a text is not such an easy thing to do. The cynical think they could just sit down and write a great text if they were willing to dirty their hands with making money. Trust me, it is hard work.

What is in it for the college? I make no claims to being a great teacher, but I am a BETTER teacher for having written the text. I have thought more about how the topics in this course tie together and I know more about the details of the intro course that I teach every semester. My assignments are more sophisticated.

A college would be stupid not to encourage faculty to use their talents in ways that will improve teaching. I agree that no course release is necessarily warranted, it is the faculty members choice to work on this, but subtle encouragement and an attitude that promotes such work is surely a good idea. Using a college purchased computer, photocopying, etc is the minimum and of course a faculty member should be able to use their assignments and student work--with proper releases. To do less is remarkably short-sighted, not only in terms of this faculty member but in terms of the signal it sends to the faculty more generally. Honestly, don't you want an intellectually engaged faculty? Writing a text is one big sign of it.

I thought it was clear -- but apparently it wasn't -- that I disagreed with the administration at the correspondent's college. (The 'cheap' vs. 'petty' line is a tipoff.)

The issue isn't about whether I would support a project or not. It's not about me. My answer was geared to someone working under an apparently pretty unenlightened administration. If you want your dim-bulb leadership to 'get it,' you'll have to provide them some clues. Alternately, you can just work around them.
I would caution against using the computer, just in the sense that you have been warned and I am sure there are written regulations against this.

I do outside consulting work from time to time and always make sure not to use any computer the university has bought for me. You never want to give an institution a valid justification for firing you.

Look at the numbskull at the University of Colorado. His firing is directly related to his stupid post 9/11 comments, but the justification was because he supposedly plagiarized some of his earlier work.
If the book does well, you have the added bonus to the college of being able to say that the author of ______ teaches there, which might not attract student's but it can help with funding and attracting good faculty.
At my institution it's understood that faculty own copywrite to the materials they produce for their courses. I would check this at your school but if that's the case, there's no reason you couldn't use your own course materials in the text. The college can't prevent that regardless of what computer you used to produce the work.
That's copyright (sigh) but you get the point I'm sure....
The definition of "college resources" is key. The response the writer received from the administration may not be motivated by "what's in it for us?" but by the prospect of entering a regulatory quagmire. If the writer is at a public CC, in my lovely state (WA) he/she would be a state employee and there are specific regulations that define situations where 'state resources' cannot be used for 'personal benefit.' WA's definition is pretty encompassing, so I would encourage the writer to get clarification as to where the parameters are coming from and how they apply. These factors may also impact copyright/ownership issues. Our practice is to create a written agreement between the faculty member and the college up front so there are no questions down the road.
The collective bargaining agreement at my (CA)community college says:

"A Unit Member who is the creator of an academic work owns the copyright in that work, including work created within the Unit Member's scope of employment. An exception is work that is separately contracted and compensated by a written agreement between the Unit Member and the District. This provision will apply without regard to the medium in which the academic work is created or presented."

If I remember correctly, we lifted this language from the AAUP, but wherever this language comes from, it seems utterly logical to argue that if an English teacher prepares handouts for his students and later uses them in a textbook, or if a chemistry teacher spends semesters developing a new lab manual for her students and later publishes it, they're the ones--not the "college leadership" that did the work. The college benefited because students enrolled in these teachers' classes benefited.

Of course, logic and fairness don't always win out; sometimes "cheap" and "petty" prevail. Your correspondent needs a good union or a good lawyer or both.

As the writer of the question/issue being discussed, I very much appreciate all the insights offered here! I think Mike's point that if the textbook is successful, it can help attract grants and faculty could be especially helpful as I try to change the opinion of college leadership on this project.

For the record, I was told specifically that I could not use my college-issued computer, email account, or telephone for the project; I also cannot use my office for any materials or meetings related to the project.
Okay, that's absurd enough that I'd wonder if there's another game of some sort being played. Because if I want to organize a weekly basketball game at the local park, I can use my college computer, email, and office space, especially after hours. Saying that writing a textbook is somehow less college-related than working on my cardiovascular fitness is really really odd.
Kimmitt, do you work for a private institution? I work for a public one, which may make a difference. I can't use "state resources" for anything personal. There's a written policy.
No computer, email, or telephone? That just seems--completely unreasonable. I can understand not being able to, say, use the copier or even make long-distance calls--things that cost the college additional money. But no email? Can't store the text on your hard drive? What a morale-crusher. I hope whoever delivered you this news at least was embarrassed at having to enforce such a lame policy.
Can't use your office or email account for even discussing this project? I'm with Kimmitt; that's so ridiculous that I have to think that there's something else going on here.
Anon -- nope, Big State U.
Anonymous: Is the faculty at your CC unionized? If so, contact your union rep. If not, read your contract carefully. You may have legal rights to use your computer, office, phone, etc. for professional purposes that, for whatever reason, the administration at your institution doesn't want you to use. As long as the textbook in question is in your field, I don't see what the college gains by its stance. There's something odd going on.
And a short followup: my public university actually has a couple relevant policies. First, faculty own the rights to most course materials. Second, we have a consulting policy that lets us spend the equivalent of one day a week on consulting projects related to our academic expertise, as long as it doesn't prevent us from fulfilling our duties. Of course, I'm at an R1, so expectations differ. But you should check out your school's policies, and if relevant, also the state board of higher education's policies (or those of the equivalent body, depending on your state government).
I would use my own equipment and feel that whatever I earn the college has no claim to. But, I'm out of administration now after 7 years of political hell.... and am naturally somewhat jaded...

I'm thinking about writing a tell-all book about my dysfunctional sorry institution where I am now back to tenured faculty status...
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