Inspiration, new topics drive profs to write own textbooks

by Rocky Thompson

It is not uncommon for students sitting in class to look down and realize the author of the book they are reading is actually standing in front of them.

Professors choose to use their own textbooks in their classes for a number of reasons, ranging from necessity to inspiration.

Journalism professor Kathleen Hansen said she began writing the textbook for her class, Information for Mass Communication, because there was no other option.

When she started teaching the class in 1982, she worked only with the notes she created for the course, she said. Then in 1985, she co-wrote “Search Strategies in Mass Communication” with former University professor Jean Ward.

Teaching a course without the aid of a book was frustrating and the primary motivation for writing her own, she said.

Journalism professor Nancy Roberts said many instructors write their own textbooks because they are intimately familiar with the topic. She also said a course can be created with no book available and one must be written.

Roberts has written two books on Dorothy Day, a literary journalist, but she does not use those books in her Literary Aspects of Journalism course. Her books provide more
in-depth information than students need in the class, Roberts said.

Roberts did assign one of her books 10 years ago when she taught a class on the history of the advocacy press. She said she justified using her own book because it was topical.

When Roberts collected royalties on the books she sold for her class, she wrote a check for the same amount to a Catholic soup kitchen. The books’ subject – Dorothy Day – had operated a similar enterprise.

Bob Crabb, University Bookstores director, said while professors write hundreds of books, only a small percentage of the total number sold in the bookstore are written by professors.

Crabb said new books are sold at a 25 percent markup, and professors have no control over their books’ prices after they have negotiated royalties with their publishers.

Last spring, when Garrison Keillor taught a course on comedic writing at the University, he gave all his students copies of two of his books. At the time, he said, he could give them away because of how poorly they were selling and said he hoped they might provide
inspiration. He never specifically assigned them for reading in class, however.

Hansen’s book, which sells used for $47.25, is used on campuses across the country, she said.

“It’s ridiculous,” Hansen said of the textbook’s cost. She is currently working on a fourth edition, which should be out by August 2003 and could sell for a lower price.

While state law prohibits requiring people to purchase certain things, it does make an exception for textbooks.

The University has a conflict of interest policy that dictates if professors require their own books and could make money from sales, they must get written approval from their department heads, said Pat Spellacy, University policy development director.

Hansen said getting approval is easy when there are no competing texts for a class.

Elizabeth Mohr, a junior in Hansen’s class, said sometimes she gets to class and her professor explains what Mohr read the night before.

“It’s a good book; she’s a great professor,” Mohr said. “But I wish it weren’t so long.”

Rocky Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]