On textbooks, midterm blues, and other truths of social justice

Warning: contains elephants in rooms.


Meet an excellent piece from UBC’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, about innovation that includes ideas for potential future further innovation:


On a related note, here is part of a reply that I emailed to a student who complained about the cost of course materials at the beginning of October:

You are absolutely right to ask about the cost of course materials, and I would encourage you to ask all your profs, in all your courses, this same question. When deciding on materials, we do (or at least I do) think of students and student budgets. When selecting course materials, I consult with publishers and unfortunately have to reject a number of other options that are too expensive; I also negotiated with the publishers of [the textbook we use] to produce a custom edition for FREN 101 & 102 that is approximately half what its individual components (hardback textbook + ebook + online exercises and other practice materials) would cost on the open market. We are not in a position to offer free materials as that would entail faculty (who are already working full time and cannot work beyond that, as we are human) being given teaching releases that would enable them to work full-time on producing a new textbook, over at least two teaching terms. (That may change, but is over to UBC on supporting faculty. I happen to think that in an ideal world a public university would provide free materials to students as part of its public remit.)

For calculating a reasonable cost for students, I use UBC’s guides to students on budgeting, such as this online form: http://you.ubc.ca/financial-planning/cost/
UBC reckons on $2,080 for books and supplies (excluding laptop) for 30 credits; the cost of FREN 100 & 102 materials (=6 credits) is well within that (ex. if books = $1800, for 30 credits, and FREN 101+102 = 6 credits, then 101+102 = 1/5 x 1800 = $360).

[Edited to add, for context here: we use the same materials over two terms, for FREN 101 and 102. The cheapest option, buying it new, is ebook + online exercises + other practice materials, directly from the publishers. That costs around $100 (depending on USD/CAD exchange rate) which works out as $50 for each of the two courses; and that price hasn’t changed in four years.]

If you are suffering from financial hardship, UBC can help. I would be happy to put you in touch with the appropriate student support offices via Early Alert, or you can also go and see them yourself: https://students.ubc.ca/enrolment/finances > https://students.ubc.ca/enrolment/finances/funding-studies/financial-distress > talk to your Enrolment Services Professional.

For that course, I also include the following information re. course materials:


  • students who have previously taken FREN 101 & 102 often resell their course materials once they have finished the courses: if buying from them, please make sure
    —that you are buying the right thing ([this] edition, as used in FREN 101+102 from September 2014 through summer 2017)
    —that online access is valid until the end of the course (and beyond, if you’re also taking 102)
    —and that it’s not more expensive than buying your materials new!
  • The Ubyssey has good advice on buying textbooks, with tips and links (ex. Craigslist):
    The ultimate guide to buying UBC textbooks” (2016-09-03)
  • Discount Textbooks (University Village)
    If you are also taking FREN 102, make sure you have access until its end too. You may find cheaper codes for sale, always check when they expire!


We—the students and I—are at a public university. That should mean that studying here is accessible to all, on merit, regardless of financial means. That should be true for all academic areas: no student should be deciding which courses to take based on their cost (tuition, materials, added costs of having to take further courses first to satisfy prerequisites). It is worrying to see economic disparity affect students’ education: we’re not just talking extra tutoring and paying others to write assignments, but what were basics when I was a student and are now rare exotic luxuries. Living on or near campus and therefore with little to no commute. Cheap rent (I paid at most $320 / month), and well under the 40% of your expenditure beyond which you are technically living in hardship. Decent affordable food on campus. The expectation that a full-time degree means exactly that, and that “work” means full-time academic work on that degree; including before and after classes, extra-curricular scholarly activities, having a rich interactive intellectual life, and reading (even more, voluntarily) outside required set texts out of curiosity and for fun. And, as still happens in some extraordinary parts of the world, low to no student fees and low to no student debt.

We are now in the middle of the term, and like others who do teaching and advising work, I’m seeing stressed students. Midterms. Flu, colds, seasonal dread lurgies. Insufficient sleep. Worries about grades and where one stands relative to the rest of the class. Half-way to exams: the exam schedule was just posted last week; yes, it would be nice for it to be set in stone or at least published before the start of the academic year. People are stretched thin with too many courses (four or five; I never had more than three at a time as a student). Not enough time for the work needed outside class for learning. Needing to work—as in, paid employment—to make ends meet, to have a roof over one’s head, to have at least one meal a day, to survive.

This is basic survival. It is no life. It is certainly not an intense few years of life of the mind, preparing future “leaders” let alone thoughtful questioning innovative upstanding citizens of a beneficial peaceful civil society, to save the world or at least make it better or maybe even just not make it any worse a place than it is at present and ensure it continues existing.

Meanwhile, the cost of living in Vancouver continues to rise, as making money out of property is more important.

Meanwhile, student tuition fees continue to rise, as making money out of students is more important.

And, as has happened every year I’ve been at UBC, students complain. They also complain about all the other costs associated with being a student here. And quite right too. I would complain too. I would also ask where that money is going. I would ask the university about administrative, managerial, executive, marketing, VP, and other corporatised jobs and entire departments on campus. I would ask about the rate and number of hires in those areas compared to those of faculty. I would ask about faculty hires and the number of sessional faculty teaching, and about their working conditions. I would ask about class sizes and how they—and their use (and abuse) of sessional faculty and student teaching assistants—factor into the fees that students are paying for that course.

Let’s talk about that elephant in the room.

Remember, these are fees for tuition. They ought, by definition, to be paying for teaching: tuition in its current sense being related to tutor, tutorial. Turning to the older senses of the term and its roots in tuēri, tuitiō, there is also a deeper semantic layer of “care” (see for example the connections to intuition): partly in relation to watching (over, out for) what is taught and responsibility for students’ learning; partly as a duty of care to knowledge itself, with faculty as its careful respectful guardians, acting as custodians in a continuity that is longer and larger than individuals and indeed institutions. Associations of protection and care still persist. One of the senses of the French tuteur offers a beautiful image for tuition and a metaphor for a university education and for the idea of the university itself (Source: Trésor de la langue française via the CNRTL):


Here is part of Charles Radding’s entry for “University” in Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, ed. William W. Kibbler (New York: Garland, 1995). It is illuminating—or, progressive, idealistic, and futuristic in comparison with current practices—as regards tuition and as regards the university’s responsibility for course materials and the control of their prices:


To the early medieval European university, the very idea of tuition fees is shocking. Beyond shocking. Morally repugnant. Welcome to early anti-capitalist radicalism:


Even when they are introduced, tuition fees are to pay for teaching and they are accompanied by a sophisticated system of financial aid, based on need. The two may work together, in the employment of poor scholars. In 2017’s terms, this is exemplary sustainable innovation, creating and maintaining a stable academic community. Here is some further medieval and other historical radicalism in an extract on “Early tuition fees and financial aid” from Gavin Moodie, Universities, Disruptive Technologies, and Continuity in Higher Education: The Impact of Information Revolutions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016):

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Let’s talk about our elephant in the room.

Here are our university’s current undergraduate tuition fees, mostly listed per credit, from the Academic Calendar; a usual course load is 30 credits per year, so multiply everything accordingly.

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Back to material questions in the here and now, to textbooks and other course materials.

In some areas (ex. beginners’ French), there is no free or very cheap option. A cheap-ish option, such as the materials we are currently using, is a compromise.

Language-learning requires regular practice. This is vital for beginners. It remains true at all stages, for maintenance and for continuation. For example: I spend time every fortnight reading or listening to all the languages with which I work; even just a few minutes reading newspapers online in the morning.

Practice exercises that are marked individually, in the hand-crafted way, take time. With our present class sizes, that marking (alone, without also teaching and doing everything else associated with teaching) would be the equivalent of at least a part-time job (conservative estimate: 20 hours per week). A previous solution was to make such exercises voluntary. That could not be said to have been entirely successful.

Another, our present one in several courses, has been to use self-correcting online exercises instead. This is a compromise; it still often means that students need to talk to their instructor about the exercises, their progression, and sticky points. In an ideal world, I would be able to spend at least an hour a week with every student on their online exercises.

I have over 100 students this term.

You do the maths.

And then think of colleagues teaching classes of hundreds of students, who cannot learn their names or know them.

This is inhuman.

Have we forgotten that 1968 happened? And why?


An interesting example of someone else doing the maths; the use of “staff” here can be ambiguous and that ambiguity has been known to be exploited for statistical and league-table point-scoring. In North America, “staff” = non-academic employees of the university; in the UK (home of the THES), “staff” = either all university employees or just academic staff (= “faculty” in North American usage). In this context, “staff” is intended to mean “academic staff / faculty” (including all kinds and ranks, in apparently non-ironic public equality, from sessionals/adjunct precariat to tenured full professors) and that ratio is supposed to provide an indication of an institution’s attention to, care for, quality of, and investment in teaching: see next images.

Course materials that include online exercises are more expensive than those that do not, because composing and proof-reading and testing out exercises (plus the technical set-up of self-correcting ones) takes time and is work, which costs money.

There are other good cheaper materials … but they do not include exercises like those above, usually only offer exercises that would be corrected in the old-fashioned handicrafted way, and are intended for students learning a language in very different conditions. We could only use these materials if our class sizes were reduced to half what they are now and for twice the number of hours per week (as indeed beginners’ language ought to be, by all professional expert international standards).

If a university cares about its students and their education, wellbeing, and—if we must go there—value for money: invest their fees directly in the front-line academic work of teaching.


I work in the teaching stream of our university’s faculty; as distinct from the research one (and with no paid sabbaticals). I teach three courses per term plus at least one in the summer, coordinate two large courses, and do undergraduate academic advising (there are three of us doing this in French in my department). I am already working full-time; a.k.a. often beyond what outside academia is full time plus maximum legally permitted overtime. There are twenty-four hours in a day, and some of these are of course needed for sleep and suchlike, to maintain functionality and productivity. That is an unfortunate and inescapable fact. I acknowledge that I am privileged in comparison with sessional faculty colleagues; who in other countries are known as adjuncts. You may have read, even in mainstream news, about the tragedies and horrors that they suffer. If you only have a limited quantity of time and energy at your disposal, please stop reading this right now and read about sessional faculty instead, and be angry for and with them, and expend that time and energy doing whatever you can to help them.

I would love to produce my own materials for the large courses I coordinate. (I’ve already done so for other smaller courses; once with an internal grant, several times just as regular standard design and preparation of one-off thematic courses.) In practical terms, I could take the requisite time out to do so at any time, providing advance notice and conditional on the agreement of my department, by taking a term off as unpaid leave. Living off savings and others’ charity, and on thin air.

Our university system set-up also means that I would be able to take a term off and work full-time for a publisher on materials that I could then assign in courses; and retain copyright, make money from royalties, and perhaps generously negotiate a special lower-priced package for our students.

The way our university is set up means, however, that I can’t take a term off (and, for producing a language textbook, one needs rather longer) or be “bought out” of teaching in a way that would permit this extra work to be for the direct benefit of my university and, potentially, for the public good (as distinct from working for someone else, outside, and their interest and benefit and profit).

Internal grant funding in our university doesn’t help to solve the problem: with the main kind of internal funding for which I am eligible to apply, for example, we can hire graduate student research assistants but we can’t ourselves be bought out of teaching, so we just end up with extra para-work: design, planning, Project Management paperwork, training research assistants … before even getting on with doing any work itself. We can also hire consultant staff from a para-academic area of the university, who are irrelevant to this kind of work. (If you know of other options, please do let me know. I would be more than happy to stand corrected, if that results in cheap or free materials for students, produced in humane working conditions.)

The end result remains: faculty doing extra work beyond what is already a full workload, which is neither remunerated nor otherwise recompensed.

That is: labour for which a labourer is not paid.

Who profits from this?

The University, who retain the rights to materials produced using their funding, including the right to sell them (including to our own students), and potentially at the highest price that the market can bear. How is this in students’ interests, or serving the public interest and for the public good, performing “outreach” to our community?

Students benefit, when course materials are cheap or free, which is good … but it is also not good because it detracts from the reasons for their poverty: fees that are too high—especially for a public university—and that go to a hundred and one other things besides an actual university actual education, which means funding teaching and research, libraries, labs, classrooms.

The cost of course materials isn’t the problem. Blaming faculty for their cost doesn’t solve the problem. (Faculty are a problem when they don’t think about costs at all: that is cavalier, arrogant, and unconscionable.) Turning this into a Students Versus Faculty issue is artificially and unnecessarily divisive; we share common ground—not least as together we are the university, being (along with alumni and emeriti) its two constituent parts as its members—and a common foe: the corporatisation and parasitic bloat that drain university resources from the front-line work of learning: teaching and research; and the creation, preservation, expansion, and sharing of knowledge. (Plus allies in other vital support services such as academic departmental adminstration, food, building maintenance, IT systems, student academic advising, counselling, health, and wellbeing.)

The elephant in the room: the problem here is the total expense of being a student at this university; within which, the principal factors are the (unregulated-free-)market-rate university “tuition” fees and the cost of living.


It is an unfortunate truth that some faculty in some fields cannot create open free/cheap materials for students right now. We could, with support from our university.

Could we also encourage our universities to hold multiple copies of set texts in the library? This is how I spent next to nothing on books when a student. It’s been a pretty common system in many places over many centuries. It works. When paired with short-term loans, while painful, it’s also good for concentrated learning. I learned a lot about learning how to learn, and to take notes, from working on books on library reserve and on overnight loan. Plus, this being 2017, it is useful to have more digitised texts on e-reserve through the library. (Our library is very good at helping here, as best they are able, within copyright law.)

So: more support for the library, also as—unlike a bookshop—it’s one of the scholarly pillars of a university as a place of knowledge. Consider the Medieval university model, where a university bookshop is under the control of the university, who control its prices and do so in the interests of students and their wellfare: not to make a profit, if anything the opposite, to subsidise access for all students to course materials.

Adequate access to course materials shouldn’t be “on” students. And it shouldn’t be a matter of equity and diversity. It should be a given: a decent university should help and support students, they are after all members of it and an integral part of it.

Please, people reading this, talk to your university (and ours, if you’re at my institution too) about providing that extra support that faculty need. Do you buy locally-made goods, to contribute to your local community and lower your carbon footprint? Do you drink shade-grown, rainforest-protecting Fair Trade coffee? If so, please consider supporting environment-sustaining, local, fair academic labour.

Please, gentle readers, talk to your university about The S- Word: instead of profiteering, universities should be subsidising their students. If it helps to make it more palatable call it thusly: instead of short-term asset-stripping, universities should engage in long-term investment, community-building, and sustainable development.


Medieval #PeopleNotProfit

Student poverty, wellfare, and wellbeing is an area in which faculty and students should be co-operating. Solidarity is a start. Those of us in the literary humanities and liberal arts can help. Reading, imagination, and empathy are an integral part of our work; those are some of the talents that led us into further specialist training in our fields, and shaped us as skilled experts. We are well placed to understand the pressures that students are under and to try to work with them to find creative constructive critical solutions; going deep into a matter, asking questions, questioning the very bases of what may be too easily perceived as a fixed unchangeable status quo.

That includes standing with our fellow members of the university.

That means listening to students and working with them. Let’s end on another good idea arising from student intelligent questioning, to echo another regular student suggestion: we don’t currently have a fall midterm break and changing that to having one would be good.