Buying Professor's Book for Class Questioned

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As some of the top academics in their fields, UC Berkeley professors may assign books they have written to their classes. While this allows them to instruct students based on material they know, for some students and professors the practice seems questionable.

Certain professors said they refuse to assign books they have published because of what they see as a conflict of interest, but others cite their expertise in their field of research as the basis for their rationale.

English professor Lyn Hejinian said she refuses to assign books she published and provides free copies to students to avoid any conflict of interest.

For computer science professor David Patterson, who assigns his own textbooks to students, textbook writing is not about the money.

"Why abandon an award-winning textbook to use what I believe to be an inferior textbook?" he said in an e-mail. "The flaw in this line of argument is the belief that textbooks are equally good. They aren't."

Authors receive about 11.7 cents of every dollar spent on their textbooks,

according to a 2008 National Association of College Stores fact sheet. The majority of funds go to publishing and marketing costs-47.6 cents of every dollar. If a textbook costs $100 and there are 50 students in a class, a professor would receive about $585 per class.

Even so, for about 20 years Patterson said he has only kept a portion of the profits generated from the books he sells to UC Berkeley students. He said he uses the rest of the money to take his class out for pizza and drinks once or twice a semester. Patterson said he sees it as a way to get to know his students and to reward them for using his book.

Patterson also said his work is an artistic endeavor, and while he has co-authored five books, only two have been commercially successful.

Some students, however, feel their professors should not profit from assigning their textbooks to their classes.

"It seems like a good scam to get some money," said junior Sebastian Dionisio, a nuclear engineering major. "There's the aspect of making some extra change on top of teaching the class."

However, physics professor Richard Muller, who teaches the popular course, "Physics for Future Presidents," on which he based his book, said he disagrees with the idea.

"I think a lot of students don't appreciate how difficult it is to write a book and how little pay (authors) get," he said.

Muller said his book, "Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines," was the only one of its kind when he first published it. He said he wrote it to give students relevant reading content and to encourage other universities to teach the course.

Some students said they still question whether they will be exposed to different perspectives if their only readings are written by their own professors.

"They're teaching the class; you're going to get their opinion no matter what," said junior Angela Entzel, a conservation and resource studies major. "But I do think they should include other authors on their reading list that possibly oppose their interpretation."

Other students said as long as it is a quality publication, they do not mind whose name is on the title page.

"I don't have a problem with it if it's a good book and teaches the material," said freshman, Bobby Shane.


Contact Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato at [email protected]

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