Your friendly local bookseller: Get to know him (or her). (Image: National Archives)
Four weeks into this semester, I received the following email from a student:
“Dear Dr. Patton,
My textbook hasn’t arrived yet. Can you scan a copy of the first chapter and bring it to class on Friday? Thank you and have a nice day.”
This is what I wanted to say in response:
Would you like me to wake you up, cook you scrambled eggs and grits, lay out your clothes, and drive you to class? What time shall I show up? That’s about what your request amounts to. I’m here to teach you—not to shoulder the responsibility for what you should have done on the first day of class, when I handed out the syllabus.”
After talking with a few of my professor friends, and reading scores of similar complaints in The Chronicle’s forums, I discovered this is a recurring issue: Really, it’s not uncommon for students to show up to class without their textbooks and then, weeks into the course, ask their professors to solve that problem. Some professors say their students complain about the rising costs of textbooks, while others chalk it up to laziness.
Many professors say they walk a fine line: They want to be sensitive to the economic straits in which many students find themselves, but they also want to make the reasonable demand that students act like responsible adults.
“I do what I can to make materials available during the first couple weeks when students are waiting on financial aid, paychecks, etc.,” said a poster in one of the Chronicle forums. “After that, they need their own copies of the materials.”
Elsewhere in the forums, you’ll see complaints that students have their priorities mixed up—that they drive nice cars or show up to class with fancy electronic gadgets, but “don’t want to give up some of their luxuries for books,” as one poster put it.
And you’ll find some psychological interpretation as well. Another forum participant offered an explanation: Too many students seem helpless or entitled. “So little effort has to go into their lives—remote controls, drive thru, download the music on the phone vs. having to go to the store for it, the poster said. “What's remarkable is that they have crummy search skills for anything except pizza, music, and porn.”
Whether you buy that or not, you can’t exactly share the opinion with a student. So I decided to ask a handful of professors to craft responses: Let’s say you get a note from a student who writes you, weeks into the semester, to say he or she doesn’t have the textbook. How would you write back? (As with last week’s submissions: Some of these will be helpful; others will just be cathartic.)
associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies
Washington State University
Sorry for the delay of my reply. I was busy checking my calendar trying to verify that it is, in fact, eight weeks into the semester (and two days before the midterm) that I am receiving your email letting me know that you still haven’t gotten the course texts, and asking me what you should do about the reading. What, indeed. Well, let’s see. There are a lot of options:
If you’re religious, you can pray.
If you’re magical, you can cast an enchantment.
If you’re a free spirit, you can stop waiting for the storm to pass and learn to dance in the rain, or whatever.
If you’re a fatalist, you can just resign yourself to being a barista forever.
If you’re clueless, you can write to your professor and ask what you can do about the reading.
Oh wait, that’s what you did. Okay. Great. The first step is admitting you have a problem. And make no mistake, you have a problem. Emphasis on you having the problem. It is an interesting question you pose. I mean, not so much for the inquiry itself, which is ridiculous, but for the belief behind it that I can actually do something for you.
Look, if there were a legitimate reason why you couldn’t get the books—i.e. you didn’t get your financial aid check yet, the library’s copy is checked out, the campus bookstore was turned into a Pinkberry (which would be great, by the way), or the Amazon drone collided with the Google Earth satellite leaving the industrial world to rely solely on Buzzfeed and HuffPo for its intellectual reading—then: 1. You would have come to me earlier, and 2. I probably would have tried to help you out. But since I’m only hearing about this now, midway through the term, after hundreds of pages of assigned reading, and right before an exam, the answer to your question is that you can do exactly what you’ve been doing: nothing. There’s nothing you can do about the reading. That ship has not only sailed, it’s already back from its cruise of the South Pacific. Even if there were some way to get the reading to you (which there isn’t), do you really think you can finish eight weeks’ worth of reading in two days? Please. Let’s be honest. You really wouldn’t have done much more of the reading than you have now if you actually had the books.
Let me just leave you with this reminder for the last half of the term: You’re an adult. You can make your own choices. If you choose not to get the books, that’s your choice, not my problem. See the difference? I’m not your babysitter, maid, personal assistant, life coach, or parent. I’m not here to make everything work out for you. I’m your professor. I’m here to introduce you to ideas. Here are three: 1. Take responsibility for your decisions. 2. Get the books for the course. 3. Gimme a break.
Reading is fundamental
Danielle L. McGuire
associate professor of history
Wayne State University
I realize it can be difficult to get all the materials you need for class. Books cost a lot these days, and time is hard to come by, especially when there are so many pressing social obligations to attend to. And textbooks, especially, are super expensive. That is why I generally do not assign them.
Fear not, dear student. If you have not yet purchased the required books for the course, you can still do the reading! In fact, there's an app for that!
Use the iPhone or Google Maps app to locate the nearest library. If it's the college library, you'll be able to find the books I placed on reserve so that even if you didn't (or couldn't) buy the books, you would still be able to access them. As mentioned in the syllabus, you can only check out books on reserve for three hours. Since it's midway through the semester, you'll have to read fast or go more than once. If you want to bring the book home with you—or to your next fraternity event—you could get it from your local library (Maps app again!). The amazing thing is that libraries let you have books for free! So there really should be no excuse.
If you can't be bothered to go to the library you could ask a friend in class to make copies of their book. This will likely cost more time and money than actually buying or borrowing the book, but it's an option that at this late stage you may need to consider.
I hope this helps! Next time you might try signing up for a free six-month trial of the Amazon Prime Student account. You'll be able to get your books delivered within two days and pay less than the campus bookstore charges.
Or you might want to take a class that does not require you to do any reading.
All my best,
Takiyah Nur Amin
assistant professor of dance
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
I hope all is well with you. Please note the following.
First, my insanely well-organized, color-coded syllabus makes it clear that the textbooks are required for this course. I am unsure if you thought the word "required" did not mean you but I assure you that the term applies to everyone who is in my class—especially if you are here after the drop/add period.
Second, I have stated in class each week that if you do not have the book because cost is prohibitive that you should make it a point to see me in office hours or make an appointment to discuss the issue. Now here we are at Week Eight and you ain't so much as sent me an email until now. That is so ratchet.
I should be honest that it was clear to me that you were not doing the readings based on your lackluster performance during in class discussions, online groups and assigned papers. When I sent you that alert at the end of Week Four to see me because you weren't doing well, you ignored it. Now you want me to tell you what to do about the readings and we are halfway through the semester. Sigh.
All I can do at this point is encourage you to (a) secure the materials that were required since Day One, (b) see if you can work with another student in class to secure the materials, (c) contact the library to see if they can find you a copy of the text or (d) encourage you to see your academic advisor and consider withdrawing from the class. The last option is not because I don't want you here—it is because I am sure that without completing the course readings you will not pass this class.
For real, you should have come to see me well before now and something could have been worked out. Now you are a day late and several dollars short. Poor planning on your part cannot constitute an emergency on my part.
associate professor of film and media arts
Southern Methodist University
Thanks for the note!
I have contacted the University Bookstore, and they have returned all unsold copies of the assigned books to their distributor. I would recommend that you order copies of the assigned readings as e-books as soon as possible and make sure that you have all of the assigned reading done before the midterm exam next week.
As we discussed on the first day of class, our meetings do not consist of my reiterating the material from the assigned readings “that will be on the test.” Here at the university level, the students are co-creators of the learning environment, and readings are the springboard for more in-depth discussions of ideas engaged by the course. There is a wealth of material in the assigned readings that we will not discuss in class but for which students are responsible on exams, class reports and presentations, and the final paper assignment.
The spoon-feeding of information to passive students to prepare them for a pre-written test is a process that ends in high school. I was therefore quite astonished at your request that I email you copies of PowerPoint presentations for days that you missed as if this would obviate your need to either do the readings or attend class. This I cannot do, because that reduces students to a level of passivity even beneath the conscious and deliberate act of swallowing into the utter helplessness of receiving a suppository.
humorist and independent scholar
While Bitcoin has bitten the dust, I believe the Federal Reserve system still functions. As they continue to issue legal U.S. tender, it can be used to satisfy all debts, public and private. And from many of these legal tenders, you can purchase one book, you know, like, E Pluribus Unum.
But it appears that you may have a moral objection to perpetuating the capitalistic system by engaging in the purchase of ideas, and therefore reject this oppression of the one-percent nation. The struggle is real, and since I want to keep it 100 with you, I urge you to keep fighting the power. However, since I am actually “the power” in this scenario, maybe fighting me is not the best option.
So, as you are lacking money, power, and apparently common sense, I will take your inquiry under advisement and render an opinion after finals.
Until then, keep it real.
professor of Africana studies and American studies
I have mixed feelings about your confession.
Over the course of nearly fifteen years of teaching, I've had students tell me, with all sincerity, that they actually can't afford the books. These might be first-generation students or working class students. They might be students who wait as long as they can to buy the books for the class because they are hoping to get them cheap, or because they can't afford to shell out one lump sum at the start of the semester. More than once, I've caught this particular genre of student trying to bluff their way through something, acting like they read a required text, and have found myself paralyzed when I realized that they really, honestly, and materially cannot afford the book.
They don't approach me casually or offhandedly, as you did. They approach me, instead, with some small degree of shame and embarrassment. And sometimes with a little moral outrage, a reflection of their acute displeasure when confronted with the political economy of higher education. In these rare and difficult cases, I usually buy them the books myself, or give them exam copies (if I have them) for free.
This is not your story. Your elevated status is inscribed on you in so many ways. Go buy the book. Take it home and read it. You have no excuses. And while you're at the bookstore, buy two. I'll make sure the second copy gets to someone who truly can't shell out what it costs.
associate professor of history
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
I totally understand your situation. Just last week I realized that I hadn’t prepared any lecture notes for this semester. I’ve been super busy and my printer ran out of toner, so I’ve been kind of winging it for the past six weeks. Crazy!
Anyway, you know that big brick building in the middle of campus, just off the main quad next to the duck pond? It’s the library. Actually, I think it may even be called Main Campus Library. If you go inside and walk past the comfy armchairs, computer stations, and coffee cart, you will see a sign for the “Reserved Reading Room.” You can get a copy of the textbook there. You have to ask for it at the check-out desk, and you’ll have to read it in the library, but it’s free! Hey, in case you accidentally delete this email, all of this information is on Page 2 of the syllabus and also on the course website under the heading “Textbooks.”
Oh, and before you ask: Yes, you do have to read all of the assigned chapters. And, yes, that material will be on the exam.
Hope you can make it to class on Monday.
professor of African-American studies and history
Those who do not do the readings have a history of performing very poorly in my courses. However, all is not lost. I suggest you identify another student in the course who takes extensive notes on the readings and engage in a program of barter or exchange of services to gain access to them. Perhaps you are a gourmet chef; a skilled hair cutter; or a certified instructor in the martial arts. Why don't you offer to put those skills at their disposal in exchange for notes on the readings? However, you might also begin offering those same services for cash so you can afford to purchase the course readings.
If you do not pursue either of those options, I suggest you drop the course, as the grade you are likely to receive will do severe damage to your GPA and your prospects of future employment!
assistant professor of English
Ball State University
My, that is a dilemma. It’s funny how we English teachers just keep on assigning those pesky books. You know, I could really let you have it. I mean, I could give you a rhetorical dressing down, but for some reason, I’m feeling sentimental today, so I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I’m going to assume that the reason you don’t have your books is because of finances. And that’s terrible, because trust me, I know what it is like to be a poor, starving college student. I know what it is like to fight to get to college, and to defy all of the odds. I know what it is like to struggle and struggle and then struggle some more, never seeming to catch a break. I get it. I understand, truly I do.
So, from one former, poor, starving college student to another, I have some simple, caring, nurturing advice for you: GET THE BOOKS ANYWAY. Good grief. Your generation has access to more online crap than the government back in my day. FIND THE BOOKS. GOOGLE the books. Surely, if you can use online technology to track the every movement of the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, and Iggy Azalea, you can find free or almost-free copies of these books online. Or at the very least, you can find one other person on this planet who has them for a really cheap price. Or, if not that, surely you have one friend who has taken my class before or knows someone who has and maybe, just maybe, they have copies of the books and will loan them to you.
Heck, here’s a novel idea, why don’t you go to the library and see if they have copies. You know, that place where everybody goes for expressos and free wi-fi. Try interlibrary loan. You’ve heard of that, right? No? No, because you skipped library orientation, didn’t you? Or how about come by my office during my office hours and read before class, or how about you take the initiative and ask three or four other poor, struggling students in the class to divide the cost of the books and you all share them? HOW ABOUT YOU USE YOUR BRAIN CELLS and figure it out? Meanwhile, I’m off to the library because I truly need an expresso right about.
You Are The Reason I Have Nervous Twitches
Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts
adjunct professor of English and writing
Rosemont College, Philadelphia University, and the Community College of Philadelphia
*long blank stare*
So let me get this straight: We are 7.5 weeks into a 15-week semester. Our class meets on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6 p.m.—every single week. My office hours are on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5 p.m.—every single week. My email address is email@example.com and has been for … the last 10 years. And you are just now telling me that you don’t have the textbook and want to know what you should do about the readings. Am I clear?
Okay, humor me for a second. Let’s take a journey back in time. Back to when you were, let’s say, five or six years old. Do you remember how dumbfounded and confused you were when your mother randomly popped into your room while you were playing with your Legos or Barbies or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and said, “Son/Daughter, I never bought any groceries. What should we do for dinner?”
Wait … what? That never happened?
Well, in that case, I suppose you should do whatever you did for the first eight readings we’ve already completed.
Good luck with that.
Dumbfounded and Confused
P.S. Them Jordan 11s are nice though.