Textbook prices a burden students should not have to bear

    These days, shopping for freshman science and engineering textbooks at the bookstore seems more akin to a trip to Costco rather than a jaunt to the corner market. Introductory textbooks for chemistry, calculus and biology seem laden with all sorts of extraneous materials ­ CD-ROMs, answer keys and workbooks.

    While this writer really cannot call himself an expert ‹ or even well-versed ‹ in pedantic methods, a lot of the extra textbook bundles seem more like a way to drain money out of students cowed into believing their education will be compromised unless they accede to spending upwards of $400 a quarter.

    With student fees again heading upwards if the Gubenator gets his way, and less of that money directed back into student financial aid, the rather excessive premiums on education that textbooks accrue are looking even more egregious.

    What alternatives are there for the cost-conscious science or engineering student? While this writer has largely avoided solution manuals and CD-ROMs if at all possible, that may not necessarily suit everyone. Another strategy is to avoid the bookstore entirely for introductory or popular courses and head to the General Store’s quarterly book sale, where a frugal student can accrue around $10 savings a book if he or she is lucky.

    Often, one can find required textbooks cheaper online ‹although this writer has heard from bookstore employees that it is policy to refuse to disclose ISBN numbers for textbooks over the phone, which would enable students to shop online for books even if they were out of San Diego for winter or summer breaks. (Insert your worshiped deity here) forbid the bookstore actually serve students by helping them find cheaper textbooks when it instead could force them to come down to the store in the vain hopes of making a quick buck.

    The astute upper-division student recognizes, however, that in many of her classes the textbook might very well see little to no use as the professor ambles off on his merry way through material presented entirely through lectures, supplementary notes provided on the Web, and class assignments, which render the book useless.

    No doubt many an astute (or sometimes lazy) political science or history major has oft figured out that Œrequired’ reading turns out to count for only one question on the final exam, and often the main points and criticisms of Œkey’ texts are distilled into CliffsNotes’ format during lecture anyway.

    This brings us back to the question of why undergraduates are forced to play a crapshoot every quarter when buying books. While there is a survey question on C.A.P.E. that asks, “”Was the required reading useful?”” one wonders whether the question should actually read “”Is the book worth buying given the way this professor teaches?””

    Hopefully, one of the myriad online community sites springing up to cover UCSD classes will choose to incorporate this valid question into its course analysis.

    Furthermore, while we can debate on the significance of the 1972 presidential election, and a particular author’s view on that election’s effect on subsequent American politics may not be gleaned anywhere except from copyrighted material, one would hope that the topics of introductory chemistry is a bit more unanimous and much less proprietary.

    It seems there should be no reason why introductory science classes across the country should not move toward free online textbook projects that all major universities can contribute to, offer a variety of voices, are constantly updated, and best of all, are completely free. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has a nascent online project on the way (although it is unfortunately devoid of any useful material at the moment). MIT, on the other hand, has dedicated itself to posting course notes and online books for all of their courses online, free for use without registration, in their OpenCourseWare project, at http://ocw.mit.edu.

    The notes are available for a wide variety of classes from introductory calculus to advanced quantum mechanics, and it would behoove students who are confused by substandard, expensive textbooks to consult this alternate source of reading material. While MIT promises to be no less confusing, seeing which concepts are similar and thus core to the issue at hand always is a benefit to this writer when confronted by perplexing coursework.

    While the middle of budget cuts might not be the best of times to launch a university-wide initiative to craft textbooks for use across all elementary science and engineering classes, one wonders what the results would be if professors and motivated students from all the UC campuses were given the opportunity to freely contribute and collaborate on introductory physics, calculus, and chemistry online textbooks, complete with alternate versions from different pedagogical methods.

    At the very least, there are already dozens of class notes posted online in departmental servers and on online class reserves. The library should be making a forward effort to get URLs from professors so they can archive notes on their own servers, and move toward making the noncopyrighted and sapient materials on online course reserves available for public (or at least student) use in any quarter, even years after the original class.

    One might argue that open-source problem sets are not the best way to assign graded homework, but on the other hand, that might be a niche market that textbook marketers can exploit.

    Why not limit textbook makers to the only place where information needs to be guarded and not free?

    hile dropping by a teeming freshman lecture class earlier today, this writer stumbled upon a CalPIRG representative taking up the first few minutes of lecture by describing their cause in passing, talking about course credit opportunities through volunteering and passing out cards to return if students were interested in participating.

    While CalPIRG no doubt performs a myriad of worthy volunteer tasks, they are undoubtedly a political lobbying group. Is it really that appropriate for lecturers and professors ‹ regardless of the subject material at hand ‹ to allow any activist group campaign for members during lecture time?

    Maybe it helps the educational process to get students involved in their community or even in some kind of political action. But on the other hand, how palatable would it be if the members of the California Review were allowed a few minutes at the start of Math 20B to ask for members of the class to join in a rally later that day at Price Center for the war in Iraq and against gay marriage?

    Different situations perhaps. But all that different? Not really.

    hile this columnist usually avoids writing about sports, he does write to take a passing shot at Rush Limbaugh.

    After Donovan McNabb set a postseason rushing record for a quarterback in last week’s NFL playoff game pitting Philadelphia against Green Bay, the Fredriksburg Free-Lance Star aptly commented, “”A while back, Rush Limbaugh volcanically opined that Philly’s success was due to its defense and that Donovan McNabb was Œoverrated’ because of his race (he is black). It’s very clear just now how we should rate Mr. McNabb’s skill as a quarterback and Mr. Limbaugh’s as a sports analyst.””

    It is perhaps worthwhile to point out in Mr. Limbaugh’s defense, that he was possibly not in his right mind at the time.

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