Friday, September 01, 2006

So, ads in textbooks would not work?

The New York Times for August 27, 2006 had an article entitled "Words of Wisdom vs. Words from Our Sponsor." The article's author is Randall Stross. As usual, the link will likely go behind the archival wall after a few days, thus the information so you can find it via your local library.

The author argues that the recent scheme by Freeload Press to provide moderately priced textbooks (as in free) using advertisements inside the books would not work. The author mostly argues this on the basis that faculty would simply not accept an inferior book nor would they allow the intrusion of advertisements into the sanctum of the books that they choose for their students. I say it is just a matter of time. Mr. Stross writes,

"Higher education has not been so easy to crack. For the most part, instructors are free to choose whichever textbook they think best suits the needs of their classes, an arrangement that periodically upsets advisory commissions that would like to transplant the one-size-fits-all approach of secondary education to colleges.

Universities will accept gifts from prominent business executives — Stanford students, for example, stand a good chance of guessing who provided the lead gift for the Gates Computer Science Building — and corporate benefactors can expect credit on a plaque for donations of money and equipment. But the core of the university, its intellectual autonomy, is protected by a faculty unbeholden to outside interests.

Textbooks used in the classroom are, like the instructors themselves, extensions of a university’s autonomy and no more likely to be considered an appropriate place for corporate ads than the classroom lectern (or the instructor’s forehead)."

The opening of the paragraph refers to the entrance of Channel One into public schools. I would like to think this over a little while I have some time to freely speculate. For one, Mr. Stross points out that universities receive corporate gifts all the time. You see them in the names of buildings, plaques, memorial halls, etc. I don't think that having the naming rights to a classroom podium is that far off the mark. If we can slap a corporate name on a stadium, I don't really see it as farfetched to put some corporate logo on Professor Smith's podium for his English classes. Even though professors love to proclaim that they are free from corporate interests, I think in many cases we simply have to look at who is funding their research. This would be specially applicable in the sciences where pharmaceutical companies would be one of the many benefactors for researchers on campuses. So, who is not to say that "Professor Jones's CHEM 120 is brought to you by Pfizer"? Just so readers know, I picked the first company that came to mind; if I was typing this at some other time, it could have been something else.Another way to look at this: the many endowed chairs on various universities. When you have the "Mikhail Kalashnikov Professor of Military Science," you know his/her salary and position are paid by whatever foundation or name gives the name to his chair. Yes, I just made that chair up, but for a real example, here is a real one. How farfetched would it be to go from some nice foundation or philanthropist to some corporate endowed chair? I see the day when we have things like The Microsoft Endowed Chair of Computer Science, The Merck Professor of Pharmacy, and the Viagra Scholar for Sexuality Studies. Hey, if Mobil and Exxon can sponsor the arts, why should the other companies not get on the action, so to speak? While we are it, we could treat professors like NASCAR drivers making them wear patches on their blazers or labcoats, or just like golfers who wear those polo shirts with discreet patches and embroidery. Maybe not now, but it may be a matter of time. Hey, if endorsements work for Tiger Woods and Jeff Gordon, then they can certainly work for college faculty, specially the celebrity professors at the high echelon campuses. As for adjuncts, we can probably come up with some blanket deal, say, all the English adjuncts are sponsored by Amazon. As for librarians, I am thinking with all the coffee we drink, that Maxwell House or Folgers may want to place some ads. We use computers, so Microsoft go further (they already have various grants for libraries), but what about Dell, Apple, so on? maybe Baker and Taylor or any other book vendor wants to get in on this too for librarians?

The point is that from there, the point of having endowed chairs and memorial buildings, to textbooks with advertisements is not that far off. We already use a lot of information sources with ads. We read news online that are supported by ads. Google Books is ad-supported as well. So is Salon magazine, which I think is one of the nicer business ideas when compared to the obnoxious registration practices of other online magazines and newspapers. You can subscribe or watch the ad and get the content. If you use some free blogging platform, or any of various online services, they are ad-supported too. The notion that college textbooks are somehow sacred and immune from ads does not seem to hold that much water. Sure, the faculties everywhere may hold the line now, but I honestly wonder if it is only a matter of time before they gradually begin to decide to write books and help make them available with advertisements. It may not happen in my lifetime, but I don't see any reason why it could not happen. Stross also writes,

"Textbooks used in the classroom are, like the instructors themselves, extensions of a university’s autonomy and no more likely to be considered an appropriate place for corporate ads than the classroom lectern (or the instructor’s forehead)."

Even though the article notes that Mr. Stross is a professor at San Jose State U., I have to question the bit about autonomy. How much autonomy do you really have when you name stadiums, buildings, and so on after various corporate and philanthropic benefactors? I am not saying campuses should not take money from these and other charitable sources. I also question the autonomy concept. It may work for the tenured faculty with a lot of ranking, but for the many adjuncts and nontenure track instructors who do most of the work, there is not that much autonomy anyways. I just wonder over time how that would be different from other forms of advertisement, and if not, then how long before we start putting ads on textbooks so they can be made affordable to students. I may sound cynical, but I think about this because I get a large number of students every semester in my campus who come to the library seeking out their textbooks. They pretty much cannot afford to buy the overpriced books that change editions every year because heaven forbid they buy a used book and save a dollar or two. I know; I was graduate student not that long ago. I still get flashbacks and cold sweats in the middle of the nigth from when I had to buy the latest (at the time) AACR2 manual. Now, there is an interesting thought. I wonder what Gorman and the other cataloguing legends would say if we suggested putting some ads, say for Library Journal or a few library vendors, on the AACR2? I can see fits of apoplexy now from such a suggestion. But, I ask, is such an idea really that farfetched?

I should throw in the caveat that I am no fan of advertisement. I happen to think that at times ads are indeed too invasive and intrusive. Having said that, I know that ads make things like my ability to read news on the Internet a bit easier. By the way, no one at this point is suggesting something like "The KFC Manual of Poultry Handling and Food Safety." The ad scheme for the textbooks as proposed by Freeload Press would be unintrusive ads throughout the textbook, like at text breaks and between chapters. At this point, the company reassures you that they will not accept any interference from corporate sponsors (see their FAQ on the website). Very reassuring now, but time will tell.

The main reason the scheme does not seem to be working now is the old problem that a lot of e-books face: people just want to read a book rather than sit at a computer screen. It's the eyestrain issue. Until the technology comes around that makes reading an e-book as easy to read a print book without significant eyestrain, any e-book service is not going to be more than just something to consult. In that case, it does not matter if you read them for free if students actually prefer to buy a hard copy. But that is another question.

A hat tip to The Kept-Up Academic Librarian.

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