Friday, 14 October 2011

The Good Old Days

My students are reluctant to buy their textbooks.

"Too expensive!" they wail. And yes, £20 might seem a lot to pay for a book if I didn't know how much had gone into writing it -- the years of close collaboration, the research, the thought. I tell my students about the textbook authors I've met, how hard they work, how little they profit from their labors. Unfortunately, my students are not sympathetic.

When I mention the students' reluctance to buy textbooks to my colleagues, they are not sympathetic either. One of them tells me about a Chinese student in London who illegally photocopied all of her textbooks to save money, adding "It wouldn't have bothered me so much if she hadn't come to class with a Ralph Lauren handbag."

It may be a mark of advancing age that I compare these kids to their parents and find them lacking. Over twenty years ago, I knew their parents' generation, and what a contrast. They were leaner, more intense, and tougher in every way, but more than anything else, they valued books. I know I shouldn't make the comparisons I'm making, and I know that I'm comparing apples with oranges. The overseas Chinese students I knew in the eighties were not just a whole different generation, they were the cream of the cream. Few Chinese students were allowed to study abroad back then, and those who did were generally hand-picked or had won scholarships, having competed with thousands to get them. When they got to Japan, the first thing they did was buy books. They couldn't get over the fact that nothing was censored, and they were staggered by the variety. With the internet just a glimmer in the horizon, you had to get your books the old-fashioned way back then: already published and printed for you.

When I was teaching in northern Japan, I remember two Chinese acquaintances looking around my tiny apartment. "You have many books," they sighed happily. They didn't care that I wasn't wearing designer clothes, that my television was fresh off the junk heap -- or that my books were stacked in piles on the floor and my one small table because I didn't have a bookcase to put them in. The main point was, I had the books: I was rich.

While I appreciate much about China's economic growth, I miss those days. I miss those earnest, make-do-or-do-without bookaholics who burned their candles at both ends. I miss the days when books were precious items you saved up to buy; when you hoarded them, discussed them, and read them over and over. When you wrote your name in them -- neatly, carefully -- only loaning them to friends you could trust to handle them gently. When your wealth was not measured by how fancy your clothes or electronic gadgets were, but how many books you had.

"I don't want other people's things," one girl sniffed when I told her where she could find used books. "I want new things." She has a shiny new mobile phone that looks like it does everything but housework. If I could afford her shoes, I'd treat myself to a whirlwind thrift shop blitz. In my mind's eye, I line this girl up with Yingying, a literature student I knew back in the eighties. Yingying was bilingual in Chinese and Japanese; she could talk knowledgably about modern Japanese writers and the works of Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck. She had a good collection of much-loved books. And she never turned up her nose at used things: she competed with the other foreign students (and me) for good junk heap finds and combed used furniture stores for bargains. Compared to my spoiled princess of a student, Yingying won hands down.

I was wallowing in similar good-old-day musings when one of my students approached me before class the other day. "Teacher," she said, pulling a book out of her bag and putting it on my desk. "I buy used, Amazon." She patted it proudly. "Grammar book too. Almost new, and cheap."

I watched as the other students admired her find, pulling out their mobile phones to record the ISBN of the grammar book. This generation may be vastly different, but a bargain is still a bargain.


Kit said...

And here I was grumbling about the cost of buying my son's textbooks for school... except that they no longer seem to be text books - they are mostly workbooks, which means they can't be bought second hand or kept for the next child. they are also designed one for each year, subject by subject. The good old days I remember had text books we hung on to year after year... sigh!

Charles Gramlich said...

I have plenty of students who won't get the textbook and as a result make "Ds" and "Cs" when they could have had "Bs." But they make a choice, and it's not like most of them are choosing between buying a textbook and eating. they're choosing to have a cell phone with all the bells and whistles and no textbook

Ruth Schiffmann said...

My two daughters in college come home with stories about how many of their classmates don't buy the textbooks. It makes no sense to us. You're paying all that money for tuition; don't you want to do the best you can possibly do? I don't understand the rationale behind trying to get by without the accompanying text. Plus there are so many options out there - between ebay, Amazon, and now all of the book renting options. I guess it's the same lowered standards we see in the workplace -where kids just want to "get by" with no ambition to excel.

Vijaya said...

I have balked at the cost of my children's textbooks and workbooks ... but we bought them anyway. Many were used. I always scan the copyright page and list of credits -- these are the workhorses, people like me.

Pet peeve: when teachers photocopy workbooks or large chunks of textbooks for their students. They don't realize they steal from textbook companies and writers (like me).

M Pax said...

From being a student, text books add up so quick. I did refuse to buy one because it was so much more expensive than the norm and there was no used option. Some just can't afford it.

Mirka Breen said...

DS also discovered Amazon/used in a hurry, when a single textbook for an advanced (and admittedly) esoteric math course was offered new for {{{gulp}}} $450. He was fortunate that the professor did not insist on a new edition. Used price was under a hundred dollars.

But don’t get me started on the text book industry. That’s not what your post is about.

I enjoyed reading about the difference between this generation of students and their parents, Mary.

Mary Witzl said...

Kit -- A few of my students refuse to write in their notebooks in pen. They use pencil instead and erase the marks afterwards so they can resell the books. These are kids after my own heart.

But yes, I miss the textbooks too. They were always a big help when you wanted to refresh your memory.

Charles -- I had a couple of boys a few terms back who insisted on sharing their textbook. They both failed the course, and although in their case, they'd probably have failed even with the book, they would at least have gained something. It's nonsense that kids will pony up for a fancy phone but not for a textbook. Plenty of hard work go into making both products.

InLuv -- So it's not just the kids I teach!

I don't get this rationale either, and it makes me feel so OLD. When I was at university, I'd have given my eyeteeth for something like Amazon or ebay. And new or used, I almost always bought the book if I knew I really needed it.

Vijaya -- I agree. It's illegal to copy big chunks of text, and it's a headache to do it too, and a waste of paper. Most of the time, you can get used books for a reasonable price, so why go to all the trouble of Xeroxing when you can have a properly bound, legal text that isn't an embarrassment to carry around?

MPax -- One of my professors had EIGHT textbooks on our book list. I rushed off to the library after the first class, but the two copies of the most expensive one had already been checked out. I confess that I borrowed a copy from a friend and Xeroxed the relevant five pages. But I got all the others, used.

Mirka -- FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS? I'd have fainted! Were the bindings gold-plated? Was the book beautifully illustrated, filled with the Wisdom of the Ages and guaranteed to change your life in a good way forever and ever? If not, no way would I have forked out that kind of money for a MATH book! (shiver)

If any of my students whine about paying £20 for an EFL textbook, I'll tell them about your son's $450 math book, you can bet.

Lisa Shafer said...

Maybe it's just the Chinese students who are different now that capitalism is a good deal more functional in their country. Personally, I find that my students now would still rather buy clothes or "toys" (then it was video games, now it's phones) than books, just like their parents that I taught 20 years ago. However, there are always exceptions, and many kids still want books.
When I enter someone's home, I can't help myself; I check for two things: do they have art on the walls (even just good prints)? and do they have books (of any sort, really) on the shelves? It's a common thing in Utah to have only family photos and religious prints (Mormon temples and pics of leaders) on the walls, but no art -- not even cheap calendars or Thomas Kincade or other Hallmark-y stuff. But some folks do have books on their shelves-- and I immediately check out the titles.

Your story about students buying grammar books on Amazon warms my heart. I'm a grammar nut. :)

Arlee Bird said...

Back when I was in college in the early 70s--"the good old days"--textbooks were rarely over $20 and I tried to find the used ones for much less whenever I can. On the budget that most students have they are always looking for ways to save money. It all gets pretty expensive.

Tossing It Out

Linnhe Mara said...

I discovered something very odd this week. I ordered some books on Ebay for the writing class currently running in Moffat. The reading list was quite comprehensive and I thought I would save myself some money by getting them second hand ( I know fiction is nowhere near as expensive as text books but a bargain is a bargain regardless of genre )
The thing I discovered is that while I'm happy to wear second hand clothes, use charity shop find furniture and fill my house with junk shop bric-a-brac I don't think I'll ever get used to buying used books. They don't smell or sound right. I'll do without new shoes, bags, clothes or technology, but give me a new book any day.

MG Higgins said...

Textbooks were always provided free of charge when I was in elementary and high school. (It was a rare treat to get a brand new book, since they were usually very well used.) As a community college counselor, I empathized with my scholarship students who paid more for textbooks than tuition. It really would be wonderful if books were more valued--there are so many "things" competing for kids' dollars these days, including computers and cell phones.

Marcia said...

Wow, I didn't realize how many kids aren't buying the textbooks. Two of my kids finished college just a year ago and it was never a question with either of them: Of course they bought the books. If you aren't buying the books, you might as well save your $ on tuition, too, because you're throwing it away. To us, when it comes to the texts, you bite the bullet and get them, although used if possible. BUT I'd yell about a $450 book.

Pat said...

I bless Amazon and buy lots of books from than including second hand. Two have just arrived.

Bish Denham said...

A book is a book is a book. Used or new I love them all. Thank heavens for libraries and Amazon.

I haven't had to buy a text book in a gazillion years. I can only imagine how much they cost these days.

Falak said...

I still save up money to buy books and prefer them any day over ebooks and pdf downlaods. There's a shelf full of used text books in my house that my brother and I used in school. My mom has kept them for my cousins who occasionally find them useful.

There's still hope Mary. :)

Unknown said...

I remember being taught to treasure books and to treat them with respect and care. I still love books.

I guess I-pads are the shelves filled with books galore. But I love the old fashioned kind. With pages and what not.