Debate emerges over profs’ use of own books

Yale University’s faculty is comprised of some of the most renowned scholars in a virtually every field of academic study. It should come as no surprise, then, that many professors use their own books to teach their classes.

While some students may feel awkward dishing out their dollars for a professor’s book at the request of said professor, others see it as an opportunity to engage with an author and an expert. Professors said they are aware of the potential pitfalls of the situation, but have found assigning their books helpful to students.

Political Science professor Douglas Rae requires his book “City, Urbanism and its End” for a course called “The Future of American Cities.” Rae said that with such a specific topic, it makes sense to use one’s own work.

“As a general rule, it is probably best to use books written by people not teaching a given course, even better by people not at Yale,” Rae said. “On the other hand, when the very specific content of a course coincides very closely with any good book — even one’s own — why not?”

Lauren Yee ’07, a student in history of art professor Vincent Scully’s “Introduction to the History of Art” said she finds it beneficial to read Scully’s “Architecture: the Natural and the Manmade” in the class.

“His thoughts in lecture are reinforced in this book,” Yee said. “It also for him helps to sort of guide where the class is going.”

From a teacher’s standpoint, history professor John Gaddis said after putting so much effort in writing a book, it’s only natural to want to see how it works in a classroom. Gaddis, who teaches the Cold War, uses his book “We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History” in the class.

“If you go through the trouble of sort of writing the book, you’re eager to see how it works with students,” Gaddis said.

While it is helpful for a professor to be very familiar with the material, Gaddis also said there is a danger that the lectures will be redundant.

“Part of the problem is that if you use your own book in class, there’s always the risk that your lectures are just going to repeat what’s in your book,” Gaddis said.

Jason Van Batavia ’05 said he can see a lot of parallels between the lectures and the book, but that Gaddis manages to avoid repetition.

“His teaching style is how he writes his book,” Van Batavia said. “But he expresses a lot of other things through video and the other books.”

Another issue is the financial incentives professors face in assigning their own books. The reality is that professors are in fact receiving royalties for every book that is sold.

Yet there are creative solutions to that problem. In “Journalism,” Steven Brill simply gives his students free copies of his book.

“I just felt kinda funny about asking people to buy something of mine as a part of taking the course,” Brill said.

The text is used only briefly in the class, but Brill said he still felt better about giving the book away rather than selling it.

Gaddis said he, too, has considered this issue.

“The other thing that has concerned me is that I’m making money off of the students,” Gaddis said. “What I normally do on that is take whatever I make on the book and give it to some charity.”

Last year, Gaddis gave his profits to the Hillhouse Scholars, a local effort organized by Yale students to help New Haven public school students.

And some students are not bothered by the thought supplementing their professor’s income.

“I’ve heard people complain, but honestly, it doesn’t really bother me, because I can’t imagine they’re making that much per book,” Maren Ludwig ’05 said.

For Tomas Garcia ’05, a student in Rae’s class, the bottom line is that the professors are part of the appeal of coming to Yale.

“Part of the reason you come to a school like this is the authorities are here,” Garcia said. “I could see how it could not look so good, but if you’re the authority on the topic, whose material could be better?”

John Gaddis’ books, which are assigned reading for his Cold War course, are for sale at Book Haven. Gaddis is eager to test his work in the classroom, but he donates the profits from sales to his students to local charities.
Daniel Yao
John Gaddis’ books, which are assigned reading for his Cold War course, are for sale at Book Haven. Gaddis is eager to test his work in the classroom, but he donates the profits from sales to his students to local charities.

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