When they put together syllabi for their courses, many of Yale’s most esteemed professors are stuck between a book and a hard place. These professors have authored works in their respective fields that are widely known for their merit as scholarly works, but the question of whether or not they should assign these books for their courses is still highly debated among students and faculty alike.
Some students said they think assigning one’s own book can be presumptuous, as well as raise ethical issues surrounding the royalties that are made as a result. On the other hand, some students said they are thrilled with the idea of reading their professors’ works, and that they come to a university like Yale precisely for that purpose. Many professors who do choose to assign their own books said they do so not only because they best cover the material in the course but also because they convey the courses’ themes better than other books in their field.
Yale’s administration does not play a significant role in regulating the reading that professors assign to their students. Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said that while the Course of Study committee looks at the structure, workload and level of a course, and assigns it to a distributional group, it does not oversee the syllabus.
“The tradition of academic freedom with respect to teaching very much places the responsibility for all aspects of a course’s content on the professor who teaches it,” Salovey said.
Yale professors themselves offered a variety of explanations on their methods of constructing a reading list for a given class.
Political science professor Ian Shapiro, who teaches the popular class “The Moral Foundations of Politics”, said he assigns his own book, “The Moral Foundations of Politics”, because it best conveys the material to the students.
“It just depends on the course,” he said. “With undergraduates, if the reading is relevant, it should be on the list.”
Economics professor Ray Fair said that though the decision to assign his own book to his “Introductory Macroeconomics” class was a difficult one, in the end, he assigns the book for the benefit of the students.
“There’s always a trade-off, as we learn in economics,” Fair said, “The minus is that I could assign some other book for more variety, but the plus is that if people get confused in lecture, if the book is similar it can be a complement.”
Ben Solarz ’09, who is in Fair’s macroeconomics class this semester, said he also thinks the issue has two sides.
“One of the drawbacks is that you don’t get two perspectives, which you normally would with another textbook,” he said. “On the other hand, as long as the professor is aware of this inherent drawback and makes an effort to bring things out that aren’t in the textbook, he can complement the material with more in-depth information.”
Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who uses his book “Normative Ethics” for his seminar of the same name, said using the book helped eliminate the time he formerly used to provide his own interpretation of the reading for his students.
“One-third or a half of the class was spent on my laying out my take on how that week’s subject should be understood, which is what a class expects from a teacher,” he said. “The reason for [assigning my own book] is that it freed up a lot of class time. Students could read, come to class and get going on discussion.”
Catherine Vaughn GRD ’07, a teaching assistant for history professor Paul Kennedy’s class “International Ideas and Institutions: Contemporary Challenges,” said she thinks having students read his book “Preparing for the 21st Century” makes the lectures and other readings much more comprehensible.
“I actually think professor Kennedy’s book is really useful in this class,” she said in an e-mail. “He assigns articles from a wide variety of academic and current-events sources, but the book pulls all the themes together in a way that’s comprehensive and manageable.”
Xan White ’09, who is currently taking Kennedy’s international studies class, said he agreed that the book compliments the rest of the course’s material well.
“If the professors are good at what they do, then there’s really no problem in assigning their own books,” he said.
Kennedy also said he would not have been opposed to putting his other book, New York Times best seller “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” on a syllabus because it contains 35 statistical tables which he said took him “ages” to research and which cannot be found in any other source.
Kennedy said that in the past, he wrote books after teaching a class on the subject for many years, using his lecture notes as a guide, but after he wrote it, he would stop teaching the class and move on to something else.
“When you write the bloody thing, it’s boring, and you don’t want to teach it if it’s boring,” he said.
Most of the time, professors said the royalties they receive on books they teach in their courses are negligible. Books that are sold in paperback form generate little profit, and so many books are now sold secondhand that professors said they do not expect a financial gain from assigning their own books.
Shapiro, who donates his profits from textbooks used in his courses to charity, said that although the issue of royalties was indeed a troublesome one, it was not a reason not to assign a book.
Ben Siegel ’07, a history major, said he thinks royalties should not be the primary focus of this matter.
“If they’ve written a quality book, it’s accessible to the students and the professor has made the judgment call [to assign it], I don’t think it’s inappropriate at all,” Siegel said.
Salovey said the most important issue is to ensure that every book placed on the list is done so for good reason.
“I don’t think there’s an ethical problem if the book is being assigned because it is the best and most appropriate reading assignment,” he said.