While many classes at the University of Rhode Island require students to purchase a textbook, only a select few of those are written by the professors actually teaching the course. Whether or not it’s morally correct for professors to profit from both teaching at the university and requiring their own textbooks, however, is debated by both students and professors alike.
Religious studies professor Fritz Wenisch is one of many educators at the University of Rhode Island who has written and assigned his own textbook to his students, but he believes that students benefit from the text more than he does.
For students who view professors assigning their own textbooks as a conflict of interest, Wenisch said he could understand where students were coming from.
“There is something to that argument,” Wenisch said. “But on the other hand, because I teach according to my own outline of the course [and] determine what the content is, the counter argument would be that it is easier for students if they have a text in their hand than if it’s only on Sakai.”
Wenisch has been teaching Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, RLS 111, a basic 100-level religious studies course, for more than 20 years now. For much of this time, Wenisch did not assign any text because textbooks had never been a requirement in Wenisch’s home country of Austria.
“Teachers were expected to present the material according to their own conceptions and their own form and outline,” Wenisch said. “That’s what I was used to. When I came to the United States to teach, I never used textbooks.”
Instead, Wenisch taught students by providing them with handouts and packets he had created himself over the years. Given that his class often exceeded 100 students each semester, this method created a strain on department resources. It was also difficult for students who had missed lectures to get the necessary materials.
It was not until a representative of Cognella Academic Publishing approached Wenisch in 2010 that he considered the possibility of writing his own textbook. Thanks to the materials he’s already created for students in the past, he was able to introduce the text to his students in the fall of 2011.
Wenisch’s textbook, “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Differences, Commonalities, and Community,” comes at a more affordable price than some other textbooks. Students can purchase Wenisch’s book brand new from the URI Bookstore for $39.95.
“I don’t become wealthy from it,” Wenisch joked. “If you look at what I donate to my favorite charity organization a year, it’s significantly more than I make [from the textbook sales].” Wenisch is a faithful supporter of Food for the Poor, which helps feed people from 17 different Latin America and Caribbean countries each year.
Although physics Professor Michael Tammaro has not published a textbook yet, the one he’s working on at the moment will come at a much steeper price for students. Under John Wiley and Sons Publication, Tammaro plans to release an online, interactive text with embedded concept modules geared towards engaging students with the subject matter.
In terms of pricing, Tammaro said that he is still unsure of the details, expects students will have to pay about $120 either for the year or per semester. The book will publish in time for the fall 2017 semester, according to Tammaro.
Not all professors who teach with their own material charge for them, however. Affiliated English Professor Mary Cappello, who specializes in literary non-fiction, provides students with small excerpts of her written works in PDF format.
Even if Cappello required students to purchase her works of literature, the prices would be considerably less. Given the current market conditions, and the fact that Cappello publishes with smaller, independent publishers, it is unlikely for writers to see any significant portion of the royalties.
“We believe that our students get a special opportunity, especially among creative writing students, knowing that we are writers,” Cappello said. “They can actually talk to us as authors as well as professors.”
One of Cappello’s primary motivators behind teaching students with her own materials, is to show students she is capable of doing what she is asking of them.
“I want my students to see that the kind of challenges I’m presenting them, here’s how I have met them,” Cappello said. “I want to model something to them, and I want them to learn about writing.”
Students have mixed emotions when it comes to buying textbooks written by their professors. Senior education and history major Heather Wolfenden said she doesn’t believe students should have to pay for their teacher’s words when already paying to take the class, but that she also understands the possible benefits.
From her personal experiences, Wolfenden said that textbooks written by her professors have been helpful when studying for tests, since she knows it will properly supplement the lectures. In other cases where her required text wasn’t written by a professor, however, Wolfenden said the textbook may have “absolutely nothing to do with what the teacher wants you to know.”
“It depends on how you look at it,” Wolfenden said. “I’ve had textbooks by teachers that were really terrible, and I’ve had textbooks from teachers that were actually fairly good. I just wish they were more regulated in that teachers had more of a standard that they had to meet.”