Assigning your own book

Do you assign your own book in class? I typically don’t, but I’m thinking about doing it for next semester

Arguments for the practice

pompous historian1. It’s the best damn book on the subject! Nobody else has done this! There is no other book like it! It’s indispensable!

2. The chance to talk to the author of the book a class is reading is rare, and opens up kinds of discussion that you typically don’t have, about things that are usually opaque to the reader–about process, about editorial decisions, about what was hard and what was easy. That can be useful, especially in a grad seminar.

Arguments against

ozzie1. It’s venal. You’re lining your pocket at the expense of students, who have no choice. This may be true in a large lecture class, 1 but in a class of, say, 15 grad students the money you personally make from book sales is in the very low two figures, and can easily be turned into a large pizza for the class, or you can refund students the small amount of money you actually make from each sale. That would be instructive in and of itself.

2. It’s awkward for the class. Students quite reasonably may feel uncomfortable discussing the professor’s book.

3. It’s narcissistic. No professor, your book isn’t all that, and forcing a captive audience to talk about you and your tiresome thesis all class is just annoying and self indulgent.

It seems to me the arguments against it are better than the arguments for it, but I actually do think my book on money is unique and makes a unique contribution blah blah etc etc.

Any suggestions or thoughts? Students, is this an obnoxious practice? colleagues, what do you do?

I’m considering assigning the book but not having a discussion on it, in order to avoid objections 2 and 3. But that seems really dumb, and eliminates advantage 2.

  1. I twice ta’d for a professor who assigned his own textbook to an annual survey lecture that had 7-800 students in it. He claimed that he donated all the royalties he made to charity

10 Comments

  • The way you’ve laid out the pros and cons here, I do see the advantages to getting an insight into the process of researching and writing a book, and I find that very interesting. However, I could understand the potential discomfort of critiquing the book with the author in the room.

    That said, if you had them read another book in tandem (counterpoint or another perspective) and used them both for methods and approach, that could be quite useful.

  • I had a grad seminar where the professor assigned his/her book, and it was a positive experience.

    When I started a history graduate program, I was surprised at how many students in classes ripped the books apart in an attempt to prove themselves “smarter” than the author. Professors had to drag positive remarks out of the class. And of course, it is much easier to attack an author’s methodology and research when they are not there to defend themselves. Having the author as the professor may very well be a teachable moment in that it would force students to defend their critiques on a higher level, and then be prepared to respond to the author’s explanations.

  • Meredith wrote:

    I’ve wrestled with this myself, in PhD readings, and I’ll have to deal with in the fall with my graduate seminar. Here’s what I’m considering: asking a colleague to lead the discussion on the night I assign the book, so that they are more at liberty to shred it if they wish. And I will use the $30 I would make from their book sales to buy them pizza. Everybody wins?

    I think your book is essential to the seminar you’re teaching. But you could have a guest come in to lead the discussion. As for not getting your perspectives on the book, I guess I feel that in my case they get my perspective throughout the semester.

    The calculus is a little different for undergraduates–it represents more money for the professor, and each book is a greater percentage of the content they get in a semester. I don’t think I would ever assign my book to them.

  • I was thinking of doing it this semester and changed my mind. I think it would be hard for the students to engage critically. I do think it’s great to have the author present, but it’s a bit different when the author is the guy who gives out the grades. On the other hand, I think many grad students are too quick to move into trash-the-book mode, so that anything that forces them to take the book seriously is probably good. I think you should do it, and let me know how it goes.

  • Thanks a lot! I think I’ll assign it., then act weird and embarrassed about it in a way that will make them all even less confortable, and we’ll talk about it for ten minutes and then move on.

  • It’s a matter of tradeoffs, clearly. You imply that this is a question about assigning monographs, but the tradeoffs. What about texts? In my case, I decided to write a text in my interdisciplinary area and let students download it without cost, because I was so upset with the cost of the mediocre text that dominates the field at $80-85. If students were going to have a mediocre text, I reasoned, they might as well have one that’s written at my institution and that they don’t have to pay for. But there’s another benefit: I have absolutely no motivation to lecture in the class at this point, other than to address questions raised by students or other semester-specific needs. (They essentially have all my lectures in the subject in written form.) The danger in the case of a text is more than in a monograph–again, whose voices? Whose interpretations? More time in class to explore alternative models of the world, but a little less space for them in readings. Pick your poison, I suspect.

    One additional question: How many history faculty have monographs in print, let alone in print in trade or mass-market paperback?

  • I don;t have specific answers to this for the profession as a whole, but in my department we expect a book published for tenure, and a second book for promotion to full.

  • Even if you look just at research universities, where these standards are common, not all of those monographs are going to be in print or at an even vaguely-feasible price for students. And then there’s the question of whether the books you’ve published are relevant to the courses you’re teaching, and I’d hazard that only a minority (and not a huge minority at that) of faculty even have the option of assigning their books. I’m one of those historians in a professional school, and I have yet to have a reason to assign anything other than one of my articles, and even there they’ve been optional readings.

    That doesn’t mean that the issue doesn’t exist, but I suspect it’s a less common dilemma.

  • I’d usually find this at least problematic, but a professor of mine did it in a grad seminar and it worked better than I feared. Awkward, yes, but also useful for the professor/author to see how the work was received and thought about and wrestled with by readers. Perhaps both a pro and a con that way. A few of my professors have clearly used various seminars as thought labs for things they were working on — is it much different to use them for things they’ve already finished working on? And as Lynn says, useful for toning down the “million ways this book is not the book I would write” discussions that can take over.

  • Brian Harrington wrote:

    In an undergrad methodology seminar I took many years ago, the instructor assigned a book by someone else in the department. The author then ordered a bunch of copies from the publisher using his discount and resold them to the students at cost. This approach would certainly allow you to get around the venality issue.

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