Allen: Did You Do the Reading?

Course readings should be readily accessible to students, not locked behind paywalls or other barriers to access.

by Spencer Allen | 2/15/22 3:00am

It is the start of a new academic term: Students log onto the Canvas pages for their courses, click on their syllabi and scroll. There, lying in wait, are two words that inspire dread: “Required Readings.” Occasionally, there may be a disclaimer noting that all of the required readings are available on Canvas. Most of the time, however, students will see a jarring list of books that their professor expects them to have access to, often in physical form.

Too often, professors’ expectations that students purchase physical copies of books — or compete with their peers for Dartmouth’s limited physical and electronic copies — force students between a rock and a hard place. Students who cannot afford said books can choose to either not purchase copies of the required books — forcing them to fall behind their peers in accessing course information and stunting their learning. Or, they can shell out hundreds of dollars that they do not have. Instead of forcing students to shoulder the burden for costly texts, professors, departments and the College must team together to make a stronger effort to guarantee universal access to course materials.

Required course texts pose clear financial burdens for students. For one, most textbooks are exorbitantly expensive. Let’s use the course CHEM 005, “General Chemistry” as an example — its required textbook, “Principles of Modern Chemistry,” costs a whopping $187.95 if purchased brand new from the publisher or $38.99 if rented or accessed electronically. Both of these prices are too high for many students to justify. In other classes — in particular, those in the humanities and social sciences — students may be expected to buy several books for one class, the costs of which add up quickly over the course of a student’s academic career.

It is true that some professors set aside course materials for check out at the Baker-Berry Library. Doing so, however, is more of a Band-Aid than a fully fledged solution to making materials accessible. Through the course reserves system, students can check out materials set aside for a specific course for a short period of time, usually two hours but occasionally up to four or even 24 hours. This system is highly inequitable. As a student assistant in the library, I have seen the waitlists for some books reach four students long just in the first hour that the library is open, forcing students to wait until after dinnertime to have access to the library’s only copy of a book. Say you have an assignment due at midnight, but you are fifth in line to get your hands on a reserve book you need to finish your homework. You are out of luck.

As another option to access their course materials, students can request an interlibrary loan through BorrowDirect or DartDoc, but this too presents challenges. To be sure, these are great services for students trying to access physical copies of books — if they can find them. Often, books that are in high demand at Dartmouth — say, Principles of Modern Chemistry, which this term alone has roughly 200 students seeking it — are also sought after at other schools, preventing Dartmouth students from accessing books through these services. And if books are obscure or not owned by many libraries, BorrowDirect and DartDoc may take weeks, with books arriving to students months after the term ends if at all.

There are clear disadvantages to not being able to access one’s required course texts — most importantly, the potential threat posed to academic progress. Not having access to a course book may prevent students from finishing their homework or using textbooks as important tools to study for tests and reinforce course content. What’s worse, this burden disproportionately falls on low income students who cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars when other avenues to access fail. These students — who are also often first-generation college students — have already come to college with enormous barriers to their academic success; it isn’t right that FGLI students should have to fall further behind their peers because they can’t afford to purchase books.

The inequitable burden for accessing textbooks should no longer fall upon students; instead, the College must take on the responsibility of providing course texts. There are two ways that Dartmouth can go about accomplishing this: First, Dartmouth could purchase required books for all of the students in a given course to ensure that students have equal access from day one of class. This might work especially well for courses that have a small number of relatively inexpensive books, like novels or small academic books. Sure, this option wouldn’t be cheap, but an institution with an $8.5 billion endowment can surely shoulder such costs just fine.

Second, professors and departments could elect to use — or write themselves — versions of textbooks that are open source, or at least free for students in the class to use. While this might seem outlandish, the idea of open source textbooks is feasible. One notable example comes from the Department of Computer Science, which created a free, interactive textbook for COSC 1, “Introduction to Programming and Computation,” the introductory course to the computer science major and one of the most popular courses on campus. All students have access to this online textbook during and after the course, which allows them to get the most out of their education in the moment and also enables them to return to those resources later if they wish.

Despite the wealth of information and learning potential they present, course books today are a great source of stress for far too many students. While course required texts certainly have a purpose, that purpose is locked behind too many barriers that prevent students from reaping the benefits of such material. If textbooks and other required readings are to remain an integral part of the Dartmouth curriculum, the College must undertake serious reforms to ensure that these books are equitably distributed to the entire student body.

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