Why Do Professors Have Such Long Booklists?

One key trick that I learned while going to university (and also one we pointed out in our book), is to go to the first few classes before you plunked down hundreds of dollars of textbooks for a course.  The reason for this is because many times professors will put down several books on the booklist, and then only use one, or maybe select parts of a couple, and the rest won’t even be touched.  So why do professors do this you might ask?  Is it like an initiation thing and since they had to pay money for textbooks they didn’t break the plastic on, they believe they should inflict the same pain on the next generation?  I guess I can’t say for sure since I’m obviously not a professor who has to make up booklists, but here are some theories I have after being around post-secondary education for the better part of a decade now (that just made me feel very old in a hurry).

The World of The Ivory Tower

First and foremost, I think in order to understand why many profs do what they do you have to try to understand the academic mindset in general.  Professors (speaking as a group and not commenting on specific individuals) do not view education through the same lens as the vast majority of the population.  We are talking about people who have spent 10-15 years pursuing an ever-narrowing field of study, and who were then willing to pick up stakes and move, while working their way up the academic ladder in order to attain their position atop the academic hierarchy.  The thousands of hours spent poring over essays, theses,  and exam questions tend to narrow your field of visions substantially.  There is a reason this phenomenon has its own name – the ivory tower syndrome.  Professors are often almost completely removed from the mainstream of society for their entire lives.  In their world becoming well-read (notice I didn’t use the term “smarter” their because while those two might be related they are definitely not synonymous) is a top priority and something they place an extremely high value on.  If you think about a booklist from that perspective, asking you to buy a bunch of stuff you might not absolutely need, but which they think you should read makes a little more sense.

Many professors honestly believe that if they ask you to purchase books that you probably won’t use in class, you will likely crack them open just because they are interesting and you spent the money on them.  Remember, professors were likely the “A” students who read these “extra readings” when they were in school and they don’t realize that most of us just try to trade them in for ten cents on the dollar at the end of the school year to fund one last kegger before heading off to summer jobs.  They have your best interests in mind (in their opinion) they just don’t realize – or don’t care – that your goal for the course (to simply get the credit) might be much different than their goal for you, or what their goal would be in your position.  If they were to buy the textbooks for you, this attitude would be a lot easier to take!

Who Cares About Next Year – I Have a Flight To Catch!

A slightly more innocent justification that I’ve pondered is that the timing of when professors are asked to submit booklists probably has some effect on the end product as well.  Professors are also lifelong students.  This means they are used to the same seasonal rhythms and look forward to winter semester ending just like everyone else.  The difference between them and you, is that while you’re rushing off to try and work 60-hour weeks so that you can do it all again next year, they are booking their trip to the Caribbean.  If someone asks you to come up with a booklist for something you’ll be teaching in four months, how much thought would you put into that considering your mind is on that new swimsuit you should get before you leave.  It’s pretty likely you’ll throw out 3-4 books you might use something out of, and think about it later (like the day before class starts) right?

Someone Is Going To Read What I Have Written Damn It!

Finally, we get to the most logical reason for a longer booklist – professors want you to buy their book.  The vast majority of academics I’ve come to know in life have HUGE egos.  In order to believe that your book is the best one written on a specific topic (which is essentially what you’re saying when you use a book in your class) you have to be somewhat vain.  I mean who are these self-obsessed narcissists that put pen to paper anyway ;).  If your professor has written a book don’t be surprised to see them semi-force you to buy it.  While one might think this is simply a cash grab, I don’t think book sales would account for much of the average professor’s revenue stream at all.  Instead, I think it is purely an ego-based exercise of power instead.  Extremely few students will buy an academic-style book (or really, anything other than the latest sci-fi bestseller or Nicholas Sparks drek) if the free-market is allowed to determine things.  It must be hard for professors to take when they invest hundreds of hours in putting out a masterpiece that they think is superb, only to find out that literally three other people on a planet with seven billion souls believe it is worth reading.  The solution?  At least two section of your history 101 class will enjoy your 400 page treatise on the Peloponnesian War.

Even though you now understand why booklists are the way they are, this is still no excuse to waste your minimum-wage fuelled paycheque on them.  Check out our article on how to save money on textbooks, and/or our book that has an entire chapter devoted to this pursuit.

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11 years ago

I had the opposite experience. Profs usually told us not to buy the optional textbooks. These books usually contributed to the material they taught, and by having them on the list the library had to have so many copies. If anyone needed more clarification, they knew where to look. Many of the textbooks I did buy, I have gone back to in higher level courses, and one book was often used for more than one course. By higher levels, there were less textbooks on the reading lists, profs started to reference journals more often. My issue with the textbooks is… Read more »

11 years ago

I always bought the required reading, and especially the “Repro Texts” before classes started. For one, it lowered my stress level during week 1 of each semester. More importantly, the bookstore (run by a presumably malevolent international conglomerate) consistently ordered too few books. When they were out, they’d order you one and it took forever. Except repro-texts: students that didn’t have them were SOL. In my upper years, there were viable text book alternatives. The only ways I saved money were (1) buying used – and by going in early, I would go through multiple copies til I found a… Read more »

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