Friday, September 23, 2011

Textbook Ethics (part II)

Last week I posted about the ethics of creating new editions of textbooks that may not be so new or updated.  I demonstrated my frustration at the short updated edition schedule and I seemed to lay the blame on the publishers and authors.

Then I read this article, which has a completely different take. According to this author, most of the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the used book industry.  The article blames the rise of textbook prices to the advent of large used book companies that have set up shop on college campuses in order to buy back textbooks and redistribute them to where they are needed across the country to resell them. These used book companies have only been prominent in higher education for a few decades now.

Let's imagine that you are an author or publisher in the 1960s, before the advent of large scale used textbook companies. Perhaps you have a deal to write, publish, market, and distribute a new sociology textbook and you plan to give it an update every 10 years.  You estimate that the book will sell X number of copies a year at Y number of Universities.  You plan your price and update based on 10 years of royalties and a fairly constant stream of sales.

Now, imagine, in year 5, a used bookstore moves on to campus, buys back previous year's used books, and resells them the following year.  You, the publisher or author, now make 0 for every used book sold.  You have lost 5 years of revenue that you were counting on and that factored in to your original price of the textbook. 

What recourse do the publishing companies and author's have?

Well, one would be legal: try and claim some royalties on used textbooks.  Yet, this has been unsuccessful up to this point. 

The only recourse left to publishers and authors are 1) to raise the original textbook price, and 2) update the edition more frequently rendering the previous edition obsolete.  

So, now, after two posts, how do you see it?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ethics of Texbook Editions

This is my first year as a full time professor, and also my first year really having to deal with reviewing, ordering, and deciding on textbooks for the classes I am teaching.  One thing that has become more pronounced in my mind is the ethics behind textbook editions.  I tried to order some textbooks for my classes this Fall, and the bookstore informed me that they could no longer get that book because it was an old edition.  OK, I said, order the new edition and I will request a desk copy from the publisher.  No skin off my back.  I get a free copy from the publisher.  Besides the slight update to my syllabus and quizzes due to (very) minor updates in the new edition, the cost and trouble to me, the professor, is minimal.

But, what are the implications of this?  First, the new edition costs more (textbook prices seem ridiculous to me).  Second, there are no used copies, so students have to pay the full price and don't have the option of saving money on used (although they are renting textbooks now.  Who knew?).

So, why a new edition of a textbook?

First, I understand that all textbooks need updating from time to time.  All fields of study change over time (with the possible exceptions of a few: Math, have we really changed how we do math in the last 500 years?).  So, I understand that there will need to be new editions of textbooks that provide updated information.  But, how often is a new edition needed?  In five years of teaching introduction to Bible at Baylor, we went through three editions of our standard textbook.  Really? Three editions in five years.  Now, to be fair, I looked at the copyright dates in those editions, and they are 3-4 years apart.  So, when I started we really must have been using an old edition, compounding the new edition shock.

But again, I ask, how often do we really need a new edition?  And, are the new editions really updated much?  The answer to the latter question, from my  limited experience: No.  I have had updated editions where the text is virtually identical.  A paragraph is removed in one location and shows up in another.  The chapter titles are changed, but the content remains the same.  A short new section, maybe a page or two, is added.  Really, is this enough justification for a new edition?

Why do we get new editions so often?  Well, the quick answer, as it appears to me on the surface of matters, is money.  Textbooks have to be great for publishers.  They have a book that has a captive purchasing audience.  Now, of course, they have to compete with other textbooks for the same field, but once their book is adopted, they know they have a certain number of students who will be required to purchase it.  After the initial run and sale of these textbooks, the sales will go down.  College students will sell their books back to bookstores nationwide, flooding the market with used copies.  Then, the next semester, most students will buy used copies, for which the publisher and author get nothing.  So, in subsequent years, the royalties from textbooks sales will drop dramatically.  The first year was great, but following years are not so hot.  How do we solve this?  Print a new edition.  Require bookstores to order the new edition, which in turn forces professors to adopt the new edition.

On the surface this looks like a racket to me.  Publishers and authors, in order to keep the money flowing in, create "new" editions which might not be very new.  They exert pressure on campus bookstores to buy these new editions, which in turn forces the professors hand.

Now, I do want to be fair.  This is only how it looks on the surface to me.  I know very little about the publishing industry and I am not trying to make them look like monsters.  I do not know all of the costs that go into publishing a textbook.  I have no idea what their profit margins are.  I have no idea what their original investment in a textbook is.  All I can say is that "new" editions that really do not provide substantial updates and improvements seem unjustified to me and the primary motivation for these updated editions seems to be primarily financial. 

Please, if you have more information and could enlighten me, I would love to hear another side.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Judah and Tamar Part II

Yesterday I raise the question: Why is the story of Judah and Tamar present in Genesis chapter 38.  The story is very strange.  Moreover, it seems completely out of place. It breaks the flow of the Joseph narrative which runs from Genesis chapter 37 through the rest of the book in chapter 50. So, why is this odd story there?

First, there are no other stories about the other sons of Jacob, save for Joseph, and his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh.  The most the others get is a mention here and there.

Let's look at these mentions.

In Genesis 37, Joseph's brothers are seeking to kill the little brat Joseph.  Reuben and Judah are mentioned by name.  Reuben comes off the best, intervening in the brothers plan to kill Joseph.  Judah is mentioned and gets a neutral portrayal.  While he also argues against killing Joseph, he has a profit motive and suggests selling Joseph.  Reuben, who has apparently disappeared somewhere, is shocked to return and find Joseph gone, having been sold into slavery.

Jump ahead to Genesis 42.  Joseph is now second in command in all of Egypt.  His ten older brothers have come before him in Egypt to buy grain because of a famine in the land. They have left behind their youngest brother Benjamin in Canaan.  They do not recognize Joseph and he decides to have a little fun with them.  He tells them that they must return with Benjamin.  Reuben bewails their circumstances.  Simeon is held captive while the others return to get Benjamin. When they get back, Jacob refuses to let them go back with Benjamin, counting Simeon as good as dead and not wanting to lose his youngest and favorite son Benjamin.  Reuben pipes up guarantees Benjamin's safety.

In Chapter 43, it is Judah who guarantees the safety of Benjamin when they return to Egypt.  While in Egypt, Joseph continues the ruse and lets them sweat. Finally, after more trickeration, Joseph fulfills his brothers' worst nightmare and takes Benjamin captive for a theft he did not commit.  Judah now plays the hero, makes good on his promise to his father, tells Joseph the whole story, and offers to take Benjamin's place.

OK, so in the Joseph narrative, how are his Brother's portrayed?  Only four are mentioned by name.  The unnamed brothers look bad as they sought to kill Joseph.  Reuben looks good in chapter 37, intervening to save Joseph's life, and looks good again in 42, guaranteeing Benjamin's safety.  Simeon is mentioned a couple of times, but is neutral as his only role is to remain captive in Egypt.  Benjamin is mentioned but is completely passive.  That leaves Judah.  In 37, Judah appears neutral.  Like Reuben he intervenes to protect Joseph's life, but it is his idea to sell Joseph into slavery.  In chapters 44-45 Judah looks heroic, first guaranteeing Benjamin's safety, and then making good on this promise by offering to take Benjamin's punishment in Egypt.

So, overall, in the Joseph narrative, Reuben and Judah are portrayed positively overall, with Judah perhaps coming out as the most heroic of the brothers.

So again, I ask, why the story of Judah and Tamar in chapter 38?  Especially such a bawdy story that portrays Judah so negatively.  Judah is the father who refuses to fulfill his duty and provide his son in fulfillment of Levirate marriage.  Judah is also seen as one who visits prostitutes.  Judah is not the shining hero that we see later in the Joseph narrative.

So, again, why this story?  Why Judah?  Why not a story of the other brothers?

I think one reason is that Judah had some very famous descendants.  First: David, the greatest king in Israel's history (according to some).  Also, Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, although I doubt the birth and subsequent fame of Jesus had anything to do with the placement of this story in Genesis.

But, if one surmises that this story of Judah, and not one of his other brothers, is here in Genesis because of the subsequent notoriety of David, I think we are on solid ground.  This notoriety of David might also explain why Judah plays a larger role than his brothers in the Joseph narrative.

But, if this story is tied to David's fame, why is it so derogatory toward David's ancestor?  Could it be that this story was placed here, where it clearly does not belong and where it is clearly an interruption of the Joseph narrative, as an anti-davidic story?  Could this story be anti-davidic propaganda, or maybe even anti-monarchic propaganda?  I don't know the answers to these questions, and this is not my area of specialty at all.  But we do know that there were anti-davidic factions in Israel, and certainly there were anti-monarchic factions as evidenced by much of first Samuel.  Why this story is here is probably beyond our ability to know for certain, but I find the possibility that this story was a piece of anti-davidic or anti-monarchic propaganda fascinating.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Judah and Tamar, Huh?

The Story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 has to be one of the strangest narratives in the Bible.  Strange for so many reasons.  First, the racy story it tells in and of itself is odd.

Let me try and summarize.  Judah, son of Jacob, and namesake of his own tribe of Israel, had three sons.  Son #1, Er, married Tamar, but was "wicked" and therefore God killed him.  According to the custom of Levirate marriage, the closest male relative was required to fulfill the duty of the dead husband and provide Tamar with a child in the name of the dead husband.  Therefore, this duty fell to son #2, Onan. Onan, knowing that this child would not be his, but would carry the name of his brother, whenever he slept with Tamar, "spilled his semen on the ground."  Because of this wickedness, God killed Onan. Contrary to much evangelical interpretation, Onan was not engaging in masturbation. Rather, his wickedness was not fulfilling his duty to provide his dead brother with a son. Finally, Tamar pushes Judah to give her Son #3, Shelah to fulfill his duty.  Judah procrastinates in this matter.  I mean, can you blame him.  He has lost 2 sons already over this matter.

Tamar takes matters into her own hands.  She disguises herself as a prostitute and places herself in Judah's path.  Judah takes the bait and sleeps with her, but not before giving her a pledge of his signet and staff, a sign that he will send payment for her services.  As is wont to happen after such affairs, Tamar becomes pregnant.  When Judah finds out the Tamar is pregnant, he is indignant that his daughter in law has been "playing the whore" and he commands that she be burned.  Tamar on the other hand, produces Judah's signet and staff, proving herself righteous and Judah as the wrongdoer.

OK, so strange story right?  But, that is only the beginning of the strangeness.  Right before this story we get the introduction to the story of Joseph, Son of Jacob.  Genesis 37 begins the Joseph narrative which runs unbroken through the rest of Genesis, save for the Judah and Tamar story.  One could read from the last verse of Genesis 37 right on to the first verse of Genesis 39, skipping 38 alltoghether, and would miss not a thing.

Genesis 37:36 in the NIV reads:
 36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. 
And Genesis 39:1 in the NIV reads:
 1 Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.
Yet, sandwiched in between is the story of Judah and Tamar.  Why is it there?  Come back tomorrow to see my take.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ancient Science

In my introduction to religion class here at Chowan, when we finally got to Genesis, I had the students read the first two chapters of the book and come up with a list of the order of creation in 1:1-2:4a, and a list of the order of creation in 2:4b-2:25.

Every year this exercise yields very interesting results.  What I noticed this year was that as the students were reading Genesis 1, when they got to day 2, reading verses 6-7, before they got to verse 8, many students were saying that God was creating land on day 2.

Here is how Genesis 1:6-8 reads in the NIV
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
Why did my students think that God was creating land?  It is simple to see.  In our scientific worldview, all water rests on the earth.  So, when the text says "to separate water from water" in verse 6, what pops into a modern person's mind is "land."

But this merely illustrates the difference between ancient knowledge of the world, what I think could reasonably be called their "science" on the one hand, and our scientific knowledge of the world on the other hand.

It is not that the ancients were stupid.  Yet, they were limited.  Their knowledge of the world was largely based upon visual observation. 

Think about it.  When the ancients walked outside, they saw a flat earth. If one walked far enough in any direction, one would find water, an ocean.  Far out into the ocean, ancients suspected that the world just ended.  OK, so that is one gathering of water, water on land.  But what of the other water, since Genesis 1:6 speaks of separating the water from the water.  Well, the ancients also astutely noticed that from time to time, water falls from the sky.  So, there must be water up above as well.  Yet, it does not fall constantly, so there must be something holding it up there.  Enter the "Firmament," "Vault," "Dome."  This is what God created on day 2.  A giant dome to keep the water above from constantly falling on the earth.  This makes sense if you are an ancient.  If you walk outside and look, it looks like there is a giant dome over the flat earth.  It is in this giant dome that the Sun, Moon, and stars make their circuit.

When my students finally got to verse 8, they were somewhat shocked to find that this creation was not land, but the sky.  Yet, this merely illustrates the difference between our modern scientific worldview and the worldview of the ancients.  The ancient worldview was not un-scientific, it was just using the best observation/science available at the time.