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I’ve Been Robbed

I’ve Been Robbed

June 4, 2008 12:45 amComments are Disabled

When I signed up to take the University of Chicago class Global Warming, with professor David Archer, I was not surprised when I went to buy the required readings for the course and found the main textbook priced at $50. I was also not surprised to find that the book, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, published by Blackwell, was written by Dr. Archer himself. After all, I have taken many classes which have, as part of their syllabi, works written by the instructor. However, I was unpleasantly surprised when I opened the textbook “for non-science major undergraduates” and discovered something: It was terrible.

The book Global Warming reads like a third grader wrote it. Interspersed with barely passable “scientific” charts are editorialized comments about dominoes, bricks, and how wonderful carbon is. Furthermore, the grammatical and stylistic mistakes made throughout have me convinced that not only is this published book at best a first draft, but no editor ever made it through reading it before press time.

“Stick with me and everything will all tie together in the end,” reads a sentence on page 42. Apparently the world is “bouncing around like Jell-O,” as I learned on page 54. At one point, I learn all about the author as I’m reading: “The 10-day forecast says showers the weekend after that, but no one believes the end of a 10-day forecast anyway. They’re better than they used to be, but 10 days is still something of a crap shoot. And here I am sitting down to write about forecasting the climate 100 years from now” (page 56).

“It takes time for the climate of the Earth to reache equilibrium” (page 135), apparently because we are in ye olde times. On page 62 there is chart of Foucault’s pendulum, with the labels “Dominoes are safe” and “Dominoes awaiting their doom” to illustrate how safe the proverbial “dominoes” are based on the pendulum’s location on the earth. On page 156 there is a chart with “Watch me tip over” written as a label on what is apparently supposed to be an ice shelf. On page 170 there is a chart “Lambchops vs. sheep” which apparently illustrates how the Tragedy of the Commons works. In another attempt to illustrate the complex principles of economics, the book explains: “If the economy grows by 5% each year, everyone gets rich and shoeshine boys trade stock tips” (page 176).

Photosynthesis is a “nifty trick,” the fact that biomolecules are hydrocarbons is “amazing stuff” (page 87), and my favorite: “One could imagine an extract-the-juice-from-a-popsicle-on-a-hot-day curve. The popsicle consumption rate starts off slowly a the beginning because the popsicle is too cold to eat, then at the very end you have to swallow the last half of the popsicle in one gulp to keep it from hitting the sidewalk” (page 104).

(I don’t care what the subject is, but the words “popsicle” and “gulp” should never be in any academic textbook.)

I could go on, but the list of corrections that need to be made to make this book academically passable would use up this entire piece. Suffice it to say that on the first page, when the author claimed “As I write, it is a crisp, clear Fall day,” I would not be surprised if the book was finished on that same day, and sent off to the publisher the next. It is a rough, terribly written, completely disorganized, shoddy first draft. Which begs the question, Why did I pay $50 for this book?

The answer is twofold. One, I am a non-science major in the College who, because of the core, has to take a sequence or equivalent in the Physical Sciences. For me, as well as 253 other people this Spring quarter, that means signing up for Global Warming.

Secondly, by signing up for any class, I have to buy (or otherwise obtain) the required readings. For me, that meant buying this book and another, Six Degrees (which I highly recommend for global warming enthusiasts). With the 10-day money back guarantee that Barnes & Noble offers, there’s not much of a chance I’m getting my money back.

But the fact that the book is so bad makes me wonder about what can only be described as a blatant conflict of interest. The professor of the course sits down to write a terrible book, charges $50 for it, and makes everyone who takes his class buy it. Every Spring quarter, if Dr. Archer made just 10% royalties on every book sold (which is a conservative estimate for an already published author), he makes $1,270. That’s about 2.5% of annual tuition. And with the “success” of this book, I’m sure he’s been offered an advance for his next book as well.

Like I said before, I’ve had plenty of professors assign books that they’ve written. I buy the books because they are integral to the course and the way the professor teaches it. Plus, they’ve always been good books. But I can’t imagine that Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast is the best book available on the subject, even if it is targeted to undergraduate non-science majors. And if there is a better textbook available, then the choice of the professor to assign his book over another does not serve the best interest of the students.

With the prices of books as high as they are, it is only fair for we students to demand only the best readings from the best authors. Global Warming is not only terribly written, it is dumbed down and insulting to me as a student. Science majors do not get dumbed-down versions of Marx and Smith to read for SOSC, so why should history and humanities majors get such books for science? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of the core to provide a general education at a minimally intelligent level?

After finally being done with the science aspect of the core, I am left to wonder how many students in the past have been the victims of such blatant conflict of interest. Furthermore, I wonder how many thousands of dollars have been earned by faculty of the University of Chicago through underhanded attempts to secure unnecessary book profits from students, at the expense of their students’ education. I pay enough for tuition, living expenses, and books as it is: I shouldn’t need to watch my back for professors seeking to dupe me.

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