About the cost of course materials

Photo by Morgan Harper Nichols on Unsplash

After all, when did it become acceptable to charge a course registration fee to tuition-paying students?

My good friend, Kimani Isaac, recently started a petition regarding the high cost of textbooks at Northwestern University.

The petition has been signed by 574 supporters, including myself and Isaac, and is expected to be delivered to the university president, Morton Schapiro, the provost, Jonathan Holloway, and the vice president for student affairs, Patricia Telles-Irvin.

The petition began after Isaac wrote an opinion piece about her experiences with textbooks on campus in North by Northwestern (where I’m the treasurer, among things), which drew attention from fellow students.

But the issue of textbooks on campus has affected Northwestern for many years; North by Northwestern alone looked into textbook prices in 2008, finding that Amazon was generally cheaper, and Associated Student Government, the university’s undergraduate student representative body, passed a resolution in early 2016 about the issue.

There are solutions. Financial aid can definitely help, and Northwestern’s Student Enrichment Services is trying to address this issue, too.

But Isaac touches upon a problem that’s precluding obvious options, such as second-hand textbooks, from being effective.


Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

When students have to purchase expensive online materials like Sapling, McGraw Hill, and Pearson just to do homework,” Isaac wrote, “even the internet becomes a barrier.”

Isaac is referring to the online systems for learning and grading, such as Sapling Learning, which require students to purchase an access code for the material.

This can be great as an additional learning resource. Not every student learns in the same way, and having 24/7 access to educational materials outside of office hours can definitely help students struggling with a difficult course.

But it’s improper to incorporate such additional learning materials as part of the graded curriculum when students are already paying $52,239 for tuition each year.

I took Northwestern’s Math 230, Differential Calculus of Multivariable Functions, in the winter quarter of my first year. The assigned textbook was easily found on the Facebook group Free and For Sale, since the class is taken by many students as it’s required by multiple majors, including the computer science major.

But the course required WebAssign, a service from Cengage Learning, that costs $100 according to today’s Amazon prices.

Screenshot from the syllabus page for MATH 230 on Canvas, Northwestern University’s online learning management system provided by Instructure.

The textbook and online access code can be purchased as a bundle, which is what I eventually did.

But it’s not possible to re-use access codes, so even though I could sell my brand-new textbooks as second hand, my textbook bundle was not of any use to students taking Math 230 after me.


The issue of access codes to online learning materials such as WebAssign was also a source of controversy at Harvard University, after the instructor for Harvard’s introductory economics class began to require students to pay $130 for a set of materials as part of the course in 2016.

Like Northwestern’s Math 230, the Harvard economics class used a separate online system to submit and grade homeworks rather than the university’s own learning management system, Canvas.

Both Harvard and Northwestern switched in spring 2014 to the same web-based learning management system provided by Instructure, which is provided at no cost to students. Canvas includes a quiz feature that can be used to auto-grade assignments.

The Harvard controversy led to two editorials from the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, about the high cost of textbook fees.

But the issue here is not the high cost of textbooks per se, but the cost of attached online systems requiring one-time access codes — effectively precluding the resale of textbooks, a right protected by the Supreme Court of the United States.

It’s legal under that Supreme Court ruling to resell copyrighted material under the first-sale doctrine, modelled after the idea that sellers can’t control what buyers do with property after it’s sold. If you sold me a car and I wanted to smash it with a hammer, you can’t really stop me from doing so.

But access codes to systems such as Sapling Learning are subscriptions, not products, and so therefore aren’t reusable or transferable.

(Meanwhile, instructors have access to Sapling Learning for free.)


Photo by Camille Kimberly on Unsplash

Requiring fee-charging homework services as part of the syllabus is nothing short of a course registration fee. It is a cost to students charged directly in relation to their registration in a course, and would not have been incurred if students had not enrolled in that class.

Course registration fees are perfectly acceptable in many situations, such as for continuing studies on a per-course basis.

But it’s outrageous to charge these fees to tuition-paying students, since that’s another cost of instruction not covered by the university’s $55,000 tuition. If my tuition is not covering the costs of my courses, then what, exactly, am I paying that for?

What can Northwestern do?

The university can, after consultation with faculty, institute a policy that no instructor include fee-charging services as part of syllabus requirements. In cases of demonstrated instructional need, Northwestern can cover the cost of online learning services through a university-wide license so it can be provided for free to students, like Canvas.

Unless I’m mistaken about the history of higher education, universities did not charge students for the administrative costs of grading their assignments when submitting problem sets was a matter of leaving it in an instructor’s office mailbox. That we have moved on to an electronic age should not have changed this principle.

* Edited to clarify that the first-sale doctrine is an exception to copyright law rather than applying to sales of all kinds of products, including the car.

“Where are you from?”

This planet. And everywhere on it.


It’s a difficult question to answer.

“Where are you from?”

I don’t know. And it’s a problem that’s been written many times before. And like those authors before me, I don’t fit neatly into a box of stereotypical identity: I am not your Chinese-American immigrant from Taiwan, nor am I the epitome of Asian-Americanness from California, and I’m certainly not your blonde girl from rural Wisconsin.


I’m an American. And I believe I am entitled to lay claim to that identity, because I believe in all the things that America is supposed to stand for: freedom, liberty, and justice for all. A thriving, inclusive, respectful democracy and a strong economy built upon the ideology of freedom of individual and choice.

It gets a little tricky when you try to narrow it down a little further. While I live in Evanston because of my enrollment at Northwestern, I don’t claim to be an Evanstonian any more than the next student. Evanston politics are not my concern, and while I don’t have any negative feels about Evanston, I also am distinctly conscious of my disconnect from much of this suburban city’s life and the likelihood of me moving out of Evanston in the near future.

Nor do I feel an attachment to the city of Chicago, because I can appreciate and respect its culture and politics, but I don’t feel as if I understand the culture of the city: its intricacies, its beliefs, its concerns and its pride. To me, Chicago feels like a foreign land, and I’ve never found the pulse of this Midwest city.

I think I have a claim to identifying with the state of Illinois (cause, you know, place of birth and all that), but I don’t do so. For one thing, Illinois still doesn’t have a state budget after two years, and I can barely keep up with the frolicking going on in Springfield. For another, I can’t make a distinction between Illinois and other US states (although I’m pretty sure they do exist), and I’ve left uncertain about how much of my feelings are associated with the Illinois state or the United States nation.


But I’m painfully reminded that I’m not considered ‘American’ because of my race, ethnicity, and personal history. And while I understand where it’s coming from, I’m frustrated that this isn’t a two-way street because there’s no way I can politely and easily explain to someone how these “microaggressions” works.

Like voting. I was venting a frustration about photographers in voting booths during the presidential election, when I was questioned on my identity: “But wait, you can’t vote, can you?”

Or in breakout sessions: “I’d like us to go around the table, tell us your name, what you do, where you’re from, and a fun fact about yourself!” as if where I’m from (or a fun fact about myself, for that matter) has any impact on the subsequent conversation or what I’m able to do.


It’s hard to find statistics that can back up a personal narrative, but I’m pretty sure I’m among the first of a generation whose parents had the economic and political resources to be able to live a life where the idea of a “hometown” falls apart. For the first time in human history, it was possible in the 1980s for an average family to pick up their belongings and move halfway across the globe in search of better jobs and a better life.

And the children born during that time — in the 1980s and the 1990s — are just coming of age now, and it’s starting to shake the foundations of questions such as “where are you from?” and “what’s your hometown?”

I’m not even quite certain what information you’re looking for. Like, are you genuinely curious about my place of birth? Or are you, as I think you are, using this question as a supposedly polite way to try to understand my attitudes and values, in the same way we ask people what they do as an arms-length indicator of your education level, social class, and income group?

I’d imagine many people would give the same answer to both motivations of the question, but I am not one of them. I know what you’d assume based on my answers, and neither my place of birth nor the cultures of my last permanent residence are indicative or informative of my identity, beliefs, and values.


So, where are you from?

Dear Professor Poliakoff

Sir Martyn Poliakoff CBE FRS, a British chemistry professor researching the applications of supercritical fluids in green chemistry. He is probably best known for his appearances in the Periodic Table of Videos by videojournalist Brady Haran at http://www.periodicvideos.com/. Photo from the Royal Society.

I write to thank you for your contributions to the promotion of science at Periodic Videos.

While I am now training to be a journalist at university, I was originally set on a career in the natural sciences. Despite my journalism background, I still find it difficult to articulate my sorrow at having given up a life of science for one of the creative arts; I have never found more accomplishment in anything than successfully grasping the intricacies of the natural sciences and coming a little bit closer to understanding the universe around me.

I believe that you have been responsible for inspiring countless young people, including myself, to gain an interest for the sciences. Your enthusiasm for and appreciation of chemistry is clearly evident whenever you appear on Periodic Videos.

Like many young people in developed societies, I believe, I grew up in an academic setting where the natural sciences were boring and repetitive — a constant drone of textbooks and theory—but my love of science was sustained because of individuals such as yourself, who demonstrate the excitement of learning and knowledge every single day.

Thank you for sharing the love of knowledge with me and everybody else. Thank you for making it cool to study science. I hope that, in addition to your scientific research, you will continue to educate and celebrate the wonders of chemistry.