Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study: evil, incompetent, or both?

OK, so do you all remember the Saga of the E-Text Saga last year? Well, it’s grown epic this year. (There’s a dorky joke in there. Last year’s saga involved an actual Norse saga. This year’s version involves classical and medieval epics, among other genres.)

Here’s what’s going on. The ‘bots at the Barnes and Noble money-making factory have foisted 6 different e-texts on my students, only three (or three and a half — more, below) of which are actually the same edition and translation as the texts I actually ordered. For the moment, let’s leave aside the issue of whether or not I want e-texts at all, and whether or not an e-text is conducive to the kind of close study of texts we do in English. Of those three correct matches, two of them have hideous formatting issues — clearly no human editor was involved in putting together these electronic editions. One of them is a facing-page translation of Dante’s Inferno, which means that in the electronic version, the Italian and English is all mixed up. The other is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the long verse lines get all broken up in random ways, and the table of contents is not navigable enough for someone who wants to assign selected parts, rather than read from beginning to end. (I think maybe the novel — and the way that “book” and “novel” are synonymous for so many people — is to blame for the assumption that one would read every book that way.)

Meanwhile, they associated two *different* translations of the Metamorphoses with the book I actually ordered, and, of course the cheaper one is the wrong translation. What the hell?! Of course any student who decides they’re going to get the e-text is going to go for the cheaper one! But it’s the wrong text, so then they’re going to have to buy the slightly more expensive one after all, and they’re out the original expense entirely, because e-texts are non-refundable. Argh.

And then there’s the random piece of crap edition of Twelfth Night that the ‘bots picked out for one of my other classes. It’s from a freely-available public domain edition, which means it’s some poorly edited 19th century edition, and it is, of course, utterly free of the apparatus that most students need for Shakespeare: glosses, notes, and introduction. And what really chaps my hide is that B&N is still charging $0.95 for it, despite having added no value to the text that a student could find for free on the web. (At least it’s not $6.00, like last year’s public-domain Saga of the Volsungs was.)

Listen up, Barnes and Noble! Different translations and different editions are DIFFERENT (disappointed professor is disappointed!), and those differences matter! Would you give a science student a 19th century book called Biology for their biology class? (Well, maybe you would.) Get someone to program your book-seeking ‘bots better or — and here’s a radical notion — hire real live people to review things!

Had I not just talked to a friendly and helpful staff person in the bookstore, who was able to remove the offending title from the web site, I’d be angrier about this. (Last year it took a call to corporate to get rid of the texts. This year, they’ve got things set up to give the local bookstore more control. Now if only the professor could have that control, please and thank you.) And I was even angrier earlier this summer when the ‘bots had assigned recommended reading to go with my books, which turned out to be yet more translations of the texts I’d assigned. Because yeah, apparently a Barnes and Noble ‘bot knows more about the best translations of Virgil than I do.  Grrrrrrrr.  But those recommended texts soon disappeared, and I’d like to think it’s because our awesome bookstore staff said, “Hey now, I don’t think corporate gets to recommend books for our professors’ classes.”  Maybe. Who knows what happened. Maybe it was just a glitch to begin with.

I could have just had all the e-texts removed from my courses — the bookstore staff person was willing to do that — but I decided I might try an experiment and let students order e-texts of one book in each of the courses with available ones — where it’s the correct translation/edition, of course. In the classical and medieval European lit class, I’m leaving the Nook edition of Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Aeneid, and in my introduction to literary study class, I’ll let them buy the electronic version of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, if they so choose (no edition/translation problems with that text, of course!).  But, I’m going to tell students that if they use electronic editions, they must have a portable reader they can bring to class and must be responsible for knowing how to get to whatever part of the text I ask them to turn to.  I figure it would be good for me to have some concrete experience, good or ill, with students using electronic texts in class, especially if I’m going to make arguments about why they don’t work in a literature class. So this year will be a bit of a pedagogical experiment.

But I have a feeling most of our students, especially in these two classes, won’t get them, even though they’ll save a few bucks. First, most of my students are English majors, and they seriously fetishize printed books. Second, they know it’s hard to follow or take notes if you’ve got a different book than everyone else. And third, most of them *don’t* have tablets and smart phones and the like — our students are broke-ass people — and some of them don’t even have their own computers, so it would be all that much harder for them to get access to these e-texts.  That last point is one I really want to beat into the heads of all those futurists out there who keep claiming that e-texts are the salvation for the debt-riddled student. Yeah, well, the Mandelbaum Aeneid might be $4 cheaper in e-text than in new paperback, but not if you don’t have your own equipment on which to read it! Duh!

And finally, given that we’re in the incunabula stage of e-texts, I really shouldn’t have to take the time and money to vet all the e-texts the Barnes and Noble ‘bots pick out for me. Instead, if *I* want to assign an e-text, I should have to order it just like I would a print book. It’s my damn class, after all.


7 thoughts on “Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study: evil, incompetent, or both?

  1. Incompetence, definitely. I’m glad that your local bookstore was able to sort things out. Now wouldn’t it be better next year if the B&N bots provided you, as the course prof, a list of “possible ebooks” that you might consider adopting/indicating as an alternative, right when you entered the ISBN in the order form?

    But that would be too sensible, wouldn’t it? (We have a Follett’s store here and they have their own level of incompetence but so far, no ebook pushing.)

  2. Last semester, I had the misguided notion to try and cobble together free e-text substitutes for all of the texts I was teaching in my Brit Lit I survey. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. After all, those texts are all in the public domain, so it seemed wrong that my students should have to pay $75.00 for an anthology of them, especially when I only teach around 20% of the material in the book. Where do good intentions lead to, again?

    It was actually a good experience, very useful in demonstrating the difference between texts and editions. In the end, I couldn’t stomach either forcing my students to read those 19th-century editions without the necessary apparatus or to provide all of that apparatus myself. Back to the anthologies (or reasonable equivalents) for me.

    What are you doing with The Magicians, by the way?

  3. I will be interested in hearing about your experiences this term with any students who do use the e-text. My school started an iPad experiment this year, and our academic dean has started yammering a lot about “21st-century education,” so I think that e-texts will be something we’ll have to deal with in the next few years. In the meantime, I declared my classroom a “no laptops zone” (during class periods, anyway) two years ago, and it’s been fabulous. It’s not that I’m against e-readers (and in fact have one myself); it’s that (a) shiny toys in the classroom tend to prove distractions, and (b) I don’t see how one can do the kind of close reading and analysis on an e-text that one can on a printed page. So I’ll be eager to hear how it goes.

  4. For what it’s worth, I’ve given up the explicit fight against e-readers in my lit classes, but I’m very clear about the level of note-taking a student needs to do in order to use an e-text effectively (I give them a “reading journal” handout), and once students see that, and realize that I won’t accommodate them when they can’t find something that I point to in class, most opt for the paper version of the books for me, and they use e-texts in classes where less is demanded of them as readers. This passive approach has worked better for me than banning e-texts outright – partly because then I don’t feel like I have to spend my time and energy policing them.

    One reason I don’t take a harder line is that a lot of my students end up going the e-text route because they don’t want to carry around 100 lbs. of books on the days they are on campus – most of my students are commuters, and a good many of them load all of their classes into two or three days a week. I understand the impulse not to want to carry the books for five courses like a pack mule. So, their decision isn’t about cost, nor is it about reading in the 21st century. It’s about their backpacks being freaking heavy.

  5. Oh, and another thing that I’ve begun doing is that I include material from the edition that I have ordered (so, stuff from the introduction, or supplementary essays, etc.) on tests, which makes it much more explicit why they should have that particular book and not another. Yes, I talk about that stuff in class, too, but students who have the correct edition do tend to do better than ones who are just trying to get it from class.

  6. Crazy – Your policy about note-taking, etc., is *exactly* the route I’m going to take. And What Now – yeah, I have a no-electronics ban in most of my courses, for the same reasons, but in the two with these e-texts, I’ll lift it for those weeks only.

    Prof. de Breeze — Re: The Magicians, I’m teaching it in an intro to literary study class, so we cover a gamut of genres, and talk a lot about genre itself. I always assign two novels, one 19th century and more “traditional” and one contemporary, that plays with genre or style (or both) in some way. Magicians is pretty straightforward in its narrative structure, but of course, it majorly fucks around with the expectations of fantasy novels (explicitly taking on Narnia, and, to some extent, Harry Potter, as I’m sure you know). I figure enough of the students will have read the Narnia books and most of them will be the HP generation, so they’ll get it. They’ll either love it or hate it, and I can’t wait to see which. Oh, and also, it will be following Jane Eyre (which I always teach as a kind of mash-up of genres for her different experiences), and I’m interested in their drawing thematic connections between the two works.

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