Students Put Off by Pricey Art Textbook That Has No Art

Kathy Shailer has some explaining to do.

Ms. Shailer is dean of the faculty of liberal arts and sciences at OCAD University, an art-and-design college in Ontario that bills itself as “Canada’s university of the imagination.” This week, the National Post reports, she’ll meet with some first-year students who are upset about their new art-history textbook, which costs $180 and happens to be missing a crucial feature: artwork.

More than 300 students have signed a petition, which reached the popular tech blog TechDirt and The Huffington Post, calling the new book “preposterous” and pointing out the obvious: “Pictures are essential for studying art history.”

One student’s father, Brent Ashley, has blogged about the matter this week, amid rumors that the university had created the custom textbook without artwork because it couldn’t get copyright permission to print the images.

Not so, said Ms. Shailer, who wrote in a letter to students that the university’s decision to leave artwork out of the custom book was intentional. If the university had gotten clearance on all of the artwork, she said, the book would have cost $800.

To see the images that are missing from their new textbooks, students can use instructions to access the artwork online. But as the newspaper pointed out, the prospect of jumping back and forth between textbook and Web site isn’t popular with students:

“I really dislike the fact that we need to go online, and move back and forth from two different eBooks, in order to get images for one physical copy of a book that has no images in it,” says a student named Asim in a post on the OCAD petition. “It is definitely a waste of my time and money as a first-year student!”

In an interview with the news Web site OpenFile, Ms. Shailer defended the custom creation, arguing that comparing it with standard texts is unfair because it covers a broader range of material than any one book:

“What this text does is bring together a very good art history text, and a very good design text, and a lot of material so that we could bring in aboriginal and Canadian art as well,” says Shailer. According to Shailer, most standard art history texts focus heavily on western European art history while giving less space and attention to Canadian or First Nations perspectives.

For his part, Mr. Ashley was about to chalk up the controversy to a misunderstanding—until he saw the preview chapters of the textbook and posted an image of them online (we’ve reposted his image above). He called the final product “an unmitigated sham of a travesty of a mockery of a hand-drawn-facsimile of a textbook.”

How might the university solve this controversy and make the printed textbook easier to use? One TechDirt commenter offered a sly suggestion: “Just put in a thousand word description. It’s all the same.” Or maybe the students at Canada’s “university of the imagination” could simply use … their imaginations.

Read Ms. Shailer’s letter to students below.

Letter From the Dean to LBST 1B04 Students Re Textbook

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