I just ran across a story Nate Hoffelder posted on The Digital Reader, originally from the New York Post, about a Brooklyn English teacher, Todd Friedman, who’s been put on academic suspension for circumventing the school’s curriculum. He ordered 102 copies of a paperback book from a publisher, ending up paying about $220 including shipping out of his own pocket, then sold them to students for $2 each.
Subsequently, the assistant principal of his school filed an academic complaint against him for breaching a regulation saying that textbooks aren’t supposed to be sold. And yet, Friedman points out, students have been paying $6 each for copies of Hamlet from the school’s bookstore for years now, and that’s never been seen as a problem. Friedman believes this is retaliation for an unfair-labor charges complaint he filed against the school in a dispute over curriculum last year. It’s not the first curriculum dispute Friedman’s been involved in, either; he left his previous school over being disallowed from teaching sexually explicit Pulitzer Prize finalist Continental Drift.
It was an interesting-enough story, but one detail Nate left out altogether was what book Friedman had resold to his students. If his troubles with his previous school had stemmed from Continental Drift, what scandalous tract of iniquity was deemed so potentially offensive to young eyes that this school declined to provide it and Friedman had to go outside regulations to distribute it? A quick peek at the New York Post story reveals it was none other than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, widely considered to be the progenitor of modern science fiction.
And what’s more, it’s in the public domain.
It occurs to me that Friedman could have avoided opening himself to academic suspension if he’d just advised his students—most of whom probably have a smartphone or tablet by now—to download it from Project Gutenberg. It’s freely available online to anyone who needs to read it, after all. For that matter, they could get Hamlet the same way and not have to fork over six bucks for that.
But then, paper books are probably more useful in education right now, so that students can mark them up and take notes on them. And two bucks seems entirely reasonable for a print copy of Frankenstein; you’ll probably find public-domain repackagers selling it for more as an e-book.
In the end, it probably just serves as an illustration of that old aphorism that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so small. Better not resell a $2 public domain book to your students or you won’t like what happens next!