Earlier this week, I spent an hour with new freshmen talking about how to stay on the good side of their instructors. Topics included classroom behavior, communication, and shared responsibility. One question asked by a member of the group was particularly cogent: "Will my teacher expect me to have the textbooks on the first day?"
It's probably one of those unspoken points of consensus, I think. At least I've never heard anybody talk about it -- so I don't know, I suppose, whether there is actually consensus. I told the student what I would do in their shoes, and therefore what I tend to expect as an instructor. The smart move is always to wait until after the first day of class to buy your books. Maybe the instructor will let you know that an older edition (that you can pick up used more cheaply) is acceptable. Maybe you'll find out that you won't need one of the books until late in the semester. It might even be the case that a book marked "required" turns out to shade more toward "recommended." So I would never expect the students to have books in hand on the first day. On that day I show them the books, I let them know that they are available at the bookstore, and I point them to the syllabus that shows them when we will be reading them.
But you know, I found out today that I do expect the students to get the books before the second day of class. A couple of my students came up to me after class to tell me that they've ordered the books from Amazon, but don't have them yet and don't know when they'll get them. One even asked if she could borrow mine to do the reading that is assigned for our next meeting.
As I formulated a response (no, I need my books to prepare for class; you'll need to see if you can share books with one of your classmates to do your homework until yours come), I realized that my expectations are more specific than I had communicated to the freshmen on Tuesday. No, you don't have to buy your books before you attend class for the first time. But yes, you have to be prepared for the possibility that you will be assigned something out of those books a day or two later. So here's what you do: either buy early on Amazon and forego the opportunity to finesse the textbook list, or buy at the bookstore as soon as you exit the classroom and forego the opportunity to get a discount. Next time, I'll be able to give the whole answer.