Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching


Textbook Stack courtesy of Greenasian on Flickr:

At the ProfHacker website, Amy Cavendar has written an interesting post about her plans this fall to jettison using a textbook in one of her introductory Political Issues course. She makes the case that doing away with a textbook will enable her classes to address more current issues, allow students to contribute to the reading-selection process, and also cut down on the cost to students.

As with most education- or pedagogy-related posts I read, I try to consider how a particular idea, assignment, or class structure might function in my own classroom. One of the consistent challenges in this thinking process for me comes in trying to assess whether these ideas — many of which are often employed by college professors — could have applicability in my secondary school classroom, and if so, what changes could I make so that this idea would work.

Cavender’s idea about moving away from textbooks is quite compelling and has a lot to recommend it. For classes that deal with current events-type topics, I see the applicability of moving away from the textbook even more. However, given the wealth of resources online, including many online textbooks (notable among those is Bridging World History, the University of Houston’s “Digital History,” and George Mason University’s “History Matters”) it seems like avoiding a physical textbook might also be viable for more traditional history courses. On top of those secondary/tertiary-type overview textbooks, the internet also has a wealth of primary source repositories that teachers could use in conjunction with these digital textbooks. Foremost among these resources is, of course, Paul Halsall’s excellent and über-extensive Internet History Sourcebook. Moreover, in the secondary school context where students often shuttle between 45 minute classes with a quick passing period in between, moving away from physical (~15 lb.) textbooks might also save students future medical bills for lower back surgeries.

So, in spite of all these resources, and the seeming viability of making this type of adoption happen (particularly for 1:1 laptop schools), why do textbooks still hold such appeal?

Perhaps one could make the case from a pedagogical standpoint that having a physical textbook enables students, who are still developing reading comprehension skills and strategies, to have a concrete object which they can annotate and highlight. While I certainly believe that active reading (or SQ3R or  making “marginal notes” or whatever else you want to call it) is vital to helping students develop these comprehension skills, having a physical textbook is not a prerequisite to making this happen. As I wrote last summer, however, I think Diigo (or Zotero, perhaps) can serve this function of enabling students to annotate digital texts in a way that fosters a similar engagement with the text as does marking with a highlighter and writing in the margins. Moreover, dedicated e-readers, like the Kindle, and the iPad have either built-in annotating functionality or have third-party programs, like iAnnotate, that offer this ability for PDF files and other formats of e-books. Therefore, I don’t think that the annotation argument holds up very well.

In all actuality, perhaps labeling the general reaction toward textbooks as a “philia” is overly generous. In reality, what I hear from most students about textbooks in general is that they’re boring and generally unlikable. Often this negative reaction seems to hinge most immediately on whether or not a student has to carry a heavy textbook home or to class, in which case I take the “ughs” about a textbook to be as much about it physicality as its contents. In all fairness, I perhaps predispose students to some of these negative reactions, as I work to make clear that the scope and depth of a textbook (particularly one covering such a massive range of material as a “World History” textbook) is necessarily limited, leaving the narrative and quality/persuasiveness of its explanations often lacking.

Leopold von Ranke. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In spite of the students’ adverse reactions to the textbook’s bulkiness or its superficiality, they often seem attached to it and desirous of having it play a central role in class. As I’ve mulled over the reasons for this odd attraction, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of this appeal is attributable to a nineteenth century German who the students have never heard of, but who nevertheless holds immeasurable sway over their perception of history: Leopold von Ranke.

Ranke, of course, was the historian whose calls for objectivity and primary-source based research has fundamentally shaped the modern historical profession. His guiding principle was that history should be written “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” (“how it actually has been” or “essentially happened”…thanks, Herr Wikipedia!). As a result of this idea, the general popular perception of history sees it as a recounting of the true past — a settled narrative that cannot be disputed. While I strive to help students see the ways in which history is actually a narrative fundamentally shaped by the historian, my bête noir (and the namesake of this blog) The History Channel and other elements of popular culture, aid and abet their weighty textbook allies in continuing to portray the past as a series of objective events that happened. Period.

Where does this fit in with the appeal of textbooks? I think that if one’s operating assumption is that the past is a settled set of facts that is unshifting and immemorial, it makes total sense that those facts would be held within the authoritative form of a textbook. (Although, of course, one need only to look to the Texas School Board’s contentious fight of the social studies standards to see the ways in which the past is very much not settled in its significance.) In this sense, textbooks have a similar status to other Enlightenment-developed repositories of information, notably the Encyclopedia and the Dictionary. All of these are not only physically weighty, which ostensibly confirms their importance, but they also carry connotations of authoritative knowledge, leading to the common but false assumptions that, for instance, one builds vocabulary via memorizing the dictionary or becomes a good history student by memorizing the textbook. (The issue of “memory” and “memorizing” is an important one for history teachers to consider in course design and content presentation, but that’s a post for another day).

So, when the rubber hits the road in the classroom, students and their perception of what they’re learning is often shaped by the progress they make through the textbook. (Ah, the Enlightenment strikes again! “Progress” [in this case from page 1 to X], forward movement toward a clearly defined ends, is, in and of itself, seen as a good thing.) Working from these assumptions, it then holds making one’s way from start to finish in the textbook constitutes learning and the accomplishment of something meaningful. Moreover, because the textbook carries a sense of authoritativeness and completeness, straying from its contents and structure can strike students as a serious omission. Similarly, because of the textbook’s totalizing qualities, it doesn’t encourage students to really branch out beyond its contents and explore the issues it discusses in other sources or from other perspectives, although most textbooks do include “For Further Reading” lists at the end of chapters and sections.

Thinking about textbooks through this framework helps me make sense of the occasional consternation that accompanies skipped chapters, sections, or readings that are assigned out-of-order. I suppose the potential for this consternation is only exacerbated when textbooks aren’t present at all and the course readings are clearly subject to change. Now these shifts in course direction could depend on a variety of factors: the teacher’s agenda, the level of the students, or perhaps the students’ own interests and passions. In the latter case, the onus for learning and course guidance falls on the students and teacher in a shared way as they collaboratively sort out what direction to take the course. (Shelly Blake-Plock writes about his plans to implement this approach for his classes next year.) It is possible that a class does follow the lead of the textbook because that decision makes the best pedagogical sense. However, in some cases it seems like textbooks become the default option because their authority and solidity strikes all parties involved as comforting–the impartial third-party (the book) takes the driver’s seat and everyone else (students and teacher) goes along for the ride.

In short, it seems that when class readings lose their imposing physical form, glossy pictures and maps, and dense columns of text, the authoritativeness of the past becomes even more clearly undermined.  Now, I don’t really have any normative direction for all these thoughts or ideas about how to revise textbooks or digital textbooks, how to reshape history courses, or how to change the popular cultural understanding of textbooks and attitudes toward history. For me, course planning and curriculum design is an ever-evolving process that, while challenging, is immensely satisfying intellectually and is at the core of why I love teaching. Thinking about how students learn, considering what strategies and tools will help them become more flexible thinkers, and implementing plans to make those things happen is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job. I guess I’m just sorting out what role textbooks will play in this process and how I’ll frame them for my students.

I wonder what experiences or observations others, both at the college and the secondary level, have about textbooks and students’ reactions to them. Is this a phenomenon that is particular to history textbooks? Although I recognize that math and science textbooks are similarly constructed, their authoritativeness seems somehow more legitimate to me. Par usuale, any and all thoughts are appreciated.


2 thoughts on “Textbook-philia

  1. Pingback: SchlagerBlog » Blog Archive » History Textbooks: Is the Revolution Upon Us?

  2. Pingback: Colbert & Palin: The “Truth” of the Past, Wikipedia, and Historical Re-enactment « The History Channel This Is Not…

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