Monday, June 27, 2011

Jump Right in, the Water's Fine

Jonathan Rees

In the new issue of the Journal of the Historical Society, Allan Kulikoff makes a series of suggestions about how to improve history education at the higher ed level. One of the problems he cites is that:

Historians have uncovered entirely too many social facts to digest. The glut in scholarship sets the stage for increasingly impenetrable survey textbooks, puts ever-longer lists of must-read books before graduate students, narrows the focus of dissertation research, and increases the flood of unreadable monographs.

There seems to be a budding consensus on the textbook part of that complaint, as no less a personage as David McCullough recently unloaded on them in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all.

Mr. McCullough's eyebrows leap at his final point: "And they're so badly written. They're boring! Historians are never required to write for people other than historians."

I would take issue with the notion that the facts in most textbooks are comic in their political correctness, since McCullough and I clearly have different priorities. Nonetheless, we historians should probably all agree with the notion that fitting everything we want students to know and think about history between the covers of a single volume has become increasingly difficult in the last forty years, at least since the advent of the New Social History (which is, of course, now rather old). Textbook authors have to make choices, and it is inevitable that those of use who assign their books will disagree with many of the choices that they make.

While Kulikoff proposes a series of interesting suggestions attacking the entire crisis in history education (which I’ll let you read yourself by getting a hold of the JHS June issue), I have a modest proposal of my own to take care of the textbook problem: don’t assign one. No, I’m not kidding. I ditched the textbook in my survey class last semester for the first time and was delighted by the results.

While I’d like to credit a prominent history blogger from the northern part of my state for giving me the idea, the truth is that I had been thinking about killing my textbook for years, but never had the nerve to try it until I read that she had already done so. I had been switching textbooks about once a year for years and was unsatisfied with every text I tried before I started assigning primary sources instead. It’s not as if all textbooks are as badly written as McCullough suggests they are (although some clearly are), it was that none of them emphasized the same facts and themes that I did in class. I wanted a textbook that compliments my teaching rather than one that provides a competing narrative. Now I build my own reading list based upon what I teach already and have more time left to teach other skills besides memorization.

What did my students think? I did a special evaluation toward the end of the course and they seemed to like it just as much as I did. Yes, this might be expected when you’re giving them less reading, but I like to compare my new syllabus to the Sugar Act of 1764: I assign fewer pages than I used to, but I enforce the reading of the pages that I still assign much more stringently. Deep in my heart I knew that nobody read the textbook before, but now I see the documents I assign and teach get directly referenced on the best student essays. By pouring fewer facts into their heads, I’m convinced that fewer of them are coming out on the other side.

Why admit to such pedagogical heresies in a public forum?

I’m convinced that if more of us no-textbook professors make ourselves known, more historians will join the bandwagon. I was once afraid to go with my gut, but I’m through living in fear of the unknown. Just because you’ve assigned a textbook in the past (the same way that your teachers assigned you a textbook and their teachers assigned them a textbook), you do not have to assign a textbook in the future. Think of the students in your survey classes who will never take another history class. Do you really want their last memory of our discipline to be an overly-long, dull book without an argument and written by a committee?

If you’re happy with your survey textbook, then disregard this post. If not, then I say jump right in, the water’s fine.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo. He blogs about history and other matters at More or Less Bunk.


dan allosso said...

I've been fascinated by the fact that in its latest iteration, Lulu seems to be trying to address the "education on demand" market ( ). Call them course-packs if you like, but aren't they really replacement textbooks? Anybody making/using these? The difference between this and putting a series of readings on a Blackboard site, it seems to me, is that these might possibly filter out of the specific course, into the general public. I suppose there would be copyright issues that don't need to be addressed when you post a reading to a course-specific site; but it might be worth exploring...

hcr said...

I'm with you. I can't tie my courses to a textbook because my emphases are so different than the ones in the texts.

I started using a textbook only when the students in a large U.S. survey at a state university asked me to approve one for them to follow along with lectures. I just assigned the sections of my favorite text (Davidson and Gienapp's Nation of Nations) to go along with the readings as an approved text they could read if they felt the need to review the material I covered in class. All discussions, papers, and so on were on the weekly primary sources. This seems to work. I've never used a textbook in a smaller class even in the survey, and never felt a lack.

I guess I'm a bit surprised to hear that most people use a text. Is that the norm?

And as for the custom course materials, Dan, it seems to me there's some value to students really seeing that their readings come from actual journals (even if on-line), websites, and so on. Haven't tried lulu and that sort of thing, though.

Good post. I had never thought about textbooks as essential before. If they are, I'd better do some rethinking....

Joel said...

I use textbooks in two of my classes, but for completely different reasons. In my big survey of Modern Latin America (1800 to the present), I use a textbook because with so much to cover the students can turn to the textbook for supplementary information and cases I miss. There are also seven regular history books in the class.

In my history of Brazil, I teach a brief textbook as the first reading because so few students know the basic outlines of Brazilian history. It gives them a framework and we come back to the textbook when discussing other readings, etc.

If I assign an article, I just use something on JSTOR, etc. that all the students can access.

I think one area where ebooks are having a big impact is in the sciences. A friend who teaches chemistry has ordered chapters from various textbooks without having to commit to any one.

I think this is the future of high school social studies and history textbooks. Soon, it won't matter what the Texas board of ed says about the age of the earth (they think it isn't very old) or that they don't like certain founding fathers (Jefferson may not have even been in Philly according to the folks in Austin), because Texas can have its chapters and Massachusetts can have its. My guess is that the kids in Texas may end up peaking at the Massachusetts chapters. . . .

Jonathan said...


The best indication I can give you that textbooks are the norm is the number of them out there. Big publishers wouldn't bother with them if they didn't make money. Less obviously, there wouldn't be steady supplemental income for professors of all kinds to review those texts if they didn't sell well.

I still help publishers by reviewing texts whenever they're willing to pay me for it. They always ask what text I use, and I now dutifully put "none." As a result, I'm expecting to be thrown off the gravy train any day now.

GReece said...

I am a new teacher, and I use a textbook while teaching my 8th graders American history, but my focus is more on leading students through analyzing primary sources. Unfortunately, our district's common assessment pulls many of its questions directly from the textbook, making it difficult to go without it entirely. With the push toward national (common core) standards and testing, I imagine testing questions (multiple choice, most likely) will have to be pulled from some common text. While it would be nice to think that the questions will be pulled from primary sources, it seems likely that a common textbook will be required in order for students to pass these tests, and it will actually matter more "what the Texas board of ed says about the age of the earth." This is only a K-12 type of problem but one I thought worth mentioning.

dan allosso said...

I just went off and read the Kulikoff article you cited. He narrates two hypothetical career tracks, one based on the way things are, the other based on changes he’d like to see made. Interestingly, the subject of the first story leaves the academy and uses her knowledge to write bestselling historical novels. The second publishes “a biography of an early twentieth-century female French architect…to substantial acclaim.” Does who’s seen as the winner and who’s seen as the loser in these stories tell us anything about the state of things?

Peter Pappas said...

I've worked on a few high school textbook projects (including - A History of the United States, Daniel Boorstin) and I'm all for tossing the textbook out.

I've put together a Slideshare of resources that your readers might enjoy "The Student As Historian - DBQ Resources and Strategies"