Monday, August 13, 2012

Kill Your Textbook

Jonathan Rees

In light of the interview I did with NPR a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d try to explain a little more here about why I stopped assigning a U.S. history survey textbook.  Since the decision to assign anything is almost always the teacher’s or the professor’s alone, this post is primarily aimed at my fellow educators.  However, as this decision has a tremendous effect on everyone else in the classroom too, I hope history students (or maybe just former history students) will chime in below with comments.

Before I made the switch to a no-textbook survey class, I was assigning a different textbook every year or two for about five or six years.  What made me unhappy with them wasn’t the quality of the scholarship.  Every one of them was solid in that department.  What made me unhappy with them was the alignment between what was in them and my lectures.  I came to believe that they were all teaching against me rather than with me.

What does that mean?  Well, like I wrote in my original post here on this subject a few months ago, anyone teaching the post-1877 US survey class has a lot of ground to cover.  With a limited amount of time and lots of history worth discussing, something is inevitably going to be left out.  Textbook writers have it a little easier.  They can include more material in print than I’ll ever get to during a 14-week course.  Yet it seemed to me that the relationship between what I was teaching and the material that appeared in whichever textbook I was using was getting further out of whack with each passing year. 

Of course, there were inevitable areas of overlap.  I teach the New Deal.  There’s a New Deal chapter in every textbook.  But I had started teaching the New Deal more as a series of themes rather than a long list of programs, which made having students read about programs that I no longer taught seem like a waste of their time.  And then there’s the material that I’ve been teaching for years that nobody seemed to cover well.  Take the 1960s, for example.  I think it’s important to teach the counterculture, but even the best survey textbooks treat Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey with kid gloves, assuming they bother to cover them at all.

Then there’s the elephant sitting in the corner of every introductory history classroom:  the fact that so many students don’t read the assigned textbook no matter what.  Sure, I always imagined that the best students could use it as a kind of encyclopedia, looking up the terms that they don’t really know, but that was a pretty expensive study aid that I was making them buy.  Ultimately, I was reading (albeit very quickly) so many textbooks in so few years that I lost interest in ever reading another one again.  Be honest with yourself now:  Do you read every new edition of your chosen history survey textbook?  Have you ever read even one edition cover-to-cover yourself?  If I wasn’t willing to read the textbook I assigned, how could I in good conscience make my students read it too?

Overcome with pedagogical despair, I wrote a post on my blog critiquing modern textbooks without having a really good solution to the problem.  That’s when a colleague of mine at our sister institution (who you may know as Historiann) left a comment suggesting that I adopt her approach and assign no survey textbook at all.  I remember exactly what first flashed through my mind as soon as I read her comment:  “You can do that?” 

Yes, you can.  As the secondary school teacher from Alaska suggested towards the end of my time on Talk of the Nation, there are plenty of principals out there who might look askance at high school teachers who tried innovating in this manner.  Perhaps there are some department chairmen out there who might frown upon contingent faculty who tried doing something that’s still rather novel.  People with tenure, however, have no good excuse.  You really can teach a rigorous American history course without a textbook, and speaking personally I’ve never been happier.

Please understand that it’s not as if I’ve chucked all assigned reading out the window.  I’ve replaced my textbook with edited primary sources.  Also, as always, I assign three other short books on a rotating basis covering subjects that I’ll explore in greater depth during class time.  I think of this arrangement as the equivalent of the Sugar Act of 1764.  Like the British Empire, I’ve lowered the reading tariff, but now it’s much more strictly enforced through things like ID quizzes and requirements for details on my essay exams.  Since the documents I select now correspond perfectly to what I cover in lecture, I’m also sending the unmistakable signal that this is the history that students have to know.

I don’t want to teach from a textbook.  I want to assign readings that reinforce the way I teach already.  Equally importantly, by killing my textbook I’ve killed the kind of coverage pressures that I discussed on NPR.  This not only gives me more time to teach the history that I want to teach, it gives me more time to teach skills like writing and reading that my students often desperately need in order to succeed throughout their college careers and beyond.

Unfortunately, the kinds of commercial demands that James Loewen famously described so memorably almost twenty years ago now still make it impossible for commercial textbooks to enable the kind of flexibility that history teachers should demand.  However, thanks to the vast array of primary sources that are now available to history teachers all over the world, it’s really easy to assemble textbook substitutes online or to use document banks assembled by publishers of all kinds.  This way, we can all teach what we want, not what they want – but only if we’re willing to break with the past and take the first step in a new pedagogical direction.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo.  He blogs about education technology, labor and American history at More or Less Bunk.  He is also a course editor and consultant for Milestone Documents.  His book, Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life: A Brief Introduction, will be released in September by M.E. Sharpe.


Randall said...

Jonathan: I'm tempted. But not quite there yet. I suppose, for some reason or another, I still believe in that encyclopedia idea. So, if students are more interested in some topic we passed over briefly, they can read a little more about it in the text.

I tend to use the Prenhall Faragher et al book for the Am survey. A decent narrative, lots of images and maps, bibliographies, and good material that I draw on for the exams and quizzes.

Yet, true enough, I only plowed through it once when I first assigned it about 8-9 years ago. Guilty as charged.

Neil Schlager said...

For anyone interested in evaluating our primary source-based service, which Jonathan refers to at the end, here's the correct link:

David Trowbridge said...

As students come to us with less basic knowledge about history, the need for a textbook increases. And what is wrong with students being exposed to multiple viewpoints and topics beyond the lecture? An open primary source reader such as Milestone is far better than a static one. The other half of the solution is to adopt an open textbook--they are free so there is no more concern about affordability and access. Perhaps more importantly, instructors can customize the book as much or as little as they want. This can include primary sources and examples from local history. PLEASE-we must not give in. Our students NEED a good textbook to bridge the gap between where they are and where they must be.

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