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08 January 2009

Flash from the Past

It is with a sense of triumph that I look back on my first year of graduate school and a declaration I made then. I resolved to war against the textbook, and to teach with some other form of writing. This declaration was not a statement against reading. No, I expected and expect students in my history classes to read a lot--too much, they often write in the evaluations. Textbooks are a genre that have no life outside of classrooms. Perhaps that means they should have no life at all.

The alternative to textbooks that I had in mind is described well by Lendol Calder on a syllabus he employs at Augustana College. I'm indebted to Historiann's "Manifesto Against 'Coverage'" and John Fea's comments there, as well as his "Uncoverage" post for bringing Calder's work to my notice. The online version of Calder's 2006 article, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey" in the Journal of American History has links to his syllabus:
What? No Textbook? In fact, we will read not one but two major histories: one by Howard Zinn, the other by Paul Johnson. These are not traditional “textbooks.” In fact, real people have been known to read them, which one can’t say about textbooks.
Calder, HI 132 Syllabus
There we find an alternative, and a definition of sorts: books read by "real people," as distinct from college students and professors. His texts are Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States and Paul Johnson, A History of the American People. Thus, the students read a liberal view, and a conservative one; they read an American writing about America, and they read the words of a foreigner, too.


My Pledge

I cannot produce solid evidence that I pledged to eschew all textbooks during that first year of graduate school. Moreover, in my comments to Historiann's "Manifesto" I named a textbook that I have assigned, so I've failed at least once to uphold that alleged pledge. Nevertheless, I dug through my files and located a book review I wrote twenty years ago. In my seminar in American Historiography, one of the assignments was to write a book review of a US history survey textbook. The professor assigned which one. Mine was Gary B. Nash, et al., The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

While most of my peers were busy grappling with texts that had all sorts of gaps, exclusions, and suppressions of the emphasis on race, class, and gender that was then in vogue, I had the leader of the movement to include all these. Even worse, the text reflected the state of the art in its graphics, sidebars, and supplemental apparatus. I spent the obligatory three pages describing the enormously rich features of this text, and managed to highlight one or two small quibbles.

Midway through page four, I began my criticism:
...apart from the expensive extras, and underneath the colorful embellishments still lurks the traditional form of a textbook. Whether this form has outlived its usefulness needs to be considered.
The authors expend several sentences in their Preface explaining that an intent of the book is to provoke thought on the part of students. It is precisely this goal, however, that is ill served by textbooks. I think that now matter how balanced and innovative a text may be, it is doubtful that such a form will ever prove adequate to this task--indeed, as I sought to illustrate earlier, it is a text's inadequacies that are more likely to stimulate questioning (the first step in creative thought). A coherent narrative that attempts to present the history of a people generally cannot do more than present a string of conclusions to be memorized. Until writers of instructional materials leave the analysis incomplete (or, at least, stop pretending to have completed it) to force students to struggle to produce coherence, learning history will remain largely passive reception of information. A word that aptly describes such a process is brainwashing.
"Review of Nash," February 1988
I don't think I agree with everything written by that young historian in training, and it's looks as though he might benefit from reading Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Still, the kid might have a point.

1 comment:

historiann said...

I'm with you James in the war on textbooks. (But since I've published 2 manifestoes this week already, I think I'll give it a rest until August, when I'm preparing for my fall classes!

I've never assigned a textbook in my survey classes, ever. This bugs a lot of students, who want a book they can cram with so that they don't actually have to attend class and read the more complicated primary sources, analytical articles, and monographs. Well, there are a dozen other surveys being offered in any given semester--go find one that uses a textbook and doesn't require attendance. (But if that's the case--why not just offer these credits online? Sheesh.)

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