One of the least fun aspects of my job as coordinator of our Western Civ course is dealing with the constant stream of textbook reps that flows through my office door. They come to see me because our course enrolls approximately 1,500 students a semester, which means that if their book wholesales for $50 and all of our instructors assigned it, they’d be getting about $150,000 in sales just from this one course at GMU. It’s a guaranteed market, because every undergraduate at GMU must take the class to graduate.
Back in the day (2001) when I started running this course (which, by the way, is taught in sections of 25 and spans all of Western Civ in one semester!), we assigned only one textbook. The idea behind this one textbook decision (which predated my arrival) was that in this way all students at our university would share some sort of common intellectual experience. I was very uncomfortable from the beginning about this decision because (a) I don’t think textbooks provide anything like an ‘intellectual experience’ and (b) instructors like to pick their own textbooks. Well, we’ve dumped the common textbook idea and instead are now assigning a common historical monograph–something that is actually thought provoking rather than mind-numbing.
But it hasn’t stopped the publishers’ reps from knocking at my door. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all perfectly nice people and several of them are genuinely good at what they do. But there are two big problems with the product they’re selling. The first is price. Western Civ textbooks range in price at our bookstore from just over $50 to just over $80, with most clustered toward the top end of this range. Given all the other pressures on their finances, many of our students just don’t buy the textbook. Or, worse, they buy the textbook and then don’t buy the other books–the ones with real historical substance–because they can’t afford them.
The second, and larger problem with the textbooks, is that they are so out of sync with the historical profession. Here I’m speaking only about Western Civ textbooks, because I don’t read World History or US History textbooks. But Western Civ textbooks I know pretty well, both because I’ve assigned plenty of them over the years and because last year I thought long and hard about writing one myself. I even got to the tentative proposal stage and my proposal got very positive reviews from the dozen or so people who looked at it for the publisher. But in the end I decided that, as much as I wanted the riches that might flow from a successul book, it seemed like a black hole that would suck me in and never let me out.
So, what do I mean by “out of sync”?
Pick a textbook, any textbook, and try to find the historians in it. In fact, try to find the practice of history in it. Oh, sure, there are primary sources and suggestions for how to work with them, but try to find the disagreements among historians over what that evidence means. Try to find competing the narratives that are the stuff of what we do. Try to find anything other than the voice of God telling the student reader that this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and here are some reasons why it all happened this way. Historical scholarship thrives on uncertainty, but textbook writing thrives on certainty.
Have you ever met a historian who said, “Oh, I just love my survey textbook?”
I’d be willing to bet that one reason why you probably haven’t is the fact that textbooks are so certain about everything they present.
Okay, so this is not a new critique of textbooks. So why should the publishers fear asteroids? Have you visited any of their websites? The vast majority of the material provided there is five to ten years behind both developments in history in new media forms and at least as far behind (if not farther) behind advances in what we know about how students learn about the past.
Just last week one the eager sales reps in my office told me, in response to my question about what they were doing that was new and innovative, that the big new thing for them was e-books. E-books? New? Oh my.
So, like the dinosaurs before them, they publishers of these books better start thinking about new income streams before too much longer. Students are going to stop buying the books because they are too expensive, professors are going to stop assigning them (a) because they are too expensive and (b) because they just aren’t very good, and even if professors assign them and students buy them, they are likely to remain largely unread. Why? Because, in case the publishers haven’t noticed, our students avoid reading books as much as possible. And so if the book is expensive and the professor is unenthusiastic about it anyway, what possible motivation will the student have to read it.
I promise not to rant in my next post…