Are History Textbooks On Their Way Out?

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Over the past two years I’ve made the sharpest transitions in the way I approach the teaching of history.  In my survey courses I’ve dispensed with the traditional textbook in place of individual secondary sources.  I’ve also begun experimenting with Social Media applications as a way to broaden both the way my students communicate with one another as well as the audience for their projects.  The place of the textbook in the survey course raises a host of questions about the purpose of the course and the skills that we, as teachers, hope to impart to our students.  In a recent post, David Bill argues as to why textbooks ought to be permanently shelved in light of the advantages the Internet offers.  On the face of it I agree with Bill.  Not only are they much too expensive, they are also environmentally and economically unfriendly.  The crux of his argument is as follows:

No matter how you slice it, a textbook cannot provide the same richness, depth, and perspective as the Internet.  A textbook limits a student, it prevents inquiry and further investigation.  As educators, if we are attempting to develop critical thinkers and challenge our students to ask thoughtful questions, they need to have access to multiple points of view and should be able to investigate on their own.  A textbook cannot provide that, the Internet does.

To help make his point, Bill also includes a funny little satirical video made by a couple of high school students and their teacher which shares the limits of their history textbook.  I love the fact that they use my AP textbook to make their point.

Yes, there is something cute about the video, but what in the end is the point?  On the face of it there seems to be nothing mutually exclusive between the textbook and the Internet.  My guess is that Joe has a laptop within arms reach and if he wants to access more information about Frederick Douglass or check out a map to be saved for future reference he can do so.   Joe’s frustration is easy to identify and his point is well taken.  If we are to keep the discussion on the level of the ease with which information can be accessed than this is a non-issue: Internet 1, textbook, 0.  It seems to me, however, that the transition to a digital classroom is much more complex and involves questions that go beyond the ease with which students can navigate through dense amounts of information.

The tipping point in the Internet v. Textbook debate has much more to do with the way in which we conceive of the idea of the history survey as opposed to simply a question of information access.  As I mentioned in a recent post, the history textbook fits neatly into a traditional course whose overarching goal is to communicate a foundational narrative that can be absorbed and regurgitated in one form or another.  Within this framework instructors can introduce historical concepts such as perspective, causation, narrative, etc., but the textbook functions as the bedrock.  It serves as a reminder (even if not intentional) that there is a standard narrative that can be known and consumed for purposes such as the cultivation of good citizenship and polite conversation.  I should also mention that there is something very comforting about textbooks.  They may be overpriced and boring as hell, but they do provide a bit of comfort to students who need something tangible at an arm’s reach.  Even with my move away from textbooks to individual secondary sources I’ve had students inform me that they miss the textbook for these very reasons.  Of course, I freely admit that this probably has more to do with how they’ve been conditioned to think of as the study of history from an early age as opposed to anything innate. Our student friend, Joe, may in fact be more of an exception than the rule.  Some of our students, like Joe, who’ve embraced the Web2.0 Revolution have no doubt moved beyond this entirely and have embraced the potential of the digital classroom.  For these students, the value of information is measured in relationship to the number and quality of hyperlinks extending to other sites as well as their ability to utilize it for their own purposes.  In short, textbooks are static while the Internet is dynamic.

It’s become almost a truism that our students are much more technically savvy than the rest of us, but I’ve come to a different conclusion.  Yes, they spend a great deal of time on the Internet, but this does not necessarily translate into an ability to navigate and manage its content and tools successfully and in a way that deepens their understanding of the past.  The comfort level may be one thing, however, there are skills that still need to be taught.  The move away from textbooks will only happen once teachers are trained to think of the Internet as a tool to help students think historically and as historians in their own right.  It’s not just about being able to double-click for more information about Douglass or saving a map for future use.   My point is that the usefulness of textbooks hinges not simply on the ease with which students can access information, but on how instructors conceive of their classrooms.  In abandoning the textbook for the richness of the Internet, including Social Media tools as well as the vast array of primary sources, we are engaging our students to think about the process and presentation of history through the sifting of vast amounts of information.  I suspect that this is the main reason why textbooks will not be abandoned in the near future; their role remains deeply embedded within the history curriculum and they function as an anchor in a vast sea of information.  What we need is something more like a gestalt shift in our fundamental goals as history teachers.  The rethinking of the history classroom must happen on the K-12 levels, but especially in our undergraduate and graduate schools of education.  A few questions come to mind:

1. Is the study of history a set of facts to be memorized or a process to be experimented with and shaped into various forms?

2. Should we be emphasizing the complexity of fewer historic events over a cursory understanding of a more inclusive narrative?

3. To what extent are we comfortable as teachers with allowing students to draw their own conclusions about the past?

4. Are our classes designed to encourage students to think about history beyond the confines of our classrooms?

5. To what extent are we using our classes to encourage students to think about and weigh information?

Thanks for reading!

34 comments… add one

  • Nicole Osier Apr 10, 2009

    The use of the internet to teach history grades k-12 is a huge leap for teachers, students, school administration and parents. History is far easier to teach, “learn,” and “understand” when it is all in one book, laid out as a set of facts to be memorized and repeated. Often historical thinking is never reached by those who study history only as far as the undergraduate level. To use the internet would involve a higher level of thinking, once exposed to the vast world of studying the past students will begin to see the differing opinions, theories, and arguments that take place among historians. They will see that the past is not as simple as names and dates to be memorized. They will become aware that documents, events, and people from the past have been studied by many people and have come to mean many things. They are going to have to create ideas of their own, come to their own conclusions, and create their own arguments to support these conclusions. This is beyond the what is known, beyond the standards, and beyond a multiple choice exam. This makes moving away from the textbook uncomfortable and hard to accept.

  • Robert Moore Apr 10, 2009

    Kevin, Oh wow, I’ve got a lot to say about this, but I’m in a time pickle today working hard to wrap up the last portions of the last draft of the thesis before review. Bummer!!! I have to say, however, that I am especially interested in not just the electronic text, but a vision of what would be a dynamic electronic text. If you can envision what that might be, it’s worth getting excited over.

  • John Wood Apr 10, 2009

    The bureacracy of education at the local, state, and national levels keep textbooks coming. Parents don’t think their kids are learning anything unless they have a textbook. I issue books but don’t really use them. Our textbooks really don’t match the standards and really poorly written and researched. I am using more digital and internet resources every year. I wish I had more technology experience because I would certainly consider building a digital history classroom- I am doing that despite not always understanding though. I think the study of history and the way it is taught is extremely important- you still have the message and understanding but the facebook generation requires more the the current educational climate provides.

  • Robert Moore Apr 10, 2009

    John, Just an observation, but I think as we continue to use the Web more regularly in education, it’s becoming well past time to teach students how to read for the Web and write (especially as a means of expression) for the Web. Of course, I think as technical communicators, some of us are facing an uphill battle in convincing education systems for this need. All-in-all, the education possibilities are tremendous on the Web, but we need to teach students to take just as much advantage of all of the features of the Web as we have taught them, in the past, to take advantages of all that is/was print media.

  • Jim Cullen Apr 10, 2009

    I think you’re at the vanguard here, Kevin, raising a question that really should be more urgent than it is. I’m working on a piece on textbooks in e-book or subscription format for the July issue of Common-Place, wondering why they haven’t gained more traction in the industry (one answer: at half the price of bound books, they’re still too expensive, though perhaps more widespread adoption would create economy of scale). I do think that a text in some format has utility, because it’s a kind of database that has an imprimatur of scholarly authority — I’ll take Eric Foner any day over what I’m likely to find grazing across the web– that’s a touchstone, wherever else students might go online. In any case, I salute you for raising the issue and the vitality of the conversation you’re able to generate on this and other issues.

  • John Wood Apr 10, 2009

    I totally agree with your observation. I can’t imagine a classroom with the use of the internet- it was still pretty new in rural OK when I started teaching in the mid-1990′s. Also you are correct on the techinical communicator point- just think how much money states could save by not buying textbooks- that would certainly make textbook companies put out a better product. In most states the adopt books ever 5-10 years and honestly the books are outdated in their first year. Education has got to get rid of the whole in size fits all approach. Good post.

  • Greg Rowe Apr 10, 2009

    I think some of the hesitations of teachers to utilize more technology in the classroom than what they do is a liability question? Even with firewalls and security software, who is ultimately responsible if the teacher has her/his back turned and some kid looks up nude pictures? (This happened yesterday in one wing of our building that houses the diciplinary alternative education program — in a lab where the teacher sits in the middles of the room and the computers line the walls.)

    Perhaps in addition to looking at how to integrate the ‘Net into the classroom, we should look at how we teach and allow kids to use computers and the ‘Net. Too many students see it as a toy because many elementary schools offer computer time as a reward for good behavior or completing assignments. While the games (either installed or accessed on the Web) are educational, they are still games. So, when these kids get to middle school, computer labs are seen as playroom rather than tool sheds.

    Maybe these are concerns only middle school teachers have with this issue, but if we are truly expected to prepare our students for success in the real world, then I agree. we have to rethink how we utilize information. As I often tell my students, “It not so much having a lot of knowledge stored in your brain for recall, but rather knowing how to find what you want to know when you need to know it.” If that can be accomplished, in my opinion, knowledge takes care of itself.

  • Robert Moore Apr 10, 2009

    Greg – Sounds like the safety software isn’t performing up to par… or its an inadequate software package to fit the needs. Unless the child is already in hacker mode, software is out there that does the job.

    The gameplay thing is another issue I have worked with and it needs to be considered in the future in education. You are right, kids probably do see the computer as more of a toy than an educational tool. That’s actually a good thing because of the way that gaming is being integrated into real world work sector applications. I’ve seen apps where the worker has the allusion of playing when, in fact, actual work is being accomplished. I’ve been exposed to a great deal of this just this semester. Have you seen the second-life videos on my blog? That’s just one example of where this is going and it will apply to the “real world” on a broader scale within the next decade. Part of the reason for that is cost-effectiveness.

    I think a part of the preparation for “real world” is difficult in the technology sense because technology is moving forward so quickly. A person has to stay on top of emerging technologies or they will get steamrollered by them. I’m dealing with some technology use in which the theory has yet to be written. So, in a sense, I’m writing “beta-like theory.” Pretty cool, but a bit scary, especially when you are in a program in which they tell you that you are training for jobs that haven’t been created yet. They are coming though, and faster than we can imagine.

  • John Wood Apr 10, 2009

    Robert- I would like to see your blog, what is the address? Thanks.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2009

      John,

      Just click on Robert’s name and it will take you to his site.

  • Robert Moore Apr 10, 2009

    Thanks Kevin. John, yes, come on down… I think most of my tech stuff is under the “digital history” category

  • James F. Epperson Apr 10, 2009

    As the author of a (mathematics) textbook, the notion of going away from texts is disturbing ;-) Yes, math is different. But I would think the notion of a single text as the central resource for the course would have some value. I am entirely sympathetic to concerns about cost (except where my book is concerned, of course ;-)

  • Robert Moore Apr 10, 2009

    I don’t know James, the thought of a math concept represented hypertextually is pretty intriguing to me….

  • Robert Moore Apr 10, 2009

    James, Thinking more about books and history and books and math… some of us, I think, are able to see history come to life in print, others see it as boring and one-dimensional. Same goes with math in print. I wonder how many more people would be able to grasp concepts, theories, etc. through other visual displays and interactivity possible in the new media that is not available in print media. Not only that, but I wonder how many MORE would actually enjoy the subject matter if they learned through these dynamic forms.

  • Robert Moore Apr 10, 2009

    Kevin, Have you ever incorporated blogging as a learning platform in your class? Of course, I’m thinking strictly in terms of a confined system where exchanges are only between the students? If you have done this, have you also interjected quick lessons in re-learning writing and reading as applied to Web 2.0?

  • James F. Epperson Apr 10, 2009

    There are folks who incorporate what you called “new media” in their classes. The annual meeting of the American Mathematical Society usually has bunches of talks on this kind of thing. A real drag is that many browsers make it difficult to incorporate notation. My point is that a course needs a central defining resource, which is where the text still, IMO, has a role, be it in history or in math. The text is the rock on which the course is built. Certain areas of math do benefit greatly from presentations that are more dynamic. When I was teaching full-time, back in the 1990s, I did some of this kind of thing, but I still wanted a text around which to build the course.

  • Greg Rowe Apr 10, 2009

    Robert:

    Some of the kids are in “hacker mode” and do know the way around certain aspects of accessing sites they do not need to see. That being said, within about two minutes of the above mentioned student acessing the inappropriate site, district technology had called the school office to inform campus administration of the situation. We’ve had instances where a class is in the computer lab and students are caught by the system trying to access inappropriate material; technology often catches it before we leave the lab. Fortunately, in our district, the teacher has never been reprimanded for the bad behavior of students. Hopefully, it will stay that way and other districts will follow suit since this is the 21st century learning environment.

    - — -

    Most textbook companies write several different versions of texts for the various states because standards differ from state to state. It would seem both cost effective and easily accomplished to make the base text available on the Internet with the ability of the company to update material as new research is made available and tailor interactive texts to each state’s needs. Rather than

    We use a texts in our history department produced by a company that provides web-based, interactive materials to accompany the base text, including biographies and access to primary sources. A recent look at the site, however, shows the material is more a static database collection of material than a dynamic collection that is changing, except for a current events section to acompany the later chapters of the book.

    Even I, as much as I attempt to integrate technology into the classroom, find myself leaning on the crutch of the text too often. But perhaps that might be a place to start.

  • Greg Rowe Apr 10, 2009

    Sorry about the incomplete sentence…got to thinking faster than I can type. :)

  • Chris Apr 10, 2009

    Couldn’t agree more Kevin. I use the Internet whenever I can.

    Note, for Civil War WebQuests:
    http://www.soldierstudies.org/

    Chris

  • John Apr 10, 2009

    Okay, hmm, where to begin? Okay. First, as the old fogey on this site I remember even back in the mists of time when I was in elementary school, the text was not the be all and end all. It was the launching point for further reading and research from secondary texts. That just happened to be books I got from the library which were either much more current than the text or were classic books that were still valid.

    Second, I have no problem with the web. If I did, I wouldn’t be here. However, using the web as a teaching tool would require constant monitoring from teachers. There’s a lot of bogus information out there as we all know. Maybe the sources mentioned have built in filters to prevent that, and I’m missing something. If so, mea culpa.

    Finally, the word “information” appears again and again here. To paraphrase David McCullough, information is not knowledge. If it were we would all be geniuses. Here again, it is the duty of all teachers to guide their students in the skill of critical thinking. It is my fear that the web will become a crutch, just as teaching the same course year after year exactly from the text turned off many of my classmates as well as friends in the present day.

    Sorry for the rant, but that is my two cents or maybe my 25 cents considering the length.

    John

  • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2009

    Nicole, — You very nicely encapsulated much of my argument.

    John W., — Change in the public school system is no doubt much more difficult given the bureaucracy. Textbooks must go through a vetting process that reassures various interest groups that a standard narrative is being shared. Unfortunately, much of this discussion has little to do with learning and doing history.

    Greg, — I agree that there are certain challenges associated with using computers in the classroom as well as an ethical concern. One solution is to have students sign contracts that include consequences if violated. This is not really an argument against anything discussed in the post, but they are issues that need to be addressed at various levels throughout k-12.

    James, — I agree with Robert on this one. It seems to me that much of what I am talking about can be applied to textbooks in most disciplines. You also said: “My point is that a course needs a central defining resource, which is where the text still, IMO, has a role, be it in history or in math. The text is the rock on which the course is built.” It’s not obvious to me that this is true. My survey course does not utilize one book as a foundational text. I would venture to suggest that this belief is more a function of how you and I were taught and trained to see these disciplines.

    Jim, — I agree with the thrust of your comment. Foner is indeed a reliable source and I would take it over much that is on the Internet. Still, it seems to me that the issue of authority/reliability must be taught regardless of whether we are referring to printed material or e-books, websites, etc. We could ask the same questions about Foner” _Give Me Liberty!_ as opposed to Steve Mintz’s narrative at Digital History: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/

    John, — First, I do not suggest that information must be understood as knowledge. Your point about the reliability of information on the Internet is well taken, but this is no different from our responsibilities with printed material. Just because it is published does not absolve us as teachers from engaging our students in a critical evaluation. It’s the same process.

    Robert, — Blogs have become more integral to my teaching over the past few years. Next year I plan to move my courses over to a blogging format. I can use it to create static pages and still take advantage of the blogging format. A number of my students read my blog and I’ve encourage a couple of students to create blogs of their own.

  • James F. Epperson Apr 11, 2009

    “I would venture to suggest that this belief is more a function of how you and I were taught and trained to see these disciplines.” — Possibly. I like the confidence that a base text gives to a course. In the absence of “a” text, the course (IMO) lacks an important degree of definition. If I were to teach a history course (and I have thought about it quite a bit) I’d want a base text, although I can see supplementing that with lots of readings from myriad sources. Having reflected on this some overnight, I think it would be very difficult to do a low-level (college sophomore or below) math course w/o a text. Upper level? Yes, that’s very do-able.

  • Robert Moore Apr 11, 2009

    James, I think you touch on something here regarding learning in general. As humans, we have been learning through print documents for quite a while, but there is something in front of us now that challenges the effectiveness of the print document (including, of course, texts). I’ve read a great deal of the criticisms (most especially in regard to digital history), but I also realize, especially coming through the tech comm program, that the criticisms are ill-founded and may be more of a knee-jerk response to the threat that technology imposes on those who have embraced traditional practice so tightly that they are unwilling to consider anything else. Many of the critics have either not touched the technology to see how it works, or they have only dabbled on the surface and haven’t realized the power in the depth of what is actually in front of them. On that same note, I think that some who think they are practicing digital history haven’t even realized the depth of that which they use. I could go on and on with this, but in summary, I think we just need to give careful consideration as to how to use the technology, and that begins with incoporating it in our programs right next to the textbook.

    I still embrace books and I’m not sure if that is simply the way that I grew up or not. However, I think the book does not always do a service to the reader, or to be more specific, it may be that the author of the text does not do a service. It is not necessarily the fault of the author, as the author writes according to the manner in which he/she was taught to convey information and knowledge through print media. As we continue to discover the power of the technologies at our disposal, I think we realize where that technology enables the student much more than with print texts. There is also a powerful enabling of the author/writer if he/she knows how to use those technogies to improve presentation to the reader/user.

    I really applaud Kevin for bringing this topic into a post. This is a great exchange and I think we all benefit from everything that is being said here. It’s just as much figuring out where we stand in our methodologies as figuring out the role of the text in the future.

  • James F. Epperson Apr 11, 2009

    I agree Kevin deserves massive kudos for starting this. I don’t really have a dog in this fight — I know how I am comfortable teaching, but I freely concede that others may have alternate ways of doing things. When I was a math prof, one of my good friends and colleagues was doing a lot with Web-based instruction and laboratory-like things for certain areas of math. I have *nothing* against the “new media,” I’m just more comfortable having a text to help me plan and define the course, be it on differential equations or Reconstruction.

    The undeniable thing that the “new media”brings to the table is searchability. Several years ago I was teaching a grad math course here at Michigan, and someone asked a question about the history of a certain topic we were discussing. I didn’t know the answer, but at our next meeting one student (from India) had Googled the subject enough to resolve the question. That was something of an eye-opener for me.

    A real problem with doing math on the Web is notation—not all browsers support it, or support it well. There is a sizeable group working to fix that.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2009

    I agree that this has been a very fruitful discussion and I thank the two of you as well as everyone else for contributing their thoughts.

    James,

    I have to admit that I am also much more comfortable with a standard text, but again I have to wonder if that is because it’s always been the standard approach. It seems to me that what it comes down to is how we, as teachers, conceive of our courses. What is it that we are trying to teach? You are absolutely correct in pointing out that the teacher can always supplement a text and teach things like historical perspective and critical analysis. However, the Internet has placed our students in a situation where they can easily access huge amounts of primary and secondary sources and shape that information into their own interpretation. In short, they are both consumers and producers of history. It seems to me that this presents a fundamental shift in how we think of our subject. I am the first to admit that this is not an easy transition, but it is here to stay and the rewards are too great to be ignored.

    You keep coming back with the need for the text, but what I’ve learned is that the Internet offers everything that a textbook can provide. Consider what Steve Mintz has done at Digital History. Here you have a basic text that students can use as a foundation with easy access to the rest of the site’s digital resources. I think of this site as the equivalent of a foundational text: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/

  • Robert Moore Apr 11, 2009

    James, I can’t quite figure out (probably because I’m not a math person by a long shot… believe me, it’s pretty pathetic) how digitizing math might be more effective than textbook learning of the same. Yet, as one who has struggled through the subject, I have to wonder how it may have improved my ability to grasp many concepts. From the perspective of an historian, however, I’ve seen a number of “digital means” that an historian has far more power in relating history to students if he/she knows how to use the digital environment. More importantly, I see the flexibility that a reader/user/student has in learning history through digital works. I think I have to clarify, however, that my idea of digital history and someone else’s is probably might be a tad bit different. I’m even more of the mind that historians need to be locked-in to the arts and humanities. I see the potential of a path as a graduate in history with a M.S. degree.

  • James F. Epperson Apr 11, 2009

    “James, I can’t quite figure out (probably because I’m not a math person by a long shot… believe me, it’s pretty pathetic) how digitizing math might be more effective than textbook learning of the same.”—I don’t think Kevin wants to turn his blog into a short course on Web-based math instruction, so I won’t answer at length ;-) A lot of math has a geometric component, of course, and one can illustrate and even animate the geometry with graphs and figures. A friend of mine in Alabama did a lot with some online animations for teaching probability and statistics. I thought of doing similar things with my own area of numerical analysis, but then health and a job change intervened :-(

    Kevin, it is entirely possible that my status as a textbook author has colored my thinking. I’m not going to apologize for that ;-)

  • Robert Moore Apr 11, 2009

    Kevin,

    Keying from your comment… “In short, they are both consumers and producers of history”…

    I think we also need to look at the digital space as a new environment in which traditional styles of reading and writing are different. Just as much as we have a need for a course in composition or, perhaps, creative writing, as the Web continually develops as a hub for communication and education, we need to start looking at teaching a course in digital literacy.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2009

    Robert,

    Yes, I couldn’t agree more. All of these are things that I need to learn. That’s what makes this so exciting to me.

    James,

    No need to apologize. :) That said, I don’t think you have to give up your status as a textbook author to think about how the Internet might broaden your ability to introduce the subject of math. Thanks again for your comments.

  • Robert Moore Apr 11, 2009

    James, I think textbooks will be safe for sometime. Ultimately, we are in the midst of a technology wave and we’re trying to figure out where traditional applications stand considering everything that is already here and what is coming down the pike. There’s a lot to consider, but I think we can all agree that change doesn’t come quickly or easily. There are a number of studies to conduct to see how effective certain things really are in educational environments (I think a lot of this might be a reality check to see if some theories work in real world settings). I have considered several ways to enhance presentations of history and how to educate others on how to read those presentations. It’s pretty exciting stuff and that’s probably why I’m eyeing a PhD in Instructional Design and Technology. Of course, I’m sure my wife wants me to take the extended plan in lieu of hitting it full speed this time… I have one heck of a honey-do list right now waiting for me after graduation! :-)

  • James F. Epperson Apr 11, 2009

    One *big* difference between math and history with regard to recent technology, is that there isn’t much role in math for things like the Lincoln Papers Online or the Guild Press OR CD. I’m sure some mathematician’s papers are online, but right now I can’t name one. (Wait, I think Euler’s papers are being put online.) [Who is Euler? One of the greatest mathematical minds, ever. Swiss-born, worked in Prussia and Russia, died in the late 1700's.] The propagation of searchable collections, I would think, has made a big impact on historical research. I know that my two published articles (one in Columbiad in 1998, one in CWT in 2002) would have been a lot more difficult to do w/o things like the OR CD.

    I was right; Euler’s papers are online:

    http://math.dartmouth.edu/~euler/

    Why they are at Dartmouth is beyond me.

  • Woodrowfan Apr 13, 2009

    One thing keeps me using a textbook in my classes: copyright laws. My university has very strict rules about what can be copied and what can be placed on reserve at the library. I can’t copy more than 10 pages on the department copier. More than ten pages and I have to go to the copy center, and the copy center refuses to copy anything copyrighted without a letter from the publisher. When I was in grad school in the early 1980s I remember some classes had collections of readings that were put together by the professor and copied at the local Kinkos. All you had to do was sign a form saying that the copies were being made under “fair use” provisions and viola, a bound set of readings. You can’t do that anymore.

    An example: last year I wanted my Public History students to read two chapters in “Confederates in the Attic.” I didn’t want to require the class to buy a copy as money is sometimes tight for some of my students. I decided to reserve a copy of the book in the library and make a Xerox of the two required chapters so there would be more than the single copy available.

    Unfortunately I was refused permission to place the copied chapters on reserve. One copied chapter was fine. So was reserving the entire book. But putting two chapters on reserve violated some invisible line. I ended up putting one copy of the book on reserve and loaning the Xeroxed chapters (and my own copy of the book) to my students myself. Fortunately it was a smallish class. A few bought the book (and loved it), but I am sure a few of my less-motivated students barely read it because the reserve copy was checked out.

    There are work-arounds. In the past I’ve printed copies of short articles on my printer at home. I can download pdf copies of relevant articles from JSTOR and post them on Blackboard for my classes. I’ve even sat and scanned in articles unavailable online as pdfs and made them into pdfs myself. Fortunately I have the time and ability that I can make outside readings this way. But what of the new professor with a full class load, or the high school teacher with a full plate of classes and afterschool duties, or the harried adjunct teaching several classes at different schools?

    Of course there is also the “this is the book the department uses, so you’re using it.” That’s how I picked the book for my survey classes.

    One final note: I prefer using articles from good history journals rather than material from the internet because I know they’ve gone through peer review. I have used some readings from the internet in the past, including several very good pieces that you’ve linked on this site. But I would rather use an article that has already been through some review by others in my field than 90% of what I see for free on the web. Having said that, I know there is some very good material out there. History Matters and Gilder-Lehrman have wonderful resources. However, for an upper division college class you can’t beat a good professional journal for readings….

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2009

      Woodrow,

      All good points. I also assign journal articles in limited cases and my students have access to JSTOR, which makes it very easy. My students also have access to ProQuest which is another dynamite database that offers essays and book reviews from thousands of popular magazines and scholarly publications. The Internet does force instructors to spend much more time on teaching students to judge individual sites, but it seems to me that this is our responsibility. As for copying…well…I do all of that myself. It does involve more time, but it goes with the territory. Thanks again.

  • Dave Bill Apr 19, 2009

    Kevin.

    I’ve got to say, I’m impressed with the reaction to your post. I was going to post earlier but I’m actually glad I waited. So here goes.

    The Internet will only become a larger part of our lives, whether you like it or not. Our responsibility as educators, notice I say educators not teachers, is to prepare our students, we’d all agree on that. But, if we introduce the skills (no matter the discipline) we want students to learn with traditional methods, our students will lose interest. They are growing up in a world of constant connectivity. Say what you will about this, that’s the way it is. The idea behind my post in response to “Joe’s Non-Netbook” was to highlight the fact that learning without a textbook and the skills we want them to learn go hand in hand.

    If we as educators determine the core skills that we want our students to master, we can use any number of resources, we are not tied to the textbook.

    As for history, we are trying to engage our students in a scholarly dialog. If we present them with multimedia (video, maps, art, charts etc.) as well as several text websites that are dedicated to a certain topic but have slight differences, the class can then determine those differences on their own not having to rely upon a textbook to tell them. As for the scholarly perspective, you can post two JSTOR articles from different historians and have the students debate the arguments and then write analytical responses on their blogs about the core differences in the two articles.

    Textbook or no textbook, the skills we want our students to learn are still the same: be able to think and write like a historian. If we want to do justice to our students and keep them interested, we must acknowledge that our students consume information differently. If we completely ignore that fact we are doing them a disservice. While the top 10% of the class can understand the argument by simply reading a textbook, we are missing out on the 90% who need audio or visuals that are NOT available in a textbook. Yes, this approach will take some extra time and planning to post all the resources on-line ahead of time but the benefit for the entire class is well worth the effort.

    As for other disciplines like math. Yes, math is different but that doesn’t mean that students can only learn from a textbook. Dan Meyer, a math teacher in California proves this very convincingly. Here are two examples of what he does with his class: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=213 and http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=440

    To sum up, textbooks not only cost a great deal of money but they cost our students’ potential to learn. With a different approach to how we educate our students and using the plethora of multimedia and text resources available on-line, we are not only saving money but doing a great deal of good in helping to keep our students interested and wanting to learn the skills we are “teaching”.

    Ok, I’m done. Sorry for the rant.

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