Thanks to AHA Today, I actually watched the entire video of the Wither the Future of the History Textbook? session from the AHA in Chicago yesterday and was shocked by how relevant it was to many of the concerns I address on this blog.
While not the center of the conversation, my main takeaway was the aspiration of textbook publishers to move into the online learning business. I know this shouldn’t have surprised me since as at least one publishing giant actually owns an online education arm, but I had forgotten that until I heard one of the publishing folks on the panel say something to the effect of, “What we make in the future may not even resemble what we make now.” Then the other panelist from the publishing industry pretty much explicitly stated that she expects the future of the history textbook to be some kind of online learning platform.
Wanna head ‘em off at the pass? Stop assigning a survey textbook right now. It’s not against the law. Both publishing reps actually bring up the fact that some history professors have killed their textbooks already, but then they dismiss us as a disgruntled minority. True, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong. Watch the session closely, and you can actually hear the fear in their voices as they worry whether enough of us will wake up before it’s too late.
In the last speech, Jan Reiff of UCLA (who doesn’t assign textbooks and never had a class where the professor assigned a textbook) asks a very important question, “What if we create our own textbook?” She was talking specifically about a class on the history of Los Angeles, but there really is no reason that historians as a profession can’t do the same thing to giant textbook publishers that our administrators would love to do to us: Cut them out of the picture entirely. Create our own textbooks (that won’t resemble what’s being produced now at all) on the basis of what we actually teach, and charge little or no money for them. The key here is that all the decision-making power would fall to the people responsible for doing the actual educating, namely us.
No more books without price tags so that the bookstore can mark them up to $85 a pop. No more revisions for the sake of revisions every three years. I got a great idea for a slogan too: Don’t be evil. Yes, I realize that’s been taken, but I don’t think Google is really using it anymore.
PS Coming tomorrow (or whenever I find the time to write it up): textbooks as instruments of oppression.