I guess this counts as a follow-up post to the one I wrote Friday on trusting textbook publishers with content. I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. All teachers should read it, and all parents of school age children would be better off if they did.
Here’s what she has to say about textbooks (p. 237):
“Sit down and read a textbook in any subject. Read the bring, abbreviated pap in the history textbooks that reduces stirring events, colorful personalities, and riveting controversies to a dull page or a few leaden paragraphs. Read the literature textbooks with their heavy overlay of pedagogical jargon and their meager representation of any significant literature. Note that nearly half the content of these bulky, expensive books consists of glitzy graphics or blank space. Challenge yourself to read what your children are forced to endure.
If you think higher ed textbooks are any better, you’re obviously very good at fooling yourself. I have trouble making it all the way through even the good U.S. history survey textbooks, like Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty!. After a few years of jumping around, I realized that my problem was with textbooks by definition and decided not to assign one at all.
Jim Loewen’s work on American history textbooks laid the groundwork for that decision on my part. A few years ago he went back and re-reviewed the nation’s leading textbooks for the second edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me and they were all pretty much the same disasters they were when the first edition came out during the mid-1990s.
The reason for that is the growth of the textbook publishing-industrial complex: An army of poorly-paid writers who are popping out new editions of your textbook every year or two whether you actually need a new edition or not. You didn’t actually think Foner wrote Give Me Liberty! all by himself, did you? I’m sure he demanded complete oversight the first time through, but Eric Foner has better things to do with his time than decide where to put the social network in the new iPad version of his text.
The further down you go the commercial publishing food chain, the worse things inevitably get. A few months ago, I got asked to review a textbook that was absolutely the worst thing I had ever read. It was badly written and full of errors. I told the publisher’s rep that the person who wrote it had no business writing history let alone teaching it. It turned out that the publisher was an online university that I didn’t recognize by name. This “textbook” was a scheme to make money from their students both coming and going. The author of the book was already teaching for them. I wonder if he even gets to keep any of the royalties.
Are these the people you want to trust with your electronic content? Are these the people you want to trust making any content decisions at all?
In theory, Eric Foner should have no trouble assigning the textbook that bears his name. You, on the other hand, should be able to pick content that matches closely with what you teach already so that it can work with you rather than against you. If any content provider can wall off their garden and keep you from getting whatever text you want because it’s not available through their learning management system then I say stop teaching with a learning management system entirely, or at least don’t use it to deliver your historical content. Teaching the history you love makes it easier for you to show enthusiasm for the subject, which then hopefully rubs off on your students.
Is teaching online worth risking that arrangement?