Textbooks as instruments of oppression.

25 01 2012

My first job was at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. I went from a graduate program that was dominated by graduate students in American History (Go Badgers!) to a college where American historians were in the minority. The old hands there teased me mercilessly because I readily admitted that I really didn’t know much about anything that happened outside the borders of the United States.

That has changed. For the last 10+ years I’ve been going out of my way to read European and World History in my spare time out of a combination of embarrassment and enjoyment since so much of it has been completely new to me. I’ve also been working on a global history of the ice and refrigeration industries which has taken my narrative all over the world by using American reports on foreign inventions and companies.

While the deal isn’t finalized yet, it looks as if I’ll be teaching in South Korea for about a month this summer. They want me to do Western Civilization. All of it. In less than a month. If it weren’t for my years of reading I would never even consider it, but I’m going to need a textbook.

I can teach American history without a textbook because I am an expert in American history. I need a textbook to cover Western Civilization because textbooks are a crutch. I don’t mean that anyone who uses them is necessarily ignorant, but if you aren’t sure about what you are teaching they make it far easier to sound as if you do. I won’t be so much teaching out of the textbook as using it as a starting point for deeper discussion, but if I really had no idea what I was doing this would be an easy way to get by.

In the video I posted yesterday, Dan Czitrom of Mount Holyoke tells a story of visiting East Tennessee State shortly after his textbook first came out in order to talk that large department into adopting it. He was rightfully concerned about this mission because 1) Making people teach out of the same textbook has academic freedom implications and 2) Everyone in that department had to teach a section of US History whether they specialized in US history or not. Without textbooks, neither of these problems could ever have existed.

Czitrom also states that he was shocked, shocked to see gambling at that establishment at how bad the working conditions were at East Tennessee State. He then suggests that the wonderful accoutrements that his and other publishers provide are a lifesaver for people who face large classes with no help. I hate to disagree with a fellow Badger, particularly since I’m sure his heart is in the right place, but I would argue that the exact opposite is true.

When publishers create tools that make less-than-ideal situations tenable, they make it easier and more acceptable for administrations to make those circumstances even less tenable in the future. After all, what’s another hundred students if you’re grading multiple choice tests with a computer program? More importantly, if your textbook (or the web in general for that matter) is providing the content and the computer is doing your grading for you, why do they need you at all? And how are you ever going to get out from under those difficult working conditions if your “friends” in the publishing industry keep making it easier for colleges to teach more students with less-qualified instructors? There’s probably a shortage of Western historians of any kind in Korea, so my flawed expertise is better than nothing at all. What’s East Tennessee State’s excuse?

Teaching out of your textbook isn’t just bad for your students. In an environment when textbook publishers want to become online education providers, it’s bad for you too. That’s especially true for adjunct faculty who can be replaced by a machine in the blink of an eye any time their employer decides it would rather spend more on online learning rather than face-to-face education.

I don’t think I have to tell you how much your “friends” in the publishing industry will do for you the moment that happens.



2 responses

17 02 2012
Blowing up the history textbook and putting it back together again. « More or Less Bunk

[…] fact, as I’ve explained before, the conventional textbook is primarily designed to help people who don’t know all that much […]

1 06 2012
Spotty. « More or Less Bunk

[…] (some of which I’ll eventually describe here). For example, one of those jobs really is to teach in South Korea and I promise to check in from there at least […]

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