So far this sabbatical, I’ve finished two articles (that I started earlier), one conference paper (that I started from scratch), read my refrigeration manuscript at least three times to find and remove passive voice or other poor sentence constructions and have still somehow managed to accumulate lots of sources for my next project. As I mentioned before, a lot of that material has been in purely electronic form thanks to Google Books and the excellent scanners at the Library of Congress. Yesterday, I snagged a letter in an archive in Indiana that an archivist scanned and e-mailed to me as well as a key post-1923 text by my subject off Scribd of all places. So it looks like I’ll be dealing with a lot of electronic texts on this project and I couldn’t be happier.
“Wait a second,” you think to yourself. “Doesn’t he hate electronic texts?” Well…yes and no. I still have fond memories of hanging out in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, pulling obscure texts off the shelves and stacking them in my carrel for future use. Certainly, when given a choice between reading an entire book online or in codex format I still prefer paper. However, I no longer live near the 4th or 5th (I forget which one exactly) biggest research library in America. When electronic texts allow me to get easy access to materials that might not even be available through interlibrary loan otherwise, then I’m very grateful for their existence.
Tona Hangen, writing at Teaching United States History, tells us that she gave her students a choice between a free online textbook or a paper one that they had to pay for and they overwhelmingly choose the online option. However, they are not happy about it:
A couple of weeks into class, I asked for a short minute of writing on what’s going well this term, and what’s not going so well. I teach at 8:30 am (yup!), so naturally a lot of the comments talked about that (ranging from “I have a hard time waking up” and I think I might have written that one myself, to “I’m surprised to find I like this as a class time”). But a few touched on issues related to book format, and almost universally those students don’t like reading a textbook online. I don’t blame them. It’s no reflection on the specific publisher, which actually has a better user interface than most. Reading textbooks online or on a tablet/iPad is definitely different and takes some getting used to. Despite publishers’ attempts to add these features, highlighting, note-taking, tapeflagging and so on are just awkward or impossible with an ebook. But purchasing the printed book instead seems a cost none of them are willing to absorb. They’d rather get it free *and* complain about how hard it is to use. Interesting.
I would argue that the problem here isn’t so much that the book is online than that they have to access the entire textbook. The online version has no page numbers, so even though students don’t have to read the whole text they still have to navigate through it which can be a huge pain. If the sections themselves were short and discreet, this wouldn’t be a problem.
But my primary issue here isn’t how you read history, it’s what history you read. Hangen is having her students vote on what textbook content to cover in depth and then leaving out everything else. This sounds strangely like Second City improv to me. I, for one, am not clever enough to come up with the necessary jokes about everything that happened in America between 1877 and the present to make that method work.
As I’ve explained before, my method is to kill the textbook and plan the class around online primary source documents that match the content of the lectures. I work with (and now work for) Milestone Documents so my students and I have access to a very large, extremely well-edited and well-introduced collection of primary source documents created especially for survey level history classes. I pick the ones that match the material I already teach. I can even throw in other documents from elsewhere If I’m so moved since I link to them all from the online version of my syllabus. The key thing is that I’m in the driver’s seat. Not the LMS. Not my department chairman. Not the publisher. Me. The professor.
This way, I get to pick the history I teach because it’s what I know best and am therefore more likely to do a good job with it. I’m not forced to assign documents that students don’t read. I’m not forced to use bells and whistles that I don’t want. And if I’d rather read offline, I can print the relevant documents out without killing too many trees.
If you do want to kill your textbook and try online documents, then you should find the publisher that best suits your needs. Still, I think there’s a guiding question that history teachers should apply to whatever textbook/reader/subscription service they use (which I first mentioned in the Historical Society post that I linked to above): Do your readings work with you or against you? You will never get Eric Foner to change his textbook to suit the way you teach whether it’s online or not. If assigning online readings gives you better control over the content you teach, then that’s a leap that’s well worth taking.