Some Thoughts on Writing a 21st Century History Textbook

The posts last week on writing for a non-academic audience and some textbook editing this weekend got me thinking about what a 21st century textbook should look like. I’m also thinking a bit more actively about a longstanding textbook project that I have simmering. It’s a Western Civilization I textbook based on my podcast lectures. It’s 85% written, but only 30% done. Finally, I’ve had a conversation with a couple of people about working up an open access sequence of Western Civilization textbooks for my press.

This blog post will focus on introductory level courses and textbooks. These are just a bunch of notes and they’re not meant to be proscriptive, but hopefully they’ll get me thinking in a more structured way about what the next generation of history textbook will look like. 

1. Content is not King. I’m old enough to remember when the textbook was the most important source of information on a topic. In fact, I kept textbooks for important classes and even used textbooks as a guide to basic narrative in graduate school. Today, of course, things have changed. There are an infinite number of more or less reliable online sources ranging from the ubiquitous Wikipedia to more specialized digital source books, encyclopedias, and sites. For basic questions on content, the textbook will no longer be the sole source of information for even a specialized class. 

In place of content, a textbook can offer authority. There is little need to reproduce readily available content on the web, but there is a need to offer students guidance on what is good content and what is crap. The stability of of online sources is also important. Wikipedia offers a good stable foundation for most basic historical topics, geography, and names and dates. 

2. Modeling Methods and Transparent. If textbooks are no longer fonts of basic content, then there role of the textbook – particularly for introductory level courses – is to introduce students to the basic approaches to producing historical knowledge. To my mind this means that a textbook has to introduce students to historical methods in a systematic way as well as to model these methods throughout the text.

To do this, the textbook needs to be a transparent document that reveals how the author constructs articles from primary sources as well as relates these arguments to existing debates in historical literature. Obviously, a textbook cannot present all the complexities of historical thinking that leads a scholar to a particular argument, but some of the intricacies of historical reasoning should be revealed to the students. This not only models the historical process (at a level suitable for introductory level students), but also offers a basis for students to critique a scholar’s historical reasoning. 

As much as we need the textbook to carry a certain amount of authority in the approaches and evidence, we also need to make sure that the textbook is open enough to critique to encourage students to flex their own historical muscles and think critically. The authority of the textbook is a great foil to critical thinking.

3. Coherence. When I was in graduate school, Ohio State edited a series of modular document readers for their American and European History survey course called Retrieving the American Past and Exploring the European Past. I used these modules as a graduate teaching assistant and found many of them to be well thought-out and useful in the classroom. The problem was that these modules only occasionally overlapped neatly with the larger narrative in the classroom. As a result, these modules felt isolated or “methodological excursions” that graduate students led in separate discussion sessions.

A formal textbook has to offer some methodological or even topical coherence to make it useful companion to a traditional history class. The goal is to locate the sweet spot for a text that makes it useful to the most classes and scenarios while keeping it coherent and distinct enough to get the job done over the course of a semester.  

4. Dynamic. One of the advantages of a text that is digital is that it can engage the reader in ways that traditional paper texts cannot. For example, it is possible to dig down through a digital textbook to primary sources and it is possible to adjust the content of a digital textbook to correct errors, adjust for new information, and to explore new areas of interest. 

Of particular importance for historians is the ability of a digital text to allow a reader to drill down to the primary and second sources and to establish relationships between arguments in a text and additional information available elsewhere.

I suspect that an annual or at least regular versioning process will emerge to avoid having to make constant changes to the text. I’d also hope that users of the open version will make their work available and this will influence regular changes to the “official” version of the text. 

5. Stable. At the same time, our teaching habits often depend on incremental change through multiple iterations of a class, and this relies on a certain degree of stability for a textbook. As great as it would be to produce a new textbook every year, responding to new sources available online and new approaches to problems, such a book would quickly become a frustration for faculty who rely on textbook readings and assignments grounded in a consistent body of course material.

As much as the appeal of a dynamic and constantly adapting textbook is, a certain degree of stability is necessary to make a book of maximum utility.

6. Open. Finally, it goes without saying that the idea digital text is open allowing a faculty member to take whatever it is that we put out on the web and to adjust it to their needs. Ideally people can use a stable version of our text – perhaps one that gets regular official updates – or they can download a version that they can manipulate, adjust, change, tweak, and revise however they want under CC-By license. I’d like to make a version that is as unconstrained by formatting as possible so that users can do whatever they want with the text. I’d also like to foster a community of users who share their insights and work on the text to make it a better volume for everyone.

Part of me sort of wished to make my textbook my NaNoWriMo project (even though it’s not a novel), but I’m afraid that other things have popped up in its place. But I do hope that I can get to this project over the next 6 or 8 months. It would be great to trial a beta version of my new textbook next fall!

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