Thinking about Teaching by Proposing an Untextbook

I’m finally back at home after a long summer of fieldwork and getting re-settled into a work routine. I’m particular interested in sorting out my History 101: Western Civilization I course which I teach in UND’s fancy Scale-Up classroom. I’ve blogged extensively about it here.

As part of my effort to continue to refine this class, I’ve decided to write a textbook proposal in an effort to sort out my ideas in a more formal and structured way. 

Here’s the first part of that proposal and look for more of it over the coming weeks:

Since the 19th century, history has embraced the seminar as the primary approach for teaching students a systematic approach to the past. Grounded in the scrutiny of primary source documents and access to specialized libraries in secondary sources, aspiring and professional historians developed honed their craft by forging analysis from historical evidence and presenting it to their peers. Over the course of the 20th century, the changing needs of higher education and the role of history in the undergraduate curriculum shifted the focus from the seminar to the lecture as the primary space for demonstrating and developing the historians craft. The lecture allowed for economies of scale and reinforced the position of the historian as a professional practitioner with a unique – and sometimes obscure – set of skills largely out of reach to an undergraduate audience who may only take one or two history courses over their academic career. At the same time, the goals of history instruction – particularly at the introductory level – shifted from methods to content. This is not entirely the result of the growing popularity of the lecture course, but is more or less contemporary.

In the past decade, faculty from across the 21st-century university have started to explore new approaches to teaching introductory level courses. Hybridizing the economies of scale achieved through the lecture with the traditional practices of the seminar and the laboratory has led to the emergence of the “flipped classroom.” The ubiquity of information and digital tools on campus has provided a way for large groups of students to share information both within and outside of the classroom. For historians, the web offers access to a significant number of primary and second sources ranging from vast repositories of open access sources such as the Ancient History Sourcebook and the Library of Congress to the massive compilation of basic historical data in Wikipedia. Moreover, digital tools also allow for new forms of collaboration both between students and between instructors and groups which allow us to simulate some aspects of the seminar experience at a large scale. While the abundance of good and bad historical material on the web requires vigilance on the part of instructors, the vast quantity of material serves as a suitable foundation for introductory level course work. Even Wikipedia, which has been received with significant ambivalence by many university faculty, contains a massive quantity of geographic, chronological, and visual information useful for the college classroom.

Access to information on the web complements changing classroom technologies which support collaborative, problem-based learning that is often at the core of the flipped classroom. For example, the 21st-century has seen a growing number of active-learning or “Scale-Up” classrooms that provide a physical space for groups of students to collaborate, to access digital content, and to work under the supervision of faculty. Online learning management systems likewise offer digital spaces for collaborative learning ranging from wiki-based collaborative writing environments to threaded discussions, live chat applications, and even collaborative reading tools. It is now possible to develop a courses that leverage these old and new digital assets in a critical and dynamic ways to teach the basic skills of historical interpretation and analysis even to the largest classrooms. In the 21st-century flipped classrooms, digital technologies allow faculty members to engage individual students, groups, and the entire class at varying scales suitable to various learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, textbooks have remains conspicuously behind the curve in offering support for these new approaches to university learning. In the discipline of history, textbooks continue to privilege narrative and “facts” at the expense of skill-based, problem-based, or method-driven approaches to the past even as access to basic historical information and sources has exploded across the web. The formal structures of traditional history textbooks limit the opportunities for students or faculty to adapt the content and approaches to particular classroom environments. Finally, the expense of textbooks led many critics to see them as part of growing cost of higher education. The well-known limits to existing textbooks has given rise to the calls for open educational resources that are both less expensive and more adaptable to the changing needs of the 21st-century classroom. 

This proposal offers an alternative to standard textbooks that is adapted to use in the changing classrooms of the 21st-century university. Keeping with the tradition of the “flipped classroom,” this book will be an untextbook which offers a flexible guide to students and faculty suitable for introductory-level, active-learning classes in both standard classrooms or online. 

The book will emphasize basic skills associated with historical research and knowledge with the overarching learning goal being the ability to produce formal arguments grounded in historical evidence. On the way to this goal, students will address basic challenges facing all scholars of the past that include the ability to read sources critically, to marshal diverse types of historical information, to understand chronological and geographical contexts, and to recognize and critically appraise disputes between historians both in the past and the present. 

The untextbook will be built around a series of 15 modules. Five of the modules address basic challenges common to most historical research: chronology, geography, sources, historical narratives, and historiography. The ten remaining modules will draw upon these first five modules to offer approaches to particular historical periods and problems. As my expertise is in pre-modern history, this book (unbook?) will focus on the premodern European history.

The goal of this untextbook is to produce a template for students to write a textbook of their own.


  1. Ambitious. This is a good example, perhaps, of what can be done if people are given the time to teach.


  2. Very cool idea, Bill. Should you become exceptionally ambitious those of us teaching world history would welcome a vol. 2!


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