Textbooks and teaching. A new dawn?

Major and Cook’s Ancient China: A history is now available as open access  via Routledge. This is good news, and got me to thinking about teaching and textbooks, a perennial topic. What is workable for assigning to students has evolved a lot over time.

When I was an undergraduate (Gil-galad ruled in Gondolin, Elizabeth II was Queen of England etc. etc.) teachers had to have students buy books. Even things like packets of photocopies were a bit of a hassle, even before the copyright mess. Textbook publishers helped out by not “revising” their books every 15 minutes to kill the used book market, so there were usually cheap copies out there, which students could find by going to the college bookstore. The basic model was that everything the student were going to read, and thus every source they were going to use was selected by the professor. Research, if they did it, would be centered on books, which they could find in the card catalog, rather than articles which were hidden in things called journals.

Now students often don’t buy their books from the college bookstore, and more broadly they learn from a selection of texts, only some of which are selected by the teacher. Just like in the past, teachers lay out when students should be reading things, but in practice they tend to read them when and as needed. -So right before an assignment.1 Mostly these sources are from “Google”, which might mean a JSTOR article, or some old Geocities page. They know that Wikipedia is unreliable, so you should skip that and go to whatever is next on the google list.

Of course textbooks have always been problematic for faculty. Ideally what we want is a real book (i.e. readable, and sounds like it was written by a person) that “covers things” (i.e. gives them a basic narrative and analytical framework) and deals with whatever the current academic concerns are. That is a hard trifecta to hit, as you will realize if you talk to anyone who has ever written one. Of the 6 classes in my rotation I currently only use a textbook for one. Totman’s Early Modern Japan for my Early Modern Japan class. Although it is old enough and cheap enough that I am fine with making them buy it, the book is now free on-line via our library. I think it reads pretty well, in part because it just does, and in part because there is an environmental frame to the whole book, which ties things together. Since Totman is the author it also deals with political structure (the best way to provide continuity) and all that pretty well. Most classes don’t really have a book that works like that. Totman is a bit old, but the only book I know that covers recent scholarship on Tokugawa is Gary P. Leupp and Tao De-min, ed. The Tokugawa World  Only $41 as a Kindle book, but $250 as a hardback (also Routledge). Also, it consists of 60 short essays on topics of recent scholarly interest. A great book to have on hand, either for reference or as a doorstop (1198 pp) but not very undergraduate friendly.

Ideally, open source textbooks would fill the gap, but those tend to be only for US or World history and I have not been that impressed with them. Even at my school more and more books are available free as e-books via our library, so you can assign monographs or chapters, but not textbooks. Major and Cook is a pretty good book, with a chronological structure, but enough sidebar-type things (Changes, Debates on Salt and Iron etc,) to make it work for a more culture and philosophy class, which is how I tend to teach it. Of course, since it is free on-line you don’t even have to use the whole thing. Major and Cook are, not surprisingly, very good on all the recent archeological stuff, but, if I did not want to do all that (I usually start at Anyang and leave the early stuff to the Chinese Archeology class that my colleague teaches) I can have them not read those bits. If Leupp and Tao was also open access I could use bits of that in Tokugawa class. Unfortunately, the universe of stuff that ends up open access or free via our university library does not really work that way. Ideally, it should. Scholars get access to stuff on-line, why not students? Making more stuff like Major and Cook open access should be a major goal of scholars, and a major scholarly achievement for fine people like Major and Cook.

  1. Our students in particular will generally not read anything unless there is an imminent graded assignment attached to it.  

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this reflection! I wasn’t aware of the open access volume Ancient China, which is great news. I confess already ten years ago I was relatively optimistic that enough of us would get on board creation of strong open access textbook-like materials that things would look very different but it still seems early days.

    I’ve noticed in our school (department), “reading lists” are also rarely textbooks, even for big first and second year surveys. Mostly “tutorial packs” (primary and secondary sources bundeld) downloaded from the module website (limited to one chapter per book or 10% due to copyright), or links to ebooks/journals the university has access to. Especially since pandemic, we are urged to even avoid assigning books that there aren’t ebook copies of in the library, and increasingly students seem to just ignore any assigned reading which would require a trip to the library, much less order a copy for themselves. Almost all of my own 3rd and 4th year modules are chunks of ebooks the library has and articles we have access too. As far as I know almost none of my students purchase any of their assigned books here, which is such a radically different world than I remember in the US as a student. I’m wonderin how the US remains so different? Is it because ebook subscriptions are minimal in comparison? Or have strict simultaneous user limits? These days an every growing proportion of our books come by the de gruyter platform which allows full unrestricted PDF downloads, so thankfully less and less fiddling about in clunky online readers.

    And what isn’t available in the library for their essay research etc., most students hunt for on the dark side of the internet (Libgen, Anna’s archive, etc.), where most new things are nowadays.

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