Whither the Future of the History Textbook

Two printed materials arrive predictably on Ann West’s front porch: the Boston Globe and the Yellow Pages. West, a panelist at the 126th annual meeting, session 232, “Whither the Future of the History Textbook,” and editor at Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, clings to her Globe subscription, but nevertheless wonders if it, like “the printed telephone book, is destined for the dust heap of history.” After all, the phone book is heavy, cumbersome, and contains information more easily accessible online; and in the time it takes to publish a printed newspaper, its stories are often no longer current. Much like the history textbook, in other words, about whose future no one seemed particularly sanguine on Sunday, January 8, the last day of the 126th annual meeting. “The bottom line,” said panelist Bill Lombardo, American history editor for Bedford/St. Martin’s, “is textbooks are going to change.”

But what will that change look like? The trusty old phone book had one thing going for it that the now-endangered textbook might not. “Do textbooks work?” asked panelist and UCLA professor Jan Reiff. Though she believes that “students need a reference,” especially for those things “they don’t know and are afraid to ask,” Reiff nevertheless suspects that we know too little about “how people learn” to know what sources will serve them best. And so, she suggested, we must begin anew, regarding “this period as one of experimentation,” and “building online education into the discussion.”

The session’s panel devoted nearly as much time to different kinds of higher education faculty, and to their equally diverse students, as it did to various texts and sources. Dan Czitrom, Mount Holyoke professor, and co-author of the widely used Out of Many: A History of the American People, demanded that textbook reform “be tied to the deteriorating conditions of higher education faculty.” Several community college professors (as well as a teacher from the for-profit, nontraditional DeVry Institute in Chicago) spoke up in response, focused admirably more on their students’ needs than their own. An entire textbook chapter is just too much reading for students who attend night classes after a full day’s work. Instead, these teachers photocopy a page or two; distribute them in class; allow time for reading; and then work to contextualize the brief assignment through lecture and discussion. To Reiff, that contextualization remains critical; even traditional undergraduates often “think the fact is the key thing. The fact is not enough. They need context.”

While sympathetic to students with more on their schedules than a history seminar, Czitrom nevertheless rejected “the notion of student as consumer.” And yet, he also reminded his audience that “textbook publishing is a money-making enterprise.” Reiff feels sure that enterprising publishers should thus be eager to hear from nontraditional faculty, their students, and all those gathered on Sunday, who together form what West called “a community of users.”

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