The longer I have been in academia, the greater the role which textbooks seem to play in teaching. At the beginning, there were no textbooks at all. The beginning, to be specific, was my very first undergraduate seminar, on book XII of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, at the University of Bonn, in the late 1990s. The lecturer in charge of the course stated that knowledge of Ancient Greek would be helpful, distributed a short reading list comprising a number of quite specialised and highly advanced commentaries on Aristotle’s work, and then left it at that. This was a good first encounter with the academia, as the course made me teach myself how to cope with very complex subject matters largely on my own. It could have been much more worthwhile, though, had it been possible to contextualise the analysis of Aristotle’s writings in terms of their place in the broader development of philosophy. The university library and the local bookshops did not stock texts that would have provided such a contextualisation, and, at the time, it was not possible yet to just order books on the internet. This was a time when the lack of textbooks left an important gap.
I later continued my studies in England, and it was then that I discovered textbooks and the, in my view, best ways to work with them. Textbooks are gateways into scholarship. They set out canonical themes, concepts, and methods, and, in doing so, they establish a baseline of knowledge that allows students to better appreciate more specialised and complex works. In this sense, it is the thematic breadth and accessible style of textbooks that make them an important part of undergraduate and, in certain cases, postgraduate teaching. The best textbooks do not limit themselves to rote descriptions of extant knowledge, though. Instead, they convey a coherent perspective on the social world. For example, Ken Plummer’s Sociology: A Global Introduction, a leading British textbook, is clearly infused by its authors humanist approach to sociological enquiry. Moreover, good textbooks open their perspectives on the social up to students’ scrutiny. They communicate sociological understandings of the world as matters of evolving consensus and controversy and not as facts to be taken for granted. In other words, good textbooks encourage students to think in terms of the sociological imagination and to become intellectually autonomous agents. Good textbooks are also conscious of their limits. It is essential for students to engage with primary sources – Weber instead of a summary of Weber, Durkheim instead of a summary of Durkheim, Marx instead of a summary of Marx -, and they point students to these sources and support their curiosity.
Both in Britain and in the USA, textbooks now play a crucial role in teaching in the social sciences. Their importance is mirrored by their abundance; there is an enormous variety of textbooks on the most commonly taught subjects. The rise of the ‘textbook industry’ is not necessarily a good thing, though, as it responds to changes in teaching and scholarship in the ‘higher education industry’: In the USA, the higher education industry has been rigidly stratified for a long time. Elite universities cater to the needs of the lucky few with small class sizes and involved teaching. At the other end of the spectrum, teaching universities are meant to train drones capable of performing certain tasks in the workforce without asking too many critical questions about themselves and their place in society. Several waves of higher education reform in the UK are geared towards a reproduction of this system. In its context, it is now very common for textbooks to entirely or almost entirely replace engagement with other texts. Unfavourable staff-student ratios and corporate management’s emphasis on completion rates and customer satisfaction often do not allow lecturers to engage with their students’ intellectual development in a meaningful way anymore. A large part of the textbook industry is meant to facilitate solutions for this problem. This class of textbooks, of which the American SOC series is a stellar example, is geared towards rote learning instead of intellectual development. One of the prime achievements here is simplification – the reduction of complex arguments and intellectual quandaries into sound bites that can easily be memorised. SOC, for example, prides itself in its magazine-like look, being composed of short paragraphs of text (few) and images (lots, and really big) and having a hectic layout (cool?). Regurgitation thus replaces learning, and assessment consequently often comes in the form of ready-made multiple choice tests on the book website or CD. Another notable characteristic of the textbook industry is its penchant for standardisation – the themes, theories, intellectual perspectives, and methodologies covered are by and large always the same. By standardising, publishers simply respond to the demands of teaching under factory-like conditions; innovation and intellectual discovery here must necessarily take a backseat to the rote reproduction of stale canons, as time and workload will not allow for more. Pedagogical perspective is likewise absent from many of the textbooks on offer; instead, books like SOC pride themselves in their “student-tested” approach. What this concretely means is pandering to the lowest common denominator; content is rendered in ways that make it easily accessible, elide complexity, and avoid the sort of frustration that may lead students to award their lecturer low scores in the end-of-semester satisfaction survey, thus imperilling her career.
Textbooks are great, and textbooks are genuinely important elements of teaching in the social sciences. The question is how the textbook industry can transcend the outlined problems and offer truly innovative and insightful perspectives on the sociological imagination.
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