How to enable new sociology students to become sociologists? In other words, how to truly engage students in the academic field they have chosen? How to allow students to become truly invested in sociology, how to make them develop their own sociological imagination, how to turn sociology courses into something more than the rote provision of ‘skills for jobs’? These are some of the most pressing questions for any teacher of sociology today. In response, we develop a broad range of classroom strategies and materials. For a long time now, textbooks have played a central part in engaging students in sociology. Textbooks explain, textbooks simplify, textbooks clarify, and, through illustrations, examples, and exercises, textbooks build much needed bridges between students’ lifeworlds and abstract arguments that are sometimes decades or centuries old. All criticism of the genre notwithstanding, textbooks do have a central role to play in turning sociology students into sociologists.
Sometimes I do wonder, however, whether it is time to re-invent the textbook. Those I use often serve as valuable repertoires of examples, exercises, and explanations that open up complex intellectual fields to be explored further. Sometimes, though, textbook narratives strike undergraduates as just as difficult, frustrating and boring as the primary sources they are meant to explain. I have encountered classroom situations in which Plummer’s, Giddens’s, or Scott and Fulcher’s arguments struck students as hardly less inaccessible than the works of Marx, Durkheim, or Weber they seek to explain. Colleagues frequently talk about similar experiences.
I am not looking to argue that textbooks have outlived their usefulness. Still, it might be useful to consider alternative ways of arranging and presenting the content of introductory sociology courses. A key issue in working with textbooks today is that the by necessity linear structure of their narratives may collide with the expectation of a generation of students that has grown up in digital worlds. Within these digital worlds, information is presented in networked form – often fairly short bits of knowledge are linked among each other, cross-referenced, and tied to forms of communication and self-expression – social networking – that were neither feasible nor readily imagined a short time ago. Books cannot easily accommodate these new patterns of communication. Some students are used to reading books, but many are not. To the latter group, the linear narrative of a textbook may feel longwinded, frustrated and certainly not engaging. Illustrations – photos, tables, narrative examples – that may interest older generations of readers speak much less evocatively to contemporary students, who have grown up in a world saturated by media images. I think that books, journal articles, and so forth should still play a central role in the sociology classroom, as they are crucial to students coming to terms with the intellectual complexities of academic sociology. However, to draw students into the sociological imagination, new modes of presentation might be needed.
One interesting possibility would be to present entirely online the materials that are normally contained in textbooks. Companion websites to textbooks have of course been around for quite some time, but they tend to show significant limitations. First, they typically only contain ancillary exercises and bits of knowledge. Second, they come as ‘take it or leave it’ packages, with next to no opportunities for users to add or modify content. Third, they tend to be fairly self-enclosed, with few or no connections to the online spaces that students like and use in their everyday lives. It ought to be feasible to move beyond these limitations and develop websites that present sociology in much more involved ways. The linear narrative of a printed textbook could be broken up into shorter, more focused vignettes that are linked and cross-referenced among each other, presenting deep and detailed content in a structure familiar to students. The online presentation of textbook content would also make it possible to draw on a much broader range of illustrative media than feasible in print. Moreover, it would be easy to link such a website to useful resources available elsewhere. Students might not feel motivated to look up online resources listed in the appendix to a textbook chapter, but they might take a look if these resources are just one quick click away. It would likewise be easy to achieve a certain level of integration with the social media students use anyway, allowing them to engage with sociology in spaces they know and like. Printed textbooks are typically written by single authors or small teams, and updating them into new editions is a cumbersome and laborious process. Online, it would be possible to explore new approaches to collaborative writing. For instance, an initial team of authors could begin the process of building such a website, and other academics could then join in, adding further content and reviewing and discussing the work of their peers. At the same time, students could easily become involved in developing content instead of just consuming it. (From a commercial perspective, such a model of access and authorship could be made viable through a subscription model in which universities pay annual fees that allow staff and students to use and edit such a textbook website.)
These are just some randomly chosen examples of the advantages of moving textbook content online. Some of these ideas might work, and others might be too difficult or inconvenient to implement. What truly matters, though, is this: Since the advent of the network society, students’ ways of engaging with knowledge and information have changed so fundamentally that new ways of introducing them to sociology are needed. Presenting online what otherwise would have been the content of a book is now technologically possible and commercially viable. These are strong arguments in favour of an online turn in textbook publishing.
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