Posted in Rants on October 4th, 2012 by Ed

The most frustrating part about teaching at the college level, bar none, is that students rarely read what one assigns. If they don't do the reading then you have nothing to talk about, assuming the topic for that day is not one on which students are likely to have any information. Then you have to tell them what was in the readings, i.e. lecture, and then everyone is praying for the sweet release of death after about 30 minutes.

Don't worry, this isn't another "The damn kids these days" post. I sympathize with them, or at least I try. Textbooks are awful things, and they're getting worse. Even in the ~15 years since I was in Intro to Whatever classes with 700-page textbooks, the readability and ability to grab a student's interest have declined precipitously. Don't get me wrong, there are students who aren't reading because they're lazy or have no shits to give. But I legitimately sympathize with the ones who try to read and either quit or get nothing from it. The problem in this case is that textbooks are boring. Really boring. And that's not because the material isn't interesting.

I know a significantly older professor who assigns a textbook he wrote for his Intro to ____ course. This is not unusual. But he distributes it electronically for free. There is no publisher. It's just a short (~200 page) pdf he made. He has received offers to have it published and sold, which he has rejected. At first this stunned me. It was a red flag. No external review of the material? No editor? As I got to know him, however, I saw his logic. When submitting a textbook manuscript to a publisher, the first thing they do is bring in a group of reviewers who end up saying "You didn't say enough about X" and "Add a chapter on Y." Then the editor and publisher go to work ensuring that the textbook appeals to the broadest possible audience. Let me explain why these two things combine to produce such unreadable nonsense.

The problem with the "Add more about ____" process is that it effectively doubles (or worse) the length of a textbook. More is not better. There is a practical limit to what can be covered in 15 weeks. Have you ever seen an intro History textbook? American Government? Literature? Sociology? "Western Civilization"? These things are goddamn New York City phone books. They can exceed 1000 pages. In some cases they are broken into volumes, like encyclopedias. I assign a comparatively svelte American Gov textbook that still has four chapters we don't touch, even though I whip through topics at a chapter per week. Students hate paying for a textbook and not using all of it. That's what happens when 50 people get to add something to a textbook – you end up with a massive, information-packed volume that you can't possibly get all the way through.

Then, the publisher and editors make sure the tone of the book is sufficiently "neutral" to avoid offending or alienating…anyone, I guess. This is the single biggest problem with textbooks today, especially in fields like political science and history. The textbook tries to please everyone by eliminating any semblance of an actual argument by the author. Making an assertion or having a specific perspective on events or ideologies is a pedagogical technique. It's not "bias". It's giving the students something they can read, interpret, and rebut. If they agree with it they can be made to explain why. If they disagree with it, that generates a discussion. But our textbooks say nothing at all that students can agree or disagree with. They're just over-processed pap, the academic equivalent of Wonder Bread: bland, insubstantial, devoid of taste or nutritional value, and mostly hollow.

As state legislatures and massive state university systems increasingly dictate the content of textbooks, academic publishing is following in the footsteps of the media. Terrified of accusations of bias, every single topic in an American Government textbook is presented in the "Some people think this, but other people think that" style. Attempts to convey "debates" result in point-counterpoint style pro-and-con essays, the textual equivalent of the split screen from-the-left, from-the-right format on TV. The end result is that the students aren't exposed to an argument so much as they are given two options and told to pick which one they prefer. Way to get them engaged.

At the end of this process, publishers realize that they have created something incomprehensibly boring. Like a movie that tries to include something for everyone, it is an ungainly patchwork that ends up pleasing no one. So they attempt to make the books more interesting with superficial crap: lots of pictures, magazine-like layouts, fancy whiz-bang websites (er, "interactive portals"), and, in American Gov, dozens of sidebars about Jon Stewart. THE KIDS LIKE JON STEWART, RIGHT? The combined effect of all these tricks is to produce a textbook that is colorful, but still boring. It's a neutered, bloodless product that no one can relate to.

I have read through just about every damn Intro American textbook on the planet, and I receive free copies of new ones almost weekly. They are absolutely obsessed with presenting "controversies" to the reader. Some people say X, while others say Y. This is boring and teaches nothing. Conversely, making an actual argument or at least having an identifiable voice makes the readers figure out for themselves that there is a controversy by offering something that can be scrutinized, argued against, accepted, rejected, or derided. Yes, intro textbooks are saddled with the responsibility of teaching nuts and bolts – This is how Congress works. This is a gerund. The Protestant Reformation happened because XYZ. – but that does not imply that they have to be the academic equivalent of Sunday Morning political shows on which follow-up questions are verboten.

I know that some students don't care and never will care. But I wish the rest of them didn't have to spend so much time fighting boredom and wondering why the material is so dull. It's not. The way we write about it is.