Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Setting Up the Syllabus, Part II
There are three types of texts I have traditionally assigned: the textbook; the primary document or documents; and secondary sources. Let’s begin with the textbook.
My experience as an undergraduate history major and as a graduate student instructor was that everyone assigned a textbook, but professors never used it and students rarely read it. Two types of students read it: the ultra-dedicated and the absentee. Only the lone student who never came to class but turned in essays with copious references to the textbook seemed to get anything out of the book (but rarely passed the class since attendance was a huge factor). I saw textbooks purchased, toted, and then sold back by the hundreds. And, for my first years teaching, this was my approach. I boldly explained to my students that I was their textbook and that I assigned one for the students who wanted more information or for background for their essay assignments.
When I decided to be honest with myself, I realized three disturbing points about my teaching; (1) I had no good rationales for the textbooks I assigned; (2) I was inconsiderate about the money my students spent on the textbooks; and (3) I was failing to utilize an incredible resource, for when I looked into the textbooks, they were full of wonderful vignettes, ideas, and concepts.
So now it’s time for me to get it right with my students and a textbook. The first priority must be that they read it – and for that, it’s imperative that I build the textbook into discussions, examinations, and papers (more on this later about assignments). The second priority is that it be affordable. My students have a lot of bills – cell phones, car loans, rent, and Jamba Juice. They’re calculus book will probably cost more than $100; they’re history book shouldn’t. For this reason, I’ve selected Kevin Schultz’s Hist. The reasons are simple. It’s inexpensive. It’s short – each chapter is only 10 to 15 pages. It has a nice balance of political narrative with social and cultural history (for instance, we learn about comic book characters on several occasions). There are drawbacks to it, though, and I’ll be discussing those throughout the semester. I’ve tried lots of other textbooks, and they all have much to offer. Foner provides a single narrative. America: A Narrative History is a terrific read. Zinn packs a punch. But when it comes to cost and effectiveness, Hist is the book for me.
Next, primary documents. These are crucial, for they’re the “stuff” of historical research and writing. I need my students to be able to analyze primary documents so they can learn to “think for themselves.” Also, it was reading primary documents that led me to love history – that I could actually “see” something others had not. In years past, I assigned a few novels, such as Bread Givers (a tremendous novel about Jewish immigrant life). I found that these longer primary texts had limited appeal. Some students read them, but many never bothered to break them open. Also, works like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or All God’s Dangers were just too long. I found that if a book was too thick, students were immediately turned off by it.
Now, I use Major Problems in American History because it combines primary sources and secondary ones. You’re probably familiar with this series, but basically these books have a set of 8-10 primary documents and then 2 scholarly articles making big claims about the discussed era. The set of documents gives me easy access to texts of the past and short descriptions so students can know what they’re looking at. The scholarly essays offer digestible historical analysis so that students can situate their arguments within the context of historical debates. I use the Major Problems documents and historical essays for their thesis papers. When they write on “what was so depressing about the Great Depression,” they use the primary documents here and the secondary sources. Throughout this semester, I’m going to have students discuss here on this blog which documents worked and which ones did not (the discussion will be part of their grade!).
For secondary sources, I rarely assign a monograph. I find that they take too much time for the short semester and that students rarely read the entire book. Of all the monographs assigned to me as an undergraduate, I read only one in its entirety: The Kingdom of Matthias (and I only read that because it had a lot of quirky sex going on). All the others, I stopped reading once I had enough material for the assigned essay.
Finally, some honest disclaimers. Both of the books I assign are published by Cengage; I’m the co-editor of one of them; Kevin Schultz is the author of the other and I count him as a friend. I have professional, personal, and financial incentives to assign these books.
But, to be truly honest, I used Major Problems before I was an editor and assigned Hist before I even knew Kevin. In addition, throughout this semester, I plan to be as critical of them as I would of other textbooks or sources. I have lots of bones to pick with both of the books and in this blog we’re going to discuss what doesn’t work, what doesn’t make sense, what’s flat-out wrong, and how these books (and others) could be improved. I hope this blog, in fact, will help improve both books significantly. And when bundled together for sale Hist and Major Problems in American History are quite affordable (my students are always thrilled by how little they spend for my class).
What texts are you using this fall and why? If you forego a textbook, how have your students responded to that? How do you come up with primary texts to use? In short, what’s worked and what hasn’t?