Here’s the dirty secret that you’ll never see printed in a publisher’s glossy promo material: Every textbook on the market is a crashing bore to read. All the publishers will assure you that they’ve added special features designed to attract today’s young people and that the prose is lively and engaging. Yeah, right. The colorful maps, pop-out documents, intra-textual questions to contemplate, vibrant graphics, etc. serve only to drive up production costs and students won’t use them. Note to profs: Got an image or a chart you really want students to use? Put it on a PowerPoint and project it in class.
Texts are not boring because of the people who write them. I know many of the folks whose names are on texts and know that they’re dynamic teachers and writers. The problem is density. Put simply, most texts try to do way too much. I’m a proponent of multiculturalism and the last thing in the world we need is a return to “dead white men” history, but the more any text tries to do, the less coherent it will be. What would make more sense is for publishers to knock out some specialized texts. I’m a social and cultural historian and there’s little that I teach doesn’t reference race, class, and gender; hence, I don’t need a text that parrots me in print. What I could use is a really short political/economic history; just as those whose specialty is political history would probably appreciate a nice cultural survey, or perhaps one that discusses multiculturalism. —Rob Weir —Teaching Without Textbooks (Inside Higher Ed)
I generally teach from a number of short books, rather than one whopping text. The exception is Lit Crit, but Keesey’s book is a collection of lit crit essays stitched together with chapter introductions; it does not attempt to summarize all that was ever accomplished in lit crit.
Update: after writing the above, I began thinking of how valuable my big literary anthologies have proved to me, even though the class for which I purchased the anthologies only touched on a fraction of the texts. As an undergrad, I took a two-semester 300-level survey of British Lit, which was taught each term by a top-notch prof with a national reputation. There were 300 English majors and minors in that class, and while we didn’t read every text in our two-volume, densely-printed Norton Anthology, I was glad to have those books a few years later when I was studying for my PhD area exams. But at SHU, our 300-level courses tend to be more focused rather than broad.
Regarding the anthologies themselves, they are all text, with no splashy (and expensive) fold-out maps or other gimmicks. So I wouldn’t put them in the same category as the overblown textbooks Weir is criticizing in his article.