By Penny Bryden
In my last post, I talked about my ambivalence about using textbooks in my courses and how they can become like expensive wallpaper for a course.
Despite these concerns, I have had a somewhat happier experience writing them. Partly, this is because thinking about how to present a broad overview offered an intellectually stimulating opportunity, but I think it’s also because the idea of what constitutes a textbook has changed in the thirty-plus years since I was an undergraduate. Google and Wikipedia have a lot to do with that. Once upon a time, a textbook offered a sweeping, overarching narrative of a space – usually a nation, but not always – that showed the way (or a way) that the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It was a tool that gave students a way to plot the evolution of politics and social justice and culture. But there are so many other ways to do that now: Google lets you easily figure out whether it was George III or George IV who was king in the 18th century, or when Indigenous people got the vote in Canada, or when the Yom Kippur War was. So at least some of the traditional work of a textbook is done more easily and certainly less expensively by other tools now.
That means that the textbook can become something a little different – a little quirkier, a little more specialized, a little deeper. If we start from the assumption that it’s possible to get the overview somewhere else, like in the classroom itself or online, then the textbook that is assigned for students to read can serve as a reminder that there are other ways for the puzzle pieces of a national (or regional, or thematic, or topical) narrative to fit together.
That was at least part of the underlying principle of two textbook-y projects with which I have been involved. The first, Visions, was designed to offer an introduction to various periods or themes in Canadian history, plus a taste of historiographical debate on that period or theme, plus some examples of relevant primary material relating to that period or theme. What it would not do is provide an overarching interpretation of Canadian history, like textbooks of yore; it was designed to supplement that overview with interchangeable sections (because the real innovation of Visions was that course instructors could mix and match the “modules” that they included in their version of the text, making it something of a hybrid between a textbook and a course package). So Visions adopted a different structure than a traditional textbook, and was designed to be used a bit differently in the classroom. It encouraged debate, both on a historiographical and a documentary level, while at the same time providing a narrow overview of the gay rights movement, or Confederation, or industrialization in Canada.
The second textbook-y undertaking followed a more common structure. In writing Canada: A Political Biography I was challenged to produce an overview of the political history of Canada, starting early and ending late. But here too my long-standing uneasiness about textbooks demanded that I try to offer something a bit different. In this case, I tried to use individual characters as the hooks on which to hang my analysis, rather than using chronology for that purpose. The result is a series of mini-biographies (over a hundred, as I recall), that together offer something of an overview of political history, but by no means an entirely comprehensive one.
Ultimately, while I know there are weaknesses and shortcomings with both those projects, I think textbook writers are increasingly recognizing the impossibility of comprehensiveness. Letting go of that aspiration allows the form of the textbook to mutate somewhat – into projects like the ones I’ve been involved with, or others like Dimitry Anastakis’s Death in the Peaceable Kingdom that offer a different way into the past. I still have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the textbook, but I do love the possibilities they offer.
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