By Penny Bryden
I have a long, but admittedly ambivalent, relationship with history textbooks. As an undergraduate student at Trent University, textbooks simply weren’t part of the curriculum – we read monographs and sometimes novels, and discussed them in tutorials. The lectures were designed to provide the spine of the course, the readings were designed to get students to delve deeply into particular issues. I still own the books I bought for courses thirty years ago – Many Tender Ties (the link goes to an article about the book written by Jane Errington and her reflections on it) and The Politics of Federalism and The Virginian among them. I didn’t really encounter university-level textbooks until I was a graduate student at York University, where, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, students were introduced to Canadian history with a textbook and a related collection of readings. I think we used Destinies most of the time I TA’ed in the introductory Canadian survey, but before that I know it was Nation and shortly thereafter it was Conrad and Finkel. [See Janet Guildford and Michael Earle, “On Choosing a Textbook: Recent Canadian History Surveys and Readers,” for this discussion in the 1990s].
As a TA, I was responsible for two tutorials of about 20 students each. I assigned the readings, graded the essays, and marked their exams. We had a lot of autonomy, as I recall, but the course instructor gave the lectures and set the assigned books. I didn’t have a choice in the textbook itself, but I could assign particular parts of it as I determined. When I became a course instructor myself, at a university that struck me as having more in common with Trent than with York, I reverted to the ways of my own undergraduate training, and didn’t bother assigning a textbook but stuck to collections of essays, with a few monographs and novels thrown in for good measure.
One of the key reasons I was reluctant to assign a textbook, if I’m completely honest, was out of fear and insecurity. I had to give the lectures (and I distinctly remember thinking that after my first week of teaching, I had given more lectures than I have ever given before); I would be giving lectures that were sort of textbook overviews; if students had textbooks of their own, then they wouldn’t think my lectures were very good. So I would hide the banality of my lectures by not assigning a textbook.
It quickly became clear, however, that a textbook was a tool that did a lot more than unmask me as somehow less original than I hoped my students would think I was. It provided connections that I could not begin to make in two hours a week over 12 or 13 weeks; it could provide details about things I didn’t have time to cover, or could bring the history closer to the present when I could barely get through the 1960s. I gradually became less fearful of the textbook, and various types of them slowly inched their way into my classrooms. Sometimes, they were there as a reference tool – available for purchase by those who wanted them, and available to borrow from the reserve stacks of the library for those who might occasionally need them. Sometimes, textbooks were required components of the course, with readings assigned alongside the lectures and seminars. But as I began to use textbooks, I continued to be reminded of the things I disliked about them from the beginning: they are expensive, and they tend to remain largely unused. I might assign the whole text over the course of a term, but as a class we never really used the whole text. We didn’t talk about it all, and we didn’t reference it all that often. The textbook was like wallpaper for the course – a nice backdrop, but certainly not the main show. And in the range of $60-$75, they were pretty expensive scenery.
In my next post, I’ll discuss my experience with writing textbooks and how their meaning has changed in the thirty-plus years since I was an undergraduate.
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