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A Conversation about Textbooks

Tom Laichas
Crossroads School

    In June 2005, after a day of grading AP World History exams, a small contingent of readers ambled down to Nebraska's best Indian eatery, Sher-E-Punjab.1 In this group were: Howard Spodek, author of The World's History (Prentice-Hall); Jerry Bentley, co-author of Traditions and Encounters (McGraw Hill), Robert Strayer, author of an early world history text The Making of the Modern World (St. Martin's) and now at work writing Frameworks of World History for Bedford; Marc Jason Gilbert, co-author of World Civilizations (Longman) and Roxanne Pompilio of the San Diego School for the Performing Arts. Between the veggie pakoras and the sag paneer, World History Connected co-editor Tom Laichas moderated.

WHC: You all have full time jobs. You have plenty of opportunities to publish for the academic and trade markets. Why write a textbook? What's the motivation?

Strayer: I'd been teaching world history at SUNY Brockport in the 1980s . . . I thought we'd try to turn what we were teaching into a book.

WHC: What about the existing books?

Strayer: This was the mid eighties. There weren't many books out there: really it was [Leftan] Stavrianos and [William] McNeill.2

    In the class, we took a regional approach, at least until the modern period. It's not the way I'd do it now . . . but at the time it made sense. Ours was a team-taught course, so the Indian specialist did something on India, the China specialist on China and so on. I wanted make our teaching experience portable, so we wrote the text.

WHC: Jerry, what does it take to write a textbook?

Bentley: Arrogance.

WHC: Arrogance?

Bentley: I mean you have to believe you have some special insight into the past and an ability to communicate it.

Strayer (to Jerry Bentley): When you started out, what did you want to bring into the mix?

Bentley: At first, we proposed a book that concentrated more clearly and emphatically on the concept of "civilizations" than others did. But it developed very differently; in fact, a hundred eighty degrees differently. In the end, we were talking about "complex societies," not "civilizations."

Strayer: But how different is the idea of a "complex society" from a "civilization"?

Bentley: Well, for [William] McNeill they're the same, yes. But "civilization" comes with certain kinds of baggage that you can't strip away. Even though scholars may have a clear and uncontaminated idea of the term, students reading the book are generally going to import the contaminations that are associated with the term that scholars try to keep clean.

Strayer: What kind of contaminations?

Bentley: The assumption that civilization is a superior form of organization. The Stearns team [World Civilizations] has tried to do the job differently, defining civilization as "those societies that produce a surplus." I guess what I'm saying is that even if you understand the term that way — and I understand perfectly well what that definition is trying to accomplish — it doesn't solve the problem. Students will still import their own assumptions to their understanding of the concept.

Strayer: Of course, you can argue that a text which uses the term requires students to confront their assumptions.

Gilbert: I think the thing to do is [discuss] the idea of civilization directly. I mean, students don't know what a "complex society" is, either. If we rise above students with scholarly terms and euphemisms, they'll never understand what we mean when we use terms like "civilization."

    I agree, by the way, with everything Jerry says about the assumptions students bring to a text. In the introduction [to World Civilizations]—which students never read—we address this.

Strayer: Another issue surrounding civilizations is the comparative dimension. Most world history texts attempt to be comparative. But the question is, what do you compare? For example, in dealing with the Classical Civilizations, roughly 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., most texts deal with India, China, the Greco-Roman world, and maybe Persia, one after another. They compare whole civilizations. In my most recent project for Bedford, I'm trying to break it down: compare empires, then compare social structures, then cultural traditions, and so on.

Gilbert: And you want to avoid essentialism, where civilizations only mean one thing. We're fighting to deliver a very sophisticated product that makes students think. Dumbing down is anathema. We divide [World Civilizations] into chapters [that] conform to the AP system. We make the connections in the brief openers at the beginning of each part. Too bad nobody reads those!

Pompilio: No; teachers do read them. We also read the in-depth essays. And a lot of us have our students read them. You're right: without all that, students can't put the whole text together.

WHC: Call them "civilizations" or "complex societies," don't such categories exclude a lot of human experience? What about other kinds of communities?

Gilbert: The reality is, we don't get everything in. We can't. Texts are too small. Sure, [in World Civilizations] we try to look at "marginal" societies, marginal to world civilizations, that is. So for instance, we look at Polynesian migrations. But a textbook simply doesn't have the capacity to incorporate everything. You have to focus.

Strayer: The real issue is size. All of our books are inclusive core texts — very expansive and very complete. There's a growing niche for much smaller texts providing a framework for world history. That allows for each text to serve a greater diversity of classrooms. Let's face it: A survey of world history is impossible. If you thought of textbooks as "samplers" rather than "surveys," it might ease the pressure.

Spodek: To supplement my book . . . Prentice Hall is doing a "key text" — a small booklet prepared to help teachers articulate the text with the AP.

WHC: Howard, you're the sole author of The World's History. How did you come to write it?

Spodek: I was responsible for the academic coordination of this very large project in the Delaware Valley. I was working with high school teachers, and I thought first we'd deal with the historical narrative.

    But they said, "Look, we're certified in the social sciences. Many of us haven't done a lot of work in history. A couple of courses, maybe." They didn't understand how historians come to know what happened. They didn't understand how historians work. So I said, "I want to suspend what we're doing. I want to talk about how historians know."

    By this time, people had a great deal of respect for one another. So people said, "Spodek, if that's what you want to do, that's what we'll do." And that's what I brought to the book. The questions we ask are these: what do we know and how do we know it.

    So the book isn't organized around "civilizations." It's organized around themes. Each chapter looks at a chronological period, but I try to deal with a particular theme in that period. "Civilization" comes up in the River Valleys chapter [on the ancient Nile and Indus], but later chapters deal with other themes. The central organizing concept is historiography.

Gilbert: And publishers don't want you to do that.

WHC: Do . . .?

Gilbert: Historiography. Because once you've talked about the way historians work, you've added hundreds of words to your narrative.

Spodek: Right. As we got ready for the 3rd edition, Prentice Hall said to me: "What's all this stuff on historiography? It clutters the narrative. Take it out!" And I said, "I won't do that."

Bentley: Really? That surprises me . . . We get a lot of reviewers who want us to do exactly what you do.

Spodek: Well, in the end, they said, "why don't we take it out of the narrative, and put in a separate section." That's what we've done. So now we've got 48 historiographical discussions. They're of some length. Everyone will know where to find them, and the narrative will be smooth.

Bentley: So you've boxified them.

Spodek: Yes. But really, why would anyone skip them? Teachers who don't want to deal with historiography won't buy the book.

Gilbert: The same publisher offers different approaches to a particular problem. Howard's publisher is Prentice-Hall. Ours is Longman, but Longman is a division of Prentice-Hall. We're now on our fifth edition, just starting revision. The way we're doing historiography is this: For each chapter I'm doing on South Asia, I'm preparing links to historians' debates. I direct students to read these and figure out how and why historians disagree.

WHC: That's not part of the textbook?

Gilbert: No, it's supplementary. For instance: Now some [historians] consider the idea of "caste" something of a product of colonialism. There's a lot of disagreement about this, and the argument is quite rich. In the [World Civilizations] we might give reference that argument by adding a URL address to the resources section at the back of the chapter. That may be one way we'll deal with [historiography].

WHC: What about ancillaries?

Spodek: When I think about textbooks, I think only about the book. But there's a whole industry around the book: the maps, ancillaries, CDs, and so on. A lot of people choose a text for those materials.

Pompilio: Ancillaries have a lot to do with adoption decisions.

Gilbert: Nobody is going to invest in a text which is anything less than full-service.

WHC: You don't write the ancillaries yourselves, do you?

Bentley: Here's the problem: the book has to be finished before the ancillaries. The ancillaries aren't done till the authors are reading the proofs. We just can't be thinking of the ancillaries while we're writing the book.

Gilbert: For [World Civilizations], I helped design a web service page. It has text banks, a kind of web resources section with docs that I've written instructional guidelines for. I've got four direct questions, for instance, on a document. I chose those on the basis of what the text doesn't do.

Strayer: That's part of what adds to the cost, by the way. These books, they're expensive. Students complain about the size, and the cost . . .

Bentley: What, a $100 text vs. a $250 pair of jeans?

Gilbert: Most state [legislatures] are being bombarded: why are universities raising their costs? So the assault is now against publishers.

Pompilio: The cost really is important. It's difficult for smaller districts to find money for textbooks.

WHC: With costs increasing, maybe we're back to what Bob [Strayer] said earlier: textbooks are going to get smaller, not larger.

Strayer: This relates to another changing demographic. The early texts were written for teachers as well as students. But now we've got a cadre of people who are comfortable teaching world history. Maybe those people don't need a full service textbook. They can mix and match materials without relying so heavily on a core text.

Gilbert: Right. But there's just as many faculty who haven't any idea what world history is. So there's a very wide market.

Pompilio: I've been on several textbook adoption committees. I've found that some people on these committees aren't teaching the course, don't know much about it, and so will be attracted to all the bells and whistles. But a lot of publishers will let you configure your own textbook, depending on your needs.

Gilbert: For instance, some teachers might want more on the Mongols than others. So publishers will say to text authors: hey, write more on this topic and we'll sell it separately.

Strayer: Publishers will try to give each book a unique twist, and have all sorts of options. But they all compare Romans and Han. That's a function of consensus in world history.

WHC: But the cost issue is having an impact?

Gilbert: Sure. There's big pressure to lower costs — as though we can find someone who will spend five to ten years of their lives to [write a textbook] without compensation!

Strayer: Some people spend 5-10 years of their lives writing a little monograph for nothing . . .

Gilbert: They do it for tenure.

Strayer: Well, in university departments, writing textbooks doesn't always contribute to tenure.

WHC: So it's scholarship the universities want. How do your textbooks relate to your scholarship?

Bentley: It is scholarship!

Spodek: Amen.



1 All of us agreed: Sher-E-Punjab (1601 Q Street, Suite D) serves exceptionally good food.

2 Leftan Stavrianos, A Global History (Prentice Hall), and William McNeill, The Rise of the West (University of Chicago Press).


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