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A Mighty Mountain of Textbooks: The NKU World History Textbook Workshop

Jonathan T. Reynolds
Northern Kentucky University

    "Textbooks are like dogfood" a wise friend and co-author once joked. "Dog owners choose the food, but the dog eats it. Professors select the textbooks, but the students read them." Perhaps the comparison can be pushed too far, since faculty generally read a fair bit of the texts they choose, and most dog owners don't taste-test on behalf of their pooches. Yet, the point is a valid one. Students have very little input into choosing the intellectual product they consume — worse, they have to pay for it, too, a fate avoided by most dogs. In the Spring semester of 2001, with the generous aid of several publishers, I and a number of students from my junior-level World History class sought to address this problem. On April 21 and 22, two groups of students held back-to-back "Textbook Workshops" to discuss what they felt a World History textbook should be like, to establish criteria by which existing textbooks could be judged, and to use those criteria to evaluate as many textbooks as time allowed. In addition to gaining valuable insight into what students think makes up a good text (since, just maybe, if they like it they might actually read it), this process sought to be a valuable learning experience for the students themselves. Rather than simply treating the textbook as revealed truth, the workshop offered students the opportunity to critically examine twelve different texts and compare the very different ways they presented World History. In so doing, they came face-to-face with the idea that there is not a single history and that the goal of the student or teacher is not simply to know, but to constantly question, evaluate and (ideally) choose. I considered this goal particularly important since the bulk of my World History students are Social Studies Education majors, who often have less experience in the critical evaluation of sources than do History majors.
The Idea:  
     The idea for the workshop itself came up during a class in the Spring of 2000. That semester I was teaching from a text that I occasionally found unsatisfactory (particularly in regards to my own field of African History), and on one particular day I was teaching against the text far more than teaching with it. As is not uncommon in such situations, some of the students expressed confusion; first as to why I would select a textbook with which I didn't always agree, and secondly as to who was "right" (being quite perplexed that people as educated as their professor or the textbook author could possible disagree on something as straightforward as history). I replied that I had yet to meet a textbook with which I was in perfect agreement (not to mention that I would probably be bored teaching with such a text), and that it was actually quite difficult to examine and select a textbook. I then asked the Social Studies students if there were any guidelines taught to them in their education classes for selecting textbooks. They replied there were none. Off-handedly I suggested that we ought to get a bunch of textbooks donated, set aside a day, and hold a textbook workshop that would set up criteria by which to evaluate textbooks. That said, I got back to the subject at hand. Fortunately, my students did not let me forget the idea of the textbook workshop. 2
The Structure:  
    It was in the Spring of 2001 that I finally got the ball rolling. I mentioned the idea to a visiting publisher sales representative and the next week I was the proud recipient of six copies of their newest text. Struck by how easy this seemed to be, I contacted other publishers and soon had seventy-two World History texts — six each of twelve different titles. Notably, I promised each publisher that I would provide them with copies of any resulting evaluations relating to their own titles and that I would sternly inform the students that they were not to sell off the books they received. As books piled up in my office, I emailed current and past World History students and asked them to reply as to their intent to take part in the workshop and to choose between the dates of April 21 and 22. Just my luck, there was a perfect split between the two dates, with many students declaring that only one day was feasible. As a result, I opted to run not one, but two workshops that weekend. At the very least, I figured, it would be interesting to see what different perspectives might arise between the two groups. As the time of the workshop drew near, I prepared an agenda and schedule for a workshop running a total of eight hours, with a goal of making it professional enough to keep people serious, but also keeping the atmosphere casual enough to make everyone feel at ease. The Saturday Workshop began at 9am, and the Sunday Workshop at 12 Noon. The time was divided up as follows:

__ hour— Coffee and Donuts (provided by the Department of History and Geography)

1 and __ hours — Discussion of the demands of World History and what should go into an effective textbook.

1 and __ hours — Establishing Criteria for Textbook Evaluation

1 hour — Food Break (free pizza donated by Papa John's)

3 hours — Selection of texts and evaluation thereof.

1 hour — Student Presentations on strengths and weaknesses of texts examined.

Notably, while some 40 students expressed an interest in attending, on the actual dates of the Workshops less than 20 actually showed up. Initially, I had planned that students would work in small groups focusing on one or two texts, but the smaller turn-out necessitated students working on texts individually.

The Process:  
    The actual business of the workshop began with a some old-fashioned navel gazing. In particular, we focused on three questions. What is World History? How is it distinct from other forms of Historical inquiry? And, what does it take to do it well in a textbook? Such questions are, of course, familiar to anyone who has been doing World History for a while, but it was critical to have the students lay out their own perspectives prior to evaluating the textbooks. Several key themes came out of the broad-ranging discussions. First among these was that World History must be comparative and that it needs to be inclusive (though not necessarily exhaustive) in terms of geographical regions and ethnic/racial/gender balance. Clearly, multiculturalism has taken root among college students. There was also considerable discussion regarding the need for World History texts also to be balanced in terms of historical causation. Students did not like the idea of texts that favored a single perspective such as political, economic, or social history, for example. Yet, there was also a recurring call that textbooks should have some sort of unifying theme that ties all the chapters together. The students also realized, however, that one could not be comprehensive without being long-winded, and the desire for inclusion soon clashed with the students' desire that texts be as brief as possible. The need for brevity (one student called for a weight limit) seemed, in particular, to drive home the idea that the writing of texts in general and World History texts in particular is a difficult process of selection and exclusion. 4
The Criteria:  
   Following our discussion of what World History is and how it should be done, it came time to codify these goals in the form of grade-able criteria. Considerable discussion went into the inclusion of any single category for evaluation. Space here does not allow much elaboration on these points, but perhaps more than anything else these criteria reflect what my students thought was important in a World History text. Interestingly, each group came up with eight basic categories of evaluation, each with a set of specific sub-categories to be rated. These categories and sub-categories were:

Saturday Workshop:

1) Visual Presentation

            a) Aesthetic appeal (inside and out)

            b) Quality

            c) Readability of text (choice of font)

2) Organization

            a) Lists of chapters/maps/images

            b) Headings

            c) Clear chapter layout

            d) Timelines

            e) Chronology

            f) Themes

3) Content

            a) Geographical balance

            b) Ethnic/Cultural/Religious balance

            c) Gender issues

            d) Interdisciplinarity

4) Guiding Theme

            a) Clear purpose of text

            b) Definition of historical significance

5) Perspective

            a) Background of author(s)

            b) "Voice" of historical groups

            c) Global perspective

6) Clarity

            a) Maps & images

            b) Readability

            c) Chapter introductions and summaries

7) Supplemental Materials

            a) Suggestions for further reading

            b) Index

            c) Guiding questions

            d) Glossary

8) Credibility

            a) "Facts"

            b) Consistency

            c) Logic

Sunday Workshop:

1) Presentation

            a) Cover and title

            b) Integration of materials

            c) Aesthetic appeal

            d) Fun factor

            e) Statement of purpose

2) Organization

            a) Chronology

            b) Geographical

            c) Periodization

            c) Thematic

3) Reference Materials

            a) Index

            b) Glossary

            c) Table of contents

            d) Further readings

            e) Chapter bibliography

            f) Maps/list of maps

            g) Illustrations/list of illustrations

            h) Primary documents

            i) Timelines

4) Content

            a) Major world events

            b) Chapter summaries/intruductions

            c) Narrative

            d) Comparison/contrast

            e) Thematic balance

            f) Fun facts/neat stuff

            g) Who/where/when

5) Readability

            a) Suitability for audience

            b) Effective presentation of material

            c) Balance of facts and interpretation

            d) Consistency of voice

            e) Layout

6) Perspective

            a) Freedom from bias

            b) Holistic approach

            c) Multiple voices

7) Inclusion

            a) Religious systems

            b) Ideological systems

            c) Gender balance

            d) Racial/Ethnic balance

8) Credibility

            a) Professional qualifications of author(s)

            b) Quality and quantity of sources used/cited

            c) Up to date?

            d) Accuracy

The Evaluation:  
    Once the criteria had been established, score sheets were quickly printed up (we kept a laptop in the room and added criteria as they were agreed upon). Students then selected textbooks and set to the process of "grading" them on the basis of the criteria established. Some student stuck to a single text for the three hours available, while a few managed to evaluate three. Each sub-category was scored from 1(stinky) to 5 (outstanding). "O" was available as "not applicable." At the end of each overall category there was a space for students to make specific comments. A few students went so far as to make comments next to every sub-category. Faced with little time and a daunting task, the students came up with some creative means by which to reach their conclusions. Most students made good use of indexes and the table of contents to check for coverage of topics such as Women's History or to check for regional coverage. To evaluate factual accuracy, the students examined the parts of texts about which they had the most knowledge. One student with a strong background on Ancient Egypt, for example, opened all twelve texts to the relevant section, and declared that a third of the texts had mislabeled the names of the three great pyramids at Giza. 6
    In general, all the texts tended to fare pretty well in the final tally, though texts without glossaries, chapter bibliographies or other supporting materials found themselves at a disadvantage. Few texts managed more than middling ratings on gender inclusion or ethnic/geographical balance. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that a few of the students who picked the most colorful texts tended to sour a bit on the complex layouts, declaring that while they were appealing at first, they tended to get more busy the longer you looked at them. Also, some of those who selected older and less lavishly illustrated texts declared that they were pleasantly surprised by the textual content alone. Beyond the evaluation of individual texts, many students also opted to write comparative reviews of two texts for their final course paper (in lieu of a standard research paper). These reviews gave students the time to examine the texts in greater detail and also to gain greater insights into the different possible approaches to writing World History.
Student Feedback:  
    After the workshop was completed, students were asked to submit short evaluations of the workshop, stressing both its strengths and weaknesses. Overall, students unanimously praised the workshop and said that it gave them both new insights into how history is written and provided them with a valuable set of tools for evaluating texts in the future. The free pizza was also a big favorite. Students were not without suggestions for how things could be changed, however. A number suggested that students select texts some time before the workshop, so that they would have a better idea of what they were evaluating when the time came. Some felt that the criteria should have been worked out in greater detail (particularly with a weighting system for points of greater and lesser importance), and that the evaluations should have been done on a take-home basis, with a second meeting being held to present the findings of the evaluations. Thus, the general consensus was that while the idea for the workshop was sound, the time allotted (eight hours) was insufficient.
The Spin-off: Free Books for All!  
    With the workshop complete and seemingly a success, I was left with a substantial stack of books, even after sending participants home with their choice of three texts. More so, having put "6" next to my name in their database, several of the publishers continued to send me multiple copies of new texts. Within a year I once again had a stack of textbooks towering up to the ceiling of my office. Used book buyers began to hover around my office like jackals near a fresh kill. Faced with the moral dilemma of what to do with all the books, I hit upon a solution. For the Fall and Spring Semesters of 2002/2003, I assigned no required text for my junior-level World History survey. Instead I laid out the books on the first day of class and told the students to pick the text they thought looked the best. I had already adapted my syllabus to have no assigned page numbers... just a fairly detailed topic for reading and discussion. Students were also given a detailed sheet wherein they were to research said topic in their chosen textbooks, record the sections and page numbers in which it appeared, and then provide a brief paragraph stressing the key points of the text's presentation and what they thought the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation were. These sheets were collected whenever we started a new topic of discussion. The fact that they were worth 20% of the final grade had a lovely impact on making sure students had done the readings. 9
    Perhaps the most valuable result of this approach was how it got the students to think about World History. Being able to ask a question such as "What does your book identify as the population of the Americas at the time of Columbian contact?" (and getting answers ranging from 10 to 100 million) was a great way to get students to look at textbooks critically. As an historian and teacher, I found it an incredibly rewarding way to teach. 10
    There were, however, some disadvantages to the multi-text approach. Because the textbooks were uneven in their coverage of topics and issues, some (perhaps pre-Law) students challenged my ability to fairly assess their learning on the grounds 'my textbook didn't cover that topic as well as that other textbook did." Thus, exam questions had to be carefully phrased to focus on material discussed in class, rather than what might or might not be found in the texts. Further, while many students enjoyed the constant examination of why World History texts so often disagree or are uneven in their coverage of topics and issues, others were annoyed that we didn't spend enough time talking about "what had happened." This, in particular, was a concern voiced by Social Studies Education majors, many of whom were apparently relying on the course as preparation for the Praxis exam. Finally, the big problem with the multi-text strategy was that I only had so many textbooks. By Spring I had given them all away, and the publishers were finally getting around to updating their databases, so I wasn't getting boxes full of textbooks anymore. I've been tempted to do it again by telling the students to simply "go find yourself a World History textbook" — but the fear that the result would be just a wee bit too random has kept me from trying it, so far anyway. 11
    So, maybe I'll just have to hold another workshop... there is space in the corner of my office for a fresh pile of books.  
The NKU Textbook Workshop would not have been possible without its participants and the generous donations from publishers. Special thanks to the following.

All my cool students — even the ones who complained.

Those Generous Publishers: Prentice Hall; Wadsworth-West; McGraw Hill; Longman; and Houghton Mifflin.

Dr. Erik Gilbert, Arkansas State University, provided the dog food comparison.

Biographical Note: Dr. Jonathan T. Reynolds is an Associate Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University, where he received the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award in 2001. He teaches African, World, and Middle Eastern History, as well as courses on Historical Method. He also serves as advisor to the International Student Union and the Phi Alpha Theta History honor society. He and co-author Erik Gilbert recently published Trading Tastes:  Commodity and Cultural Exchange to 1750 (Prentice Hall, 2006) and also Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present (Prentice Hall, 2004). Reynolds has also authored The Time of Politics (Zamanin Siyasa): Islam and the Politics of Legitimacy in Northern Nigeria, 1950-1966 (UPA, 2001) and several articles on "Africa in World History" and Islam and Politics in West Africa.  

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