Bye, Bye Survey Textbook

For a start, the books – pick any of the “big name” survey textbooks – are constantly going through editions for the purpose of making money (and improving images, text, etc – but really, baseline profit is the reason). The newest editions of any of them are well over $100. This is a great deal for any student to invest in, and a waste given that many of the students are going to use the books as giant and expensive coffee coasters before trading them at the end of the semester. Pearson, Stokstad’s publisher, did put together “My Arts Lab” which sourced materials from the web and synched them with their own to provide a “multi-media” experience for students that could be set as homework by the instructor. There’s also the “less expensive” $60 online textbook versions. None seem like thrilling alternatives.

Then there’s the manner in which the content is presented. I love flipping through my copies of Janson and Stokstad. The images are great and it’s a useful way to understand chronology, to check dates, to see images in comparison. But reading survey textbooks? They’re not compelling. They’re not rich in detail (too much to get through, no time for lingering analysis!). They’re also, emphatically, not the type of art history I want my students to be writing. So why would I assign them as reading?

The very first semester I taught the art history survey, I was handed a copy of Stokstad’s Art History, Volume II as if it were the bible. I ended up spending far too many nights reading it word-for-word into the wee hours, and then trying to put together a lesson plan that summarized the information. Naively, I also asked my students to read sections of it before each class. They hated it. They didn’t do it.

The second semester, things had to change. Or more specifically, the textbook had to. I ditched it. The textbook devoted twice as much space to the history of the Western world than anywhere else, so I couldn’t teach the truly global survey I was required to if I used it anyway. It also didn’t seem ethical to continue to force students toward something that was so evidently unappealing. As their instructor, it was my duty to work to find a more inspiring model. How could I expect my students to by psyched to read something that I didn’t think was great?

I had been listening to BBC Radio 4’s wonderful A History of the World in 100 Objects (later aired on PBS in the States), written and narrated by the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. He is such a compelling writer. Selecting 100 objects from the British Museum, MacGregor makes each into a chapter that starts from a very specific focus – the object itself – and branches out to weave a beautiful web of history, economy, society, memory, and politics. Selecting chapters from the book became the basis for the reading I wanted my students to do outside of class. They would read about the object – say the coin portrait of Alexander the Great – before our class on Ancient Greece. Then, we’d begin the lesson with the object up on the screen. “What do we know about this object?” I’d ask. “What can it tell us about Ancient Greece?” Students feel excited – they know! Because many of them have done the readings! Because the readings are no more than 4 pages long, and written like a radio conversation. Students have opinions about what MacGregor thinks – and how he writes.

I didn’t want to rely on only one “voice” though – it would be too close to the model I was trying to escape. When I was a student the survey was split up into sections and team-taught by specialists in each field. Without recourse to said specialists to come into my survey in person and lecture, I decided to annouce to my classes that each week we would hear from experts in the field in which we were studying. So that meant that either in class, or for homework, instead of reading Stokstad on Prehistory they would watch Mike Parker Pearson talk about Stonehenge. Pearson has been excavating there for over 20 years and is world-renowned for his archeological work. It seemed like he’d be a compelling source. He was. There’s a point where he splutters excitedly over several shards of prehistoric femur: “this is the most important discovery OF ALL TIME.”

While any of us outside the confines of Stonhenge research might beg to offer our own specializations as the most important discovery of all time, it’s far easier to enthuse students with this type of resource that a survey textbook. The neat paragraph of standard interpretation is easily given in post-film discussion. What’s more, by having students watch the first 15 minutes of his PBS Nova program they get to see Stonehenge in all its 3-D glory.

Alongside Pearson, I use History Channel excerpts to introduce the Egyptians, Nigel Spivey to introduce contrapposto (watch from 5 min – 7min), Engineering an Empire to talk about Justinian’s Byzantine bloodthirstiness and Chinese hydraulic prowess. Nancy Ross has written convincingly about how to use pop culture excerpts to get students engaged, and Smarthistory offers great links to further resources for every part of the survey that subvert the boredom of required reading. The Met Museum has amazing, free online resources, from the Timeline of Art History, to Connections and 82nd and Fifth.

These types of resources are free, can be easily added and subtracted from, and are in formats – text, video, audio – that speak to the different strengths of students.

I’m arguing for the end of the compulsory survey textbook, and I’m certainly not the first (or even second) person to do so. There are textbook-alternative resources for sections of the survey on the AHTR site under “lesson plans” and we’re adding more all the time. Post below if you’re willing to share your favorites – or if you disagree and can make a case for keeping the textbook on the syllabus.

4 responses to “Bye, Bye Survey Textbook”

  1. Alexa says:

    I ditched the survey textbook a few years ago with help from a wonderful digital resources librarian — I now use content from YouTube, SmartHistory, museum websites, Hyperallergic, and others. I also think it’s important to teach the skill of reading less “edutaining” prose — scholarly writing, to wit. So I do include a few short and relatively accessible critical essays, which requires an incredible amount of work both on my part and from the students to get through — they simply don’t have the reading skills or the expectations about what “reading” is to handle this stuff as first-year students, but I think that once they get into upper-level classes they’re generally expected to be able to read a scholarly essay, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. It’s not.

  2. Amy says:

    Anyone have suggestions for teaching a fully online art history survey course without a textbook? I’m worried that students need a consistent narrative (which I provide by teaching face-to-face 3 hours/week), but if I just piece together online resources, won’t the coverage be spotty? Or maybe that’s ok? Maybe we don’t need to teach a timeline of canonical artworks to teach art history survey.

    • shelbyarthistory says:

      Hi – I suggest also posting this question to the AHTR Facebook page. It is pretty active and you may receive more responses to this very excellent question.

    • Josh Rose says:

      Amy, I have converted all my survey classes – including online and face-to-face – to OER. I’d be happy to help! Feel free emailing me directly; you can find my contact information at my website:

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