Questioning The Ethics Of Required Textbooks
This fall, I had the opportunity to teach a first-year seminar: basically, a course designed to introduce new students to the college experience and the values of a liberal arts education. While the students were generally excited about the start of this new phase of their lives, most were also a bit understandably anxious. They worried about getting the classes they wanted, about being able to handle the workload, and about finding friends and a good community, among other things.
Almost all of them also worried about finances: the cost of college, the cost of living, and, unsurprisingly, the cost of textbooks. Seeing my students stress over the cost of their books—tallying up total cost, checking online options, comparing prices—was a good reminder of one reason why I’d abandoned textbooks in my own teaching years ago. I’ve had plenty of students over the years for whom $10 or $20 was a significant dent in their budget; why contribute to their financial instability by requiring a $100+ textbook purchase?
As if financial incentives weren’t reason enough to question the merits of standard textbooks, there is also the more recent tactic by publishers of either gently coercing or outright forcing educators and students to buy into proprietary online and digital resources. To get the latest edition of volume 1 of Art History by Stokstad and Cothren, for example, requires buying into their REVEL online platform. For $48.99 you buy a subscription to the text and online resources for the duration of the class (but you have to use another company’s website or app, VitalSource, to read your e-text).
While that price is less than the cost of most physical textbooks, you also don’t end up owning anything (for that you’d have to buy the more expensive option of REVEL plus the textbook); you don’t even own a digital copy. Presumably, you can’t thumb through these resources for your next art history course, or in a year or two when you visit a museum and recall having seen a particular work in your class.
Full disclosure: I’ve barely used VitalSource (and didn’t like it), and I’ve never used REVEL. Nor do I have any real interest in doing so. And as I hear the much-needed discourse around me, at my own school and elsewhere, about decolonizing pedagogical practices and equity of access and inclusivity, I honestly wonder how educators buy into any of this madness without feeling like total hypocrites. If we as educators think that decolonizing pedagogies and curricula is about more than just empty rhetoric and token nods to historically underrepresented groups in our classes, we need to reconsider the ways all of our practices maintain the damaging hierarchies we are allegedly working against. The ability to buy a textbook stratifies people not based on merit, but largely (solely, even) on income and financial status and class.
It’s also worth questioning to what extent these publishers are serving the same old broth just reheated and in a new bowl. A look at the website for one of these online resources promises exciting new features: 3D animations and panoramic views and online quizzes and writing prompts. Thrilling! But it’s a valid question to ask whether any of this does more than just convey content. Admittedly, part of our job (maybe a big part) is conveying content and material. But another part is teaching students that they are creators of knowledge, rather than just consumers of it. It calls to mind the rush to get computers and tablets into primary schools without stopping to consider whether we’re teaching kids how to really use these tools (and thus giving them deep knowledge of them) or just how to become lifelong consumers and customers for tech corporations. Furthermore, why would we (educators and researchers) surrender ourselves to these publishers’ version of art history? If we’re serious about teaching art histories rather than a canon that really only serves one (damaging) narrative, then we should be serious about reclaiming those histories and being active producers of our surveys. Failing to do so makes us little more than consumers ourselves.
Open Education Resources are a small—but in my view meaningful—way to put actions to the rhetoric around systemic change in higher education and the need for broader, more exciting curricula. Of course, these resources come with their own problems. Information may want to be free (to paraphrase the quote often attributed to Stewart Brand), but its production is never free. Creating and disseminating knowledge require an investment of human time and capital, and it is critical we convey this to our students. This is perhaps especially important in the arts and humanities—fields where labor is so often devalued. Further complicating matters is that committing to Open Access resources and building courses from the ground up rather than via a textbook, can be a lot of work, and it’s often work that can go unnoticed by tenure or hiring committees. Nor is it work that anyone is likely to be compensated for anytime soon. For increasingly overworked and underpaid faculty these are very real problems, and I don’t have good answers.
But hard questions aren’t a good reason to surrender to bad (and expensive) options. We ought to accept that there aren’t going to be any easy answers to the issues we’re facing. I don’t know the best way to convey to students the value of information; nor do I know how to address the benefits of OER (Open Educational Resources) alongside the very real need to compensate educators and scholars for their work. But if we’re teaching our students to be good critical thinkers and problem solvers then we owe it to them to live this philosophy and try new strategies.
If you’re thinking of ditching the textbook, here are some excellent resources to get you started:
MetMuseum essays (timeline of art history): https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/essays/
Fordham Internet sourcebook (this link is to medieval sources, but there are pages for various eras): https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/sbook.asp
And of course: Art History Teaching Resources!
The above are written and/or curated by academics, and I’ve used all of them with great success in my classes. They also feature links to other resources and (in many cases) other viewpoints—a nice reminder that knowledge is fluid, constantly changing, and dynamic.