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):

Fordham Internet sourcebook (this link is to medieval sources, but there are pages for various eras):

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.

5 responses to “Questioning The Ethics Of Required Textbooks”

  1. I fully concur. I abandoned textbooks in three courses (“Modern Art,” “Renaissance to 1855” and “Cubism”) approximately about two years ago. Developing worthy alternatives is a process–and tends to put one afoul of copyright law.

    The Open Source type resources Virginia recommends are good and I use them all.

    I also scan articles and writings from a range of texts, especially anthologies of primary source materials and important essays, including those edited by Herschel Chipp and Patricia Hills.

    When I encounter a good item, a review or even a more “fluff” kind of piece, such as those on “Artsy,” I grab the URL and often convert the piece into a pdf I can keep. This process is ongoing–much like the process of collecting imagery to use in presentations.

    I store pdfs and the like in file folders. For each class, however, I create a spread sheet that provides a quick reference to the content or the reading (or video or website), some kind of bibliographic citation, and a note about its length and difficulty. I know this sounds like an immense amount of work, but I have a master spread sheet that I can cannibalize for seminars and the like. Once I get a spreadsheet started, it expands easily and rapidly, as I generally add only an item or two at a time.

    Finally I find abandoning textbooks means I give up a standard set of images for students to learn and on which they can be tested. My solution now is to use to create study galleries. Padlet is easy-peasy (I am serious about that–no one is more technophobic and computer-illiterate than I) and so for each week/meeting/module I create a group of images organized in some way that I find sensible, enriched with whatever extra data I may wish to include. These “walls” are easily accessed by students through a link on the relevant module on our LMS (which happens to be Canvas). And advantage here is that I can choose images that are both objectively important and enrich the topics under consideration.

    In fact, I create two walls for each module, one with images (more than 10, fewer than 20), one with scanned readings, links to videos and other resources and the odd bit of fun.

    I am finding that this is working well. As for getting students to do the readings? Well that is a subject for another posting. Let’s just say I have tactics for achieving that goal.

  2. Brava for this post. I have moved to OER for nearly everything, though even then, the access to a laptop, or at least a phone, is a real issue, and why I do not ban phones from class. Sometimes that is the only access that a student has TO the e-resources. I use all the ones that are noted here, as well as scanned PDFs in our CMS class space. I have not had any issues with learning that takes place.

  3. Julie Risser says:

    This semester I dropped “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History” Not only is it outrageously expensive, over $200.00 in many college bookstores, the Introduction alone reveals extreme Eurocentrism and marginalization of women (only one example of a work by a woman in the intro – a very vaginal Georgia O’Keeffe – which is compared to a Ben Shahn in a way that undermines the context of the O’Keeffe) Comparisons between “western” and “non-western work” are also problematic – students learn Ogata Korin, who worked during the Edo period, Japan “ignored these Western perspective conventions”. Perhaps the most appalling example reveals not only bias but sloppy research. On page 13 under the “Different Ways of Seeing” an image of a Maori leader’s moko facial pattern, redrawn by 19th century anthropologist Leo Frobenius, is presented as an actual “Self-Portrait” by the Maori leader, Te Pehi Kupe. This is compared with John Henry Sylvestre’s “Portrait of Te Pehi Kupe.” If people access the source of the Frobenius drawing “The Childhood of Man: A Popular Account of the Lives, Customs and Thoughts of the Primitive Races” – which is clearly cited on page 13 – one can read the caption under the image “after his own drawing” as well as Frobenius’ statement about how “…for several weeks poor Tupai Kupa had to draw the marks again and again for all his friends and acquaintance” Why did he have to do this? This question is not asked in Gardners. There was no Maori tradition of leaders drawing their Moko – they were not visual artists. Turns out the British introduced this practice so that they could get an image that could be interpreted as a signature on documents that turned over land to the British. The agreements remain highly controversial in New Zealand today. So for Gardner’s to provide analysis in this 2017 publication about the Frobenius knock off – representing an actual tradition of Maori ruler self-portraiture and the ruler being an artist is appalling – the drawings are an example of colonial imperialism and unethical land grab. Here’s the Gardner analysis: “A single instance underscores how differently people of diverse cultures view the world and how various ways of seeing can result in sharp difference in how artists depict the world. Illustrated here are two contemporaneous portraits of a 19th century Maori chieftain – one by an Englishman, John Sylvester, and the other by the New Zealand chieftain himself, Te Pehi Kupe. Both reproduce the chieftain’s facial tattoo. The European artist included the head and shoulders and downplayed the tattooing. The tattoo pattern is one aspect of the likeness among many, no more or less important than the chieftain’s European attire. Sylvestre also recorded his subject’s momentary glance toward the right and the play of light on his hair, fleeting aspects having nothing to do with the figure’s identity.”
    In contrast, Te Pehi Kupe’s self-portrait, made during a trip to Liverpool, England, to obtain European arms to take back to New Zealand-is not a picture of a man situated in space and bathed in light. Rather it is the chieftain’s statement of the supreme importance of the tattoo design announcing his rank among his people. Remarkably, Te Pehi Kupe created the tattoo patterns from memory, without the aid of a mirror. The splendidly composed insignia, presented as a flat design separated from the body and even from the head, is the Maori chieftain’s image of himself.” Gardner’s p. 13 I started a blog about Gardner’s a while back – but stopped – did not get to the Maori example – but looked as several other problematic content areas.

  4. Alexa Sand says:

    A while back (maybe four years ago), my colleague and I who teach the year-long survey in our combined art/design/art education/art history department decided to stop using the textbook for the survey. We now use a combo of OER and library resources (such as Oxford Art Online), and create image-study resources using ARTstor or just Canvas. One thing I’ve noticed is that students actually seem to be learning more of the “background” information than they used to, perhaps because it’s delivered in smaller, more digestible portions. Most of my students don’t have the economic wherewithal to buy expensive textbooks, and would often just try to make do with a quick look at the reserve copy, so now I think the material is more accessible to them. I think this is the future of big survey classes — textbooks were never a great way of doing things, though they do make a lot of money for their publishers.

  5. Kate Bentz says:

    I used Stokstad’s 1-semester survey text in my course this fall and the students bought used copies or rented it in hardcopy or online without REVEL.

    Are you saying the company changed this policy? If so, that’s pretty terrible.

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