This post is not meant as a criticism of textbook authors and publishers. By and large they put in long hours to make sure that they produce a quality product. They also fulfill a very real need. Textbook authors are often driven to write because they are not happy with the current offerings, and the project is usually inspired by their own teaching needs. Yet, there are problems with textbooks that occur despite the best intentions of those who write and publish them. In this blog I lay out the growing problems I have had with textbooks. The focus is on my field of International Relations (IR), although I suspect that many of these problems are common across other fields.
So, you find yourself having to teach the introductory course. This means you have to teach right across your field, and not just in the areas where you have kept up to date through your research. If (like me) you have been in your field for a while it still means there are areas that you have not really kept up with since you finished your degrees. Newer graduates may have covered these topics more recently, but may be less confident in the depth of their knowledge. Here the textbook comes to the rescue. Either single or multi-authored, the textbook covers the full gamut of what others will expect you to cover. What is more, if you have got in with the right publisher the textbook may come with pre-prepared PowerPoint slides, notes, podcasts and other Easter eggs offered as part of the price of the book.
This, however, is not the only reason we may run for the shelter of a good textbook. Oftentimes students yearn for an anchor too. A textbook provides them with a bare minimum source of knowledge, often clearly and simply written, that they can grasp on to as the instructor takes them on a journey across the field. If the course closely follows the textbook then the student feels secure, and also senses that the purchase of the text was money well spent.
Every textbook is prêt-à-porter: it comes as a pre-cut bundle that offers us very little flexibility in terms of the content it has to offer. There is obviously a limit to what publishers are able to offer us. Bespoke textbooks, put together from publishers’ back catalogues, are limited in their appeal both because they are expensive, and because students find that the re-sale value is close to zero. Publishers wish to sell books cheaply and in large print runs. They do not have the ability to make their offerings more flexible without running into a whole host of other problems. We then either adapt the text to the course (leaving out chapters, finding supplementary readings), or if we are really busy we adapt the course to the text (which is much more popular with the students, who bought the textbook on the understanding that it will be used for the course). What publishers can offer is the various ‘add-ons’ that can come via a web page, and so the line of least resistance, and the best way to make their books stand out, is to offer flat pack courses to instructors via a comprehensive text, cheaper text bundles, companion volumes or instructor manuals for seminars, and the various web-based resources that partner a major text.
Thus the chances are that we will adopt that textbook. Okay, it is not precisely what we had in mind, but the students will like the helpful textbox summaries, and the rather bland PowerPoints on the website will make class prep easier. Yet, the choice of a textbook is a Faustian pact. Textbooks contain serious weaknesses. While they are not all the same, as a genre textbooks run into four broad problems. These are: 1. accuracy, 2. placidity, 3. authority and autonomy; and 4. the lack of narratives.
Textbooks tend to have two kinds of authorship. Many are single-authored, but others are edited collections that rely on particular experts to write specific chapters. In the former case the writer of the textbook immediately faces the challenge of how to write about a field in which their main area of interest is only a very slim part of perhaps one chapter. In the rest of the book they must write as the outsider, and often on subjects that they last fully engaged with as a graduate student. Most of these writers try to supplement their knowledge by getting colleagues to read specific chapters to give advice on content. This is admirable, but does not take away from the point that the author is not writing from the cutting edge of the topic being discussed. One answer to this is to get specific experts to write chapters that address their fields. This deals with the problem of the lack of knowledge of the single author, although it does bring in another problem (which I will deal with below) that the text gains knowledge at the expense of a clear course narrative. The textbook becomes a set of chapters going in several directions, so a sense of a clear narrative is lost.
Even with multi-authored textbooks, not all fields can be included in any depth. So even the best textbook will exclude current research, and consequently have sections that may be as much as a decade or more out of date. A good example is my own field of the history of international thought. Given that textbooks often present a potted history of the field you would expect that references to past developments in international thought and disciplinary history would be central to an understanding of IR. Yet, in these areas textbooks almost unanimously rely on standard accounts that have not changed since the 1990s. It is instructive that my own work (calling into question standard views of the emergence of IR and international thought) has only appeared in two textbooks. One was a specialist work on gender and IR that engaged with my work on early feminism (Steans, 2013: 98), the other is the 2017 edition of the leading textbook on the market that actually did an excellent job of incorporating much of the recent scholarship on disciplinary history (Baylis, Smith & Owens, 2017: ch. 2). Both deserve kudos. Yet, in the latter case it does demonstrate that in some subfields of the discipline it takes more than two decades for new ideas to reach the level of the textbook.
Yet, the inaccuracy of a textbook may not just be down to gaps in the knowledge of the author. Oftentimes there is a hierarchy in the care taken to write different sections of the book. Even well written and researched textbooks will be slapdash in areas that are considered marginal. For example the otherwise superb Edkins and Zehfuss textbook illustrates the peace of Westphalia with a picture that it claims is the October Treaty of Munster between France and the Empire. It is actually the ratification in May of the earlier January Treaty of Munster between the Dutch and the Spanish (2009: 201). The mistake is compounded by the fact that the chapter itself actually does not regard the Dutch-Spanish treaty as part of the Peace. While this mistake does not affect the argument presented, it is a jejune error and representative of the lack of care given to issues like historical accuracy in IR textbooks.
IR is predominantly a social scientific field that tends to regard knowledge of institutions and of theoretical categorisations as more important than historical knowledge. As a result, getting a historical event wrong is seen as less important than getting facts about an institution wrong or mislabelling a category. Also, like many social sciences, it privileges explanations based on its specific competences. Many introductory IR textbooks, for example, make much of the relations of state and power, and while they may give a nod towards the importance of politico-economic issues, will fail to mention industrial development and changes in the nature of the means of production as major determinants of the international. The fact that very few IR textbooks mention the effects of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, but are happy to wax lyrical about ‘Westphalia’ is an example of this bias. The absence of the game-changing industrial revolution from the potted histories found in IR textbooks is one of the strangest silences to be found in these texts (a major exception here is Shimko, 2008, who does take the industrial revolution seriously). This could be an innocent omission, but it is interesting that it allows textbooks to concentrate on the causes of war, while conveniently ignoring the origins of IR in studies of imperialism and colonial government.
Related to this is the problem of the expected story. There is a natural conservatism to most textbooks just because there are expectations from those in the profession that find themselves teaching intro to IR. The division of theoretical paradigms (and even the use of paradigms!) becomes an expectation that only a very brave textbook writer would ignore. We can, it seems from textbook accounts, agree that there is a realist paradigm, and that it can be compared to a liberal/idealist/utopian paradigm. After that, we can then accept that there is a third set of paradigms (constructivism, poststructuralism/postmodernism/feminism/green) that we can sort out in one of several commonly accepted ways depending on the audience the textbook is writing for. We also expect that there have been a series of debates that shaped the discipline, starting with the realist-idealist ‘Great Debate’ in the 1930s. You leave these stories out of your textbook at your peril because this is the story that we know and expect. The only problem with this story is that, from the point of view of recent scholarship on IR theory and the disciplinary history of IR, it is complete and utter bollocks. There is a wealth of material on why this debate is a myth, which is summarized in Schmidt (2012). Expected stories must be told because they are expected, and they are defended by those who use, write, and publish textbooks through the common mantra of ‘it is a necessary simplification, and anyway it is one interpretation of the facts.’ My reply is that not all simplifications are either necessary or useful, and interpretations have to be judged by their quality of fit to what we know. The realist-idealist ‘Great Debate’ is an expected story, so it shows up in most textbooks. But expected or not the latest scholarship argues that it is about as factual as the Easter Bunny.
While the stories above mostly come from my own specific sub-field, there are implications for other areas. If I can find textbook blunders from my own area, how many other howlers are in the book that I do not catch because they are in sub-fields that I am not up to speed in?
There is a pressure on textbooks, by the very nature of the genre, to present a neutral and authoritative tone when discussing topics, such that the deep seated disagreements and challenges in a particular area are washed over with a placid glaze. This often takes the form of an appeal to unknown and unnamed higher authorities that have settled the issue once and for all. In one textbook, for example, the phrase ‘most historians believe’ preceded a discourse on a topic that historians actually disagree about at a very profound level (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 80). Another attributed their version of the appeasement story and its importance to ‘others’ (Heywood, 2011: 35). In a third, the raging differences in interpreting the peace of Westphalia is reduced to the familiar formula that it ‘is regarded by many’ as the key event that created the system of states (Baylis, Smith & Owens, 2014: 42). Occasionally the textbook writer tries to be more specific about who these authorities are, like the authors who claimed that the idea that the 1919 peace ‘contained the seeds’ of the Second World War came from ‘some realist scholars’ (Jackson & Sørensen, 2007: 39). Even here, though, a nameless authority is the source.
Basically, these statements are examples of placidity, where an authoritative and unchallenged voice lays out a story that is presented as an accepted truth. Sometimes the textbook will mix it up a little. Two sides will be compared (preferably in a textbox), and left to battle it out as equals. Even then, though, placidity is also being practiced. The split is resolved down to two clear sides, while third options are excluded, and a messy conflict is reduced to a discussion. Placidity also extends to what issues should or should not be discussed at an introductory level. Returning to a point discussed above, the strange exclusion of the industrial revolution allows textbooks to avoid the late nineteenth century imperial expansions that created a single deeply hierarchical and racist global economy. The fact that many early international thinkers (eg: A. T. Mahan, Paul Reinisch and H. N. Brailsford) were actually inspired by colonial competition, rather than the causes of war, is therefore easily brushed aside. What is more, issues of colonialism and racist exploitation can be neatly tucked away in the chapter on development, thus turning the imperial (and racist) origins of IR into the safer issue of how to develop other parts of the world. Similarly issues like gender can be neatly shunted to a safe section, where it will not interfere with more ‘weighty’ issues. One textbook reduces feminist IR to one sentence and one page (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 31, 40-1.
Not to say that there has not been progress here, though. The 2017 edition of the bestselling Globalization of World Politics has added a chapter on race. Previously this textbook had no chapter on feminist theory under its ‘Theories of World Politics’ section (although it did have a later chapter on gender and international politics). This has now been rectified with a new chapter on feminist theory. The improvements made to the latest edition of this popular textbook are to be commended (Baylis, Smith & Owens, 2017: chs 12 & 18).
Underlying this placidity by deed and omission is an attitude that introductory courses should spare younger students certain topics. Only recently a colleague at a UK institution reported how one of her colleagues questioned why feminism should be taught at the introductory level. ‘Should this not be reserved for more senior level courses?’ he asked. This idea that we should teach uncontentious basics in a placid style hides the extent to which these ‘uncontentious basics’ are part of an often unintended system of gate-keeping. It is also highly conservative in the sense that it suggests that new and cutting edge material is not yet uncontentious enough for inclusion in textbooks. One textbook does try to avoid this by including multiple chapters that are often cutting-edge and contentious. Right from the beginning the editors state that there ‘are no easy answers to be had’ (Edkins & Zehfuss, 2009: 1). This text also manages, through the use of marginal notes, textboxes and counterpoints, to avoid (in most cases) a crude bipolar division to disputes in IR. This – and the changes to the Baylis, Smith and Owens – shows that textbooks need not necessarily follow a placid format. That said, though, the iron cage of placidity seems to be a hard prison for textbooks to break out from. Even the Edkins and Zehfuss text cannot always resist the pull of placid authority. Thus, secularism is, it seems, ‘commonly dated’ to the Peace of Westphalia (2009: 112). A statement that is as vague as it is wrong.
Authority and Autonomy
Textbooks carry authority. People do not always trust the written word, but when it is in a textbook for a course at a university it carries an authority that other written sources do not have. I have found this problematic. At a time when I still regularly used textbooks I would take my disagreements with textbooks in my stride, and would often point out where the textbook was inaccurate. Come essay time I was amazed at how many students, who had heard my lecture, would blithely reference the textbook on the very point that I had questioned. When it came to the dilemma of believing me or believing the textbook the students often opted for the textbook.
Thus, although students will react differently, many students will not believe you because the textbook for them carries authority. This makes one possible reaction to using textbooks problematic: that although the textbook is wrong on some things, you can just correct those mistakes through lectures, seminars, tutorials, and additional readings. The fact that the textbook in the case above had the authority to cancel out even my own published research in the eyes of many of my students shows that a gentle correction of the textbook’s errors is not enough. When we adopt a textbook that contains errors, we have to accept that for good or ill we have invited those errors into our classroom.
The opposite of the authority of the textbook is our autonomy as a teacher. When we adopt a textbook we can chose to interact with it in different ways. If we like the textbook (or even wrote it ourselves for the specific course we are teaching) then the choice is easier. The syllabus is written to match the flow of the book, and the different chapters become the individual classes that we have planned. We may also choose to use the textbook selectively, to actively engage with its silences or inaccuracies as part of the learning experience. We may even fill in the gaps with other external sources. Aside from the fact that some students will side with the textbook because it is the textbook, this latter strategy can be seen by students as unfair. They buy a thick and expensive text, and then you only use it for some of the course.
This leads to perhaps one of the biggest problems in adopting a text: that it undermines our autonomy as an instructor. By adopting a text we necessarily limit our autonomy in the choice of both content and course structure. In an ideal world we should be in a position to write the course in much the same way that we would write a book: weaving the material into a coherent form in a way that conforms to our understanding of the subject matter. In that sense each of us should have written the textbook for our own course. In practice we cannot do that.
Basically, I do not feel comfortable teaching an intro IR course unless I get to structure it in a way that makes it interesting for my particular cohort of students, and plays to my strengths as a teacher and researcher. This point even extends to adopting what are probably the two best textbooks currently on the intro to IR market. Both the Edkins/Zefhuss and the Baylis/Smith/Owen texts have consciously tried to deal with many of the problems mentioned above. Yet, if I was to set one of these as the set text the structure of the textbooks would constrain my own preferred course narrative. This brings me to the next issue on my list of problems with textbooks: the importance of a narrative structure, and storytelling as a scientific tool.
Courses as Narratives: and the Lost Art of the Lecture and the Essay
Just as our identities are constructed by narratives, so the identity of a course can also be constructed via narratives. Indeed, the conscious use of narratives is a common tool used to help people to learn. From early mythologies, through the stories of Aesop, the quest romance (whether European knights or Chinese monkey kings), all the way up to the scripts of Hollywood or Bollywood blockbusters, narratives are a great tool for evaluating, storing and transmitting knowledge. It even serves a key role in scientific enquiry. The basic concept of the flow of the scientific method has an uncanny resemblance to the natural flow of a storyline. The importance of storytelling has even been recognized by the Edkins/Zehfuss textbook, which has an excellent chapter by Annick Wibben on just this theme. We all tell stories, the question is: are we conscious of the stories we tell, and do we do it well?
For me a course is a story. Each lecture or seminar is an episode that resolves part of the storyline, but also ends on a cliff-hanger (an unresolved question, an unintended consequence of an action, or an alternative viewpoint). In turn, each of these relates to an overarching theme, or set of themes, that frame the course. On top of this, I like to use a historical framework upon which to hang the concepts I discuss. This is not a popular approach in IR, but it does provide an easy framework for students to hang the course content on. I do delve into the same concepts explored in most intro to IR courses, but mine reveal themselves through the setting out of a historical grand narrative. Thus, I discuss IPE and geopolitics against the backdrop of industry and empire in the nineteenth century, IOs and feminism through the problems posed by the violence of the early twentieth century, classical realism through the rise of the Cold War, and diplomacy and sovereignty through the emergence of the modern state from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Concepts, rather than being ahistorical artifacts, are revealed as embedded in historical contingencies. There is no textbook that helps me to deliver this kind of course. On the contrary, since most textbooks present concepts as separate ahistorical creations, even the best textbooks would actually undermine the intent of my course.
Here also we come up against an earlier issue from a different direction. When discussing the issue of accuracy I pointed out that single-authored textbooks were more vulnerable to error than multi-authored edited collections. This is the advantage that edited volumes have: the chapters are at least written by experts in the area being covered by the chapter. That said, edited volumes, because they rely on many voices, have one major disadvantage when compared to single authored texts: they run the risk of presenting a confusing set of different narratives. While this may reflect the reality of the field of IR better, it does not necessarily aid understanding. Thus, we could say that there is a trade-off here between single- and multi-authored texts.
Creating courses with clear narratives can also help us deal with two components of our courses that have been increasingly criticised in the higher education press: the lecture and the essay. Over the last decade or so the lecture format has come under attack for being both boring and uninformative. Much of this is more the result of the misuse of the lecture than a failure of the essential aspect. Many lectures have become merely a means of rehashing the central information covered in that part of the course. This is compounded by the PowerPoint presentations that come with textbooks, which seem to take a delight in merely going through the main points in bland slides that neither offend nor delight. The lecture should be a story set within a wider story. Put another way, we all need to be much more like Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights: telling a story that gets the ideas across, but then ending on a cliff-hanger that leads the students to the next lecture. This narrative should not be the placid story told in textbooks, but rather one of conflicting points, ironies and strange twists. For example, we might flavour a discussion of deterrence during the Cold War by looking at the conflicting geopolitical visions of the USA and USSR, the irony that the very rational (and successful) concept of deterrence rested on the assumption of a willingness to actually contemplate a thoroughly irrational nuclear war, and the strange twists in the relations between East and West in the Horn of Africa that reveals both the ideological and the opportunistic elements in bipolarity. Presenting a position and then going ‘however, this is not the full story’ does not confuse students. Rather, for a generation that is perfectly happy to understand the twists of a Hollywood thriller, a lecture that builds a succession of ironies into the story is not a particular stretch. If our students in high school could enjoy the rich ambiguities of young adult dystopian fiction – the Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Maze Runner – they are not going to be easily flummoxed by the ironies of the Cold War. Even PowerPoint presentations can be brought into service here, using pictures and graphics to create aides-memoire for the complex story being told. In sum, the boring lecture is not boring because lectures are boring. They are boring because lecturers have stopped being story tellers. If stand-up comedians can keep an audience enthralled there is no reason why we can’t too.
Students also often have problems understanding why they have to format their essays in a certain way. Essay writing is often difficult not just because students don’t have an
understanding of the material, but also because they don’t understand why the essay format is necessary. The essay format follows the logic of the scientific method. A subject area is identified, a testable hypothesis is formulated, the hypothesis is tested against the evidence, and conclusions are drawn that may lead to further hypotheses. All of this is written down with citations so that it can be retested and replicated by others, and errors can then be spotted that lead to new conclusions. What has not been so easily grasped is how both the scientific method and the well-structured essay also resemble the structure of a good story. The classic (but not only) way to tell a story – whether in film, in a novel, in a play or in a short comedy episode – is to begin by setting the scene, insert a problem, let the conflicting issues play themselves out, reach a climax, and then head to some form of conclusion. A really good story may include twists as well. Perhaps one reason why our students do not write good essays is that our courses and our textbooks teach them that the central building blocks of the intro course are placid facts. If facts are undisputed, then why test anything in your essay? It all becomes a matter of regurgitating the inevitable and simplified truth. A greater concentration on narratives in our courses, coupled with the central scientific argument that all things are ripe for revision under certain logical rules of enquiry, lays the groundwork for us being able to explain why the essay is important: we are not teaching facts, but rather teaching them how to analyse the world for themselves by applying a scientific narrative.
It is this ability to tell stories, and to tell them in our own way, that textbooks often deny us. Concentration on placid facts to be learnt denies us our opportunity to both tell an informative narrative and to introduce the students to the importance of that narrative, and its link to the scientific method. The decline of the lecture and the essay are symptoms of this malaise.
Thus, textbooks are plagued by the four horsemen of the academic apocalypse: inaccuracy; placidity; authority and autonomy; and finally the lack of narratives. Many textbook writers have successfully engaged with the first two of these. For me, though, the far more insurmountable aspect faced is the unintentional denial of autonomy and the failure to support a more narrative approach. Yet, if we are not to use textbooks because of the problems listed above how are we to teach intro courses? Any post-textbook world will be much more work, and the convenience of textbooks is not easily replicated. As long as most of our precious time has to go into research or funding applications it is difficult to see how we can overcome the convenience of a well-written textbook.
Baylis, J, S. Smith and P. Owens (2014) Globalization of World Politics. 6th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baylis, J., S. Smith, & P. Owens (2017) The Globalization of World Politics. 7th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Edkins J., & M. Zehfuss (2009) Global Politics. An Introduction. London: Routledge. (2nd edition published in 2014)
Heywood, A (2011) Global Politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jackson, R. & G. Sørensen (2007) Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shimko, K (2008). International Relations. Perspectives and Controversies. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Schmidt B. (2012) IR and the First Great Debate London: Routledge.
Steans, J. (2013) Gender and International Relations. Cambridge: Polity.
Viotti P. & M Kauppi (2013) International Relations and World Politics. London: Pearson.