How to Study a History Textbook

In my work as a college teacher, students often ask for advice about how to study their textbooks. Since I keep offering the same advice, I thought I should write it here in case it’ll be useful to other students. I’ve asked some other college and high school teachers what advice they would offer, too.

Let’s be honest: Using history textbooks is hard.

By “textbook,” in this case, I don’t mean just any kind of history book. Sometimes instructors do ask you to read other kinds, and we may refer to all of them informally as textbooks. But in many of your courses, a textbook may be a special kind of oversized, expensive book, designed exclusively to be used for school. You’re probably never going to read a history textbook for fun. Often, you’ll have to take quizzes or exams based on it.

Now, a lot of history teachers today don’t assign this kind of textbook at all. But there’s a good chance yours does. And these books can be deceptively difficult to use. They’re supposed to be relatively easy to read. But if you’re trying to sit down and read one straight through, you’re likely to find it boring, overwhelming, or just impossible to follow.

Students tell me all the time that they’ve carefully read a textbook chapter, even studied it more than once, only to discover that they can hardly remember anything they’ve read. Or that they studied part of a textbook and thought they were ready for an exam, only to discover that the questions on the test were completely different from what they had expected.

These are common problems. So let me offer some advice from the perspective of history teachers.

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The False Choices of Pedagogy Critics

Framing the instructional situation as a set of either-or choices, such as abandoning textbooks in favor of primary sources or substituting student inquiry projects for teachers’ lectures, ignores the perennial challenges that history students and, consequently, history teachers face in trying to learn history and develop historical understanding. History is a vast and constantly expanding storehouse of information about people and events in the past. For students, learning history leads to encounters with thousands of unfamiliar and distant names, dates, people, places, events, and stories. Working with such content is a complex enterprise not easily reduced to choices between learning facts and mastering historical thinking processes. Indeed, attention to one is necessary to foster the other.

—Robert B. Bain, “‘They Thought the World Was Flat?’,” in M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005), 180

An America Where Everyone Meant Well

At the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, I have a post today about Wilfred McClay’s 2019 United States history survey textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, along with the teacher’s guide co-written by John McBride. My essay is a companion to a more thorough review by Thomas D. Mackie last week.

We wrote our responses independently, but Mackie and I came to similar conclusions about what the book does right, what’s missing from its picture of U.S. history, and what we find strange about its understanding of the history teacher’s job.

The question my response poses, though not in these words, is this: Why do McClay and some other historians seem to think we are “condescend[ing] toward the past” when we teach history as if people made choices, they could have made different choices, others disagreed with their choices at the time, and their choices mattered?

Designing a Course on the Roots of the Modern World

Amid the general disruption, a university has hired me to teach my first fully online history course this autumn: an introductory-level undergraduate survey called Roots of the Modern World. This is a course I’ve taught once before, about three years ago, in a traditional face-to-face setting. I will be redesigning it mostly from scratch.

As usual, the opportunity to design a course is very exciting. But this course presents some special conceptual challenges.

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Yawp Yawp Yawp

americanyawpIf you’re teaching a U.S. history survey course–or if you would like to use a general textbook for background information in a related course–you may want to examine The American Yawp, a free online textbook. (I am one of the contributors, and I edited the ninth chapter, “Democracy in America.”) It’s been available for a few years, so why am I mentioning it now? Because it’s just been updated under the aegis of Stanford University Press, complete with peer review and professional copy-editing. In the spring, this improved version of The American Yawp will be available in an inexpensive SUP print edition as well as in the existing digital version. I’m proud of my small contribution to this resource, and I’m proud of this update to the story of its development.