Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Age Of The Ginormous Survey Textbook Is Finally Over?


Could it be that age of the ginormous survey textbook is finally over? Surely the signs have been mounting. Only the most tired-tenured-tethered-to-the-lectern bunch could have failed to notice how expensive textbooks have become. (More on this in part II of my posts on the survey text.) Across the board prices have skyrocketed often for hurried, uninspiring new editions, from Janson, Gardner, and Stokstad et al. More astonishing is the lack of foresight on the part of big book publishers when it comes to integrating technology and education. For many of us, the internet has been an indispensable part of academic life for years now and we have been left wanting new tools to marry our mastery of the Web 2.0 world, useful in countless ways in our personal lives, with our professional lives.

Once upon a CAA meeting, I was unlucky fortunate to be part of a focus group on web technology in the headquarters of big publisher. I was really looking forward to the event in the hopes of sneaking a peek at the next great thing, only to be underwhelmed with yet one more online database of images. The saddest note of the afternoon was struck at the end of the meeting when they paraded in one of their techies, obviously the youngest employee they could locate, who proudly displayed art images from their new database saved as (proprietary) flashcards on his iPod. This highlighted for me the true lack of understanding as to what students need, and more pointedly the lack of fresh ideas to see beyond the printed book. The publishers treat technology like add-ons, shiny gadgets designed to dazzle.

We all remember our first love, mine an 8th edition Gardners - yikes. The story of the great survey text is a long one and while it may seem difficult to imagine art history without one, the time is now. We at Dithering About applaud the great work of the good folks at to usher in the age of the online textbook. True to the spirit of collaborative learning, the text promises to be a game changer. More than just links to images, it features thoughtful analysis through use of video, screencasts, podcasts, et al. In other words it plays to the strengths of the web. It reaches out to students of different learning styles and welcomes other scholars into the conversation. We are grateful for this bold step and have feel the shift happening.

I see this as a heroic first step, yet there is much more work to be done. I must admit my intital reaction is to wonder if a web-text can ever fully replace the survey textbook or might it act as a complement to some new incarnation of the survey? (Then again, I do read novels on my iPhone.) My concern stems from how I use the textbook in my survey courses. For me it acts not simply as a repository of images and facts, but as the authoritative voice in the room that I use to line up new theoretical information, e.g. "Stokstad writes this..." or "Janson claims..." Perhaps the smarthistory text, or something like it, might eventually be expanded to incorporate other established theoretical voices in an attempt to broaden the conversation.

So it goes with all great innovations come fresh challenges. We stand in awe, ponder, and get back to work.

(In part two I will deal with what is pushing the high price of textbooks.)


Beth said...

Thanks so much for all the kind words! And you make an interesting point about our need for that "authoritative voice" in the classroom to set up alternate interpretations against. We are very interested in having conversations about the best way to move forward to make Smarthistory as useful as possible for instructors. Please email us if you have ideas and suggestions --

And just wanted to leave our new blog site:

ak said...

Changing the textbook is definately one big step in the art history class. I wish there were a Smarthistory for the Italian Renaissance!

I wonder if you might address this issue in a future post. The biggest challenge I've faced is "how to test" in a new way. We can change the means through which we present information and hope that the students truly understand rather than memorize... but we still need to evaluate through tests, and in the end the old slide ID and comparison is too good to give up (esp if you have a large class).