What is a Textbook?

A textbook, no less than any other text, must not be regarded simply as an assemblage of interchangeable parts.

“Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to.”

“Crosseyed and Painless,” The Talking Heads

Thanks to the work of literary critics and theoreticians over the past century, we now understand the so-called text to be a highly porous—even elusive—entity, not bound within the confines of a particular set of words or paragraphs (and even these have been “deconstructed”) but exposed to and transmuted by as many psychological, social, or philosophical standpoints as are brought to bear upon it by its readers. Even the “lowly” textbook, which by its nature seems to represent a particularly irreducible textual form, that of brute instruction, now stands stripped of its authority and awaiting an inevitable stream of comments, counter-comments, notations, links, arguments, diatribes, excerpts, abstracts, corrections, and metadata enhancements for its completion.

All of this might have been figuratively true before digital technology made each of us an author, but the digital revolution has been particularly effective in actualizing what was only implicit before: the text as a malleable document that is never finished except through the sheer exhaustion of its commentators. With the high wall separating authors and readers now breached, it is only through a set of imperfectly adhered to conventions surrounding the notion of authorship that the authority of the text asserts itself.

As open educational resources, textbooks thus pose an interesting set of problems. We begin by acknowledging that a textbook, if it is used at all, is never used in isolation. It is part of a complex mixture of supporting materials organized and ultimately translated through the voice of the instructor. In fact, it might even be appropriate to say that in the context of the course, the instructor is the only author worthy of the term. It is the instructor’s creation of a syllabus and lesson plan, his or her choice of pedagogical materials, and her gloss on these materials in the form of lectures or comments that represent the true authorial voice.

But if the OER textbook is ultimately to become a crowd-sourced document, with careful if perfunctory authorial attributions dutifully provided under the terms of its CC-BY license, then I fear what we are saying is that intrinsically, a textbook has no need of the authorial voice. It is merely the vehicle for the transmission of a set of disembodied “facts.” The facts can be reordered and they can be abridged or expanded, but they are self-sufficient entities, independent of an author. Calculus is calculus and hasn’t changed all that much, as one commentator has naively remarked.

Really? Try making that argument for economics.

Lest anyone misunderstand, I am not arguing against the value of freely available, editable content for classroom instruction. I am arguing against the notion that texts are other than disclosures of meanings that emerge from a narrative sequence and choice of words, and that come with points of view representing an authorial voice. And I am arguing, therefore, that a textbook, no less than any other text, must not be regarded simply as an assemblage of interchangeable parts.—MC

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About the author:

Mark Cummings is the editor and publisher at Choice