Textbooks are written for students, so they should be appropriate, useful, instructive, and, may we hope, inspiring. But are they?

The first college level social science textbook I read was in introductory sociology. I pretty much had no idea what it was talking about. The articles that we read had a bit more of an impact. Four years later (Antioch College had a five year program), after having majored in sociology-anthropology, I reread the textbook, and it was a fine survey and synthesis of the field. What I came away with from this experience was the sense that surveys, which is what most introductory texts are, were most helpful when you were already familiar with the field, and least helpful when you are starting out.

Now I grant that when you are starting out, you probably don’t know anything, and beginning a new field is always a puzzle and a struggle. There is probably no ideal way to begin. But maybe some ways are better than others. My bias, as I have said, is that surveys are not the best way, and so the broad, general introductions texts are not the best choice.

I’ve used two approaches to introductory anthropology courses: one is to assign a collection of readings of reprinted articles; the other is to assign monographs. In general introductory courses, I assign four ethnographies. Most recently, the list was Coming of Age in Samoa, The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, The Anthropology of Real Life, and Sauna as Symbol. These are relatively easy to read, having been written for students or for a general audience. In my lectures, I try to provide contextualization, including the controversies about these works or those to which they speak. In an introductory level cultural ecology course, I used a collection of essays as the main readings. I felt that at least the students were reading “real anthropology,” written by anthropologists for anthropologists.

I’ve followed more or less the same strategy in more specialized courses: For example, in my psychological anthropology course, I have not found a textbook that I find suitable. So I assign Coming of Age in Samoa (when I am not teaching it in an introductory course), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Dreams and Deeds, and Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics, plus a number of articles. In my Middle East course, I assign The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, The Islamic Middle East, and Culture and Conflict in the Middle East. However, The Islamic Middle East is a textbook, surveying the region. But it is in some ways like a monograph, because it is written by a specialist in the field, and it has a central argument around which much of the material is organized. So I make an exception in this worthy case.

Not that I am entirely adverse to textbooks. I have written one, Understanding Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theory, which is reasonably popular. But it is a short book, and when I teach theory or history of theory, I use it in conjunction with a large compendium of reprinted articles or selections. I also edit a short introductory textbook of original contributions, called Thinking Anthropologically, which is apparently often used in conjunction with survey texts, but could be used with monographs or collections of articles. So I do not think that textbooks are bad, just that they should be kept in their place, next to real anthropology.

Now that I have tried your patience with my philosophy of reading assignments, I imagine that many of you have had different and perhaps contrary experiences, and I am sure that we would benefit from hearing about them.

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I agree that survey texts aren't very helpful to beginning students unless the student can connect to something in the text that relates to knowledge already gained. I find this to be true of introductory text books in Philosophy, Ethics, and World Religions - courses I teach.

It helps students get into the discipline more quickly if you require them to gain a detailed picture of a particular aspect. My students pick a narrow topic from a list I provide and turn in weekly one-page reports on what they are learning/discovering/researching. This leads up to a final comprehensive paper and some expertize in that area.
I have never found an anthropology textbook particularly useful, either while studying or teaching. This is not necessarily a prejudice - there may be practically useful books out there, I just haven't seen them. All the same, my first year students seem to invariably end up finding and reading Eriksen's Small Places, Large Issues, and second and third years find the Barnard and Spencer's Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology useful, but that's not really a textbook.

Personally, I've got so used to working and teaching straight from the texts, so it's somewhat hard to know what I'd look for in a textbook. I think my ideal textbook would be a lot closer to a sourcebook; an anthology of relevant original source material, fieldnotes, some excerpts from articles and monographs, useful visual imagery (e.g. images of posters or cartoons which illustrate ongoing issues in the field, ethnographic photographs), held together by a strand of narrative and commentary which shows how each fragment is a further clue in the search to better understand human thought and behaviour.

I have long thought about trying to make an online mock-up of something like this for the anthropology of Christianity, but it's sadly another one in the "when I have time" column. But a combination of ritual texts, sermons, images of icons, propaganda cartoons, data from interviews, descriptions from observers and participants, with associated commentary and questions... I think there would be something useful in that, because it would get people thinking of relevant anthropological questions of their own, to find themes and questions that they would want to pursue in their wider reading.
As a student, I have experienced a broad spectrum of usefulness in textbooks, mostly not too useful.

Fortunately for me, my very first anthropology course (Introduction to Social/Cultural Anthropology) used a textbook I found quite useful: Seeing Anthropology: Cultural Anthropology Through Film, by Karl Heider. The book provides the expected overviews of what is culture, doing fieldwork, language, production & consumption, kinship, marriage, gender, religion, and so on.

The hook for me was the accompanying DVD of ethnographic film clips which were discussed in the text. Seeing the Balinese irrigation system in a clip from Singer's The Goddess and the Computer, featuring Stephen Lansing's research there, created images (and the associated ideas) I carry today.
As it is, I usually teach my intro course with a short, concise textbook (Windows on Humanity) and about four articles from a reader (available on blackboard so students don't have to purchase a reader for four articles if they don't want to). I've had a number of review books to look through but have yet to find a text I really like (Windows is concise and relatively affordable). I would love to teach the whole course only through the reader - about 10 to 15 articles and selections from books instead of using a textbook at all. Or perhaps, the articles could best be supplemented by something like Barnard and Spencer's Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology which Richard brings up above. I have not yet done so for a few reasons:

(1) I don't have time. I know that is just about the lamest excuse there is, but I've been finishing up my dissertation fieldwork, outlining the dissertation, and preparing for the academic search in difficult economic times - rewriting my syllabi and revising my courses is just not an option for the four classes I will be teaching in the fall as an adjunct.
(2) My students WANT a textbook. At the end of every semester I spend some time asking my students what they liked about the course, and how it could be improved. Overwhelmingly my students have been against eliminating the textbook. They like to have a general reference that they can consult and seem a little reluctant to tackle primary material directly. Overall, they liked the balance of the textbook, lectures, about four articles and online discussions.

When I do have some more time I will try it anyway. I think if students take a course and they like it they can't imagine changing anything - but I think the experience would be greatly improved relying only on selections, articles and perhaps one full ethnography.
Teaching my first Intro course hot on the heels of my PhD, I have been wondering the same thing. Textbooks seem much more common in North America (except Quebec!) than the UK. I was sent many intro textbooks by eager publishers. Browsing them, I found that I myself appreciated the synthesis ('oh, so that's what cultural materialism is again') but thought they would be so dry as to be painful for students! So I agree with Philip about the general usefulness of textbooks.

I ended up following recommendations from a friend, so I chose Carol Delaney's Investigating Culture, because I found the writing and approach exciting. But trying to fit the chapters into a year-long course outline, matching them with the more usual subdivisions of the field, has been a bit difficult (the course starts next week so I'll keep you posted!). As an ethnography, I have assigned Bruce Knauft's The Gebusi, beautifully written and nuanced (I hope the students like it as much as I did). But most useful, I think, will be Spradley & McCurdy's introductory reader, Conformity & Conflict, a great collection of intro-level 6-15 page articles on many different themes and areas. I'm assigning about two-thirds of them.

A friend pointed out that you can assign the students the interesting books, articles and ethnographies, and use the textbooks to help prepare lectures to draw out the key concepts and points in the other readings. I think Eriksen's Small Places, Large Issues will be a key reference for me, along with a couple of the duller textbooks.

Too late in the game, I found Omohundro's Thinking Like an Anthropologist which looks very interesting - has anyone used it?
Update: the students are really enjoying Knauft's The Gebusi and the Conformity and Conflict reader. They're not so keen on Delaney's Investigating Culture, and I'm still finding the latter difficult to weave into lectures.

I'm still curious about Omohundro's Thinking like an Anthropologist and would like to know if anyone is using it.
Will be using Omohundro next semester (starting Monday). Was sent it two years ago but this is the first opportunity I have of using it. As textbooks go, Omohundro's TLA is probably the most fitting in terms of my teaching philosophy. We rarely used textbooks when I did my bachelor's in anthro at Université de Montréal, so I usually find textbooks to be quite exotic. But I've been using a variety of them in my intro courses, partly because of assumed expectations as well as a way to build on what has been done.
For cultural anthropology, I've used: Haviland, Schultz & Lavenda, Ember&Ember, and Kottak. Funnily enough, the first three were all called "Cultural Anthropology." Kottak also has a textbook called "Cultural Anthropology" but the one I used was Mirror for Humanity.
For sociology, I've used Schaefer's Sociology twice and just finished using both Knuttila's Introducing Sociology: A Critical Perspective along with the Introduction to Sociology Wikibook.
The other time I used a textbook was Lehmann and Myers's Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. It's more of a reader than a standard textbook, but the idea is about the same in terms of course design.
Haviland, Schaefer, and Lehmann & Myers were all adopted by the institution where I was teaching the course in which it was used.
I've consulted several other textbooks and even reviewed one.
Actually, we did use a few textbooks at UdeM. My first course in cultural anthro, we did use Marvin Harris's textbook but it was mostly a backup for those memorable lectures by Guy Dubreuil (who also studied at Columbia in the late 1940s).

Out of all of those textbooks I've seen, Omohundro's is probably the most unique, in terms of approach.
I should probably report back once I'm done with it. It'll be interesting to see students' reactions...
Actually, I feel like I may need to justify my textbook use, a bit. Not that it hasn't been effective or that the textbooks themselves have been a hindrance. But because I share the feeling that they're lacking.
One thing I like about textbooks is that they represent a kind of baseline. You can rely on them for the basics, a bit like an instruction manual. Usually, they're also written in an appropriate style. Again, like an instruction manual. I would call that writing style "neutral" in the "unmarked" sense. a bit like Barthes's "degree zero" or "reporting" in Hymes's Breakthrough Into Performance.
In terms of format, textbooks are organized clearly. The effect, in my case, is that I often feel free to go on tangents with little fear of losing students for very long. If students are lost, they may go back to the book, which is comfortable, familiar, reassuring.
I also think of them as shared objects, in a rather special sense. A collection of texts could have the same effect if the same collection were adopted in diverse courses. But a textbook is closer to a commodity. Which implies some obvious disadvantages, but might be fitting in the consumer-based approach in most North American institutions of formal learning.
Textbooks often come with "ancillary material." Though these are often far from ideal, I've frequently found these helpful. For instance, I find it quite hard to build appropriate exam questions for introductory courses. In test banks which come with textbooks, I often find a few questions which are usable for my context. In my experience, questions for introductory sociology are more easily interchanged across textbooks than questions for introductory cultural anthro.
Then, as I mentioned, there's the assumed expectation: I assume that students expect to be using a textbook in an intro course. Judging from colleagues' syllabi, it does seem like textbooks are still rather common. It also seems common, in cultural anthropology, to use ethnographic monographs in conjunction with these textbooks, something I've never done. So my justification isn't about doing like others do. But it relates to fitting a certain model.
Saying all this, I keep getting back to the notion of the textbook as a crutch. In some ways, I'd like to wean myself from textbooks. But I want to have a solid alternative, for introductory courses.

Thing is, I find a lot of problems with textbooks, especially now.
First, they're expensive. Not only is that a problem in terms of students' budgets but it goes with a very specific view of the text. Students expect to get "value" from that book and this value is assessed in a specific way. Skipped chapters represent a loss in value. Textbooks which are used in future sections have resale value. Differences between editions are considered in view of the possibility of buying a used book as a "good deal." Some ancillary materials may be considered as added value (or so the publishers hope). And, simply, the textbook is evaluated like other non-fiction books.
Something I personally find a bit absurd is that there are courses in which more money is spent on textbooks for the whole class (say, 100 times 100$) than on the instructor's salary (between 1500$ and 7500$, in my experience as part-time faculty).
In fact, textbooks are sometimes considered as almost self-sufficient. One institution where I've taught was sold a kind of "all in one solution" by a commercial textbook publisher. In terms of expectations, it basically means that students are expected to "do the readings," "go through the exercises," and "take the exams" in order to "get the training." In fact, there was an added fee on top of the textbook costs so that students would have access to some Flash-based online content. Again, education as a commodity.
But there's an interesting side-effect to this. As students jump through those hoops, you can also get them to engage more deeply in anthropological issues. Sounds sneaky, but it can be quite honest. The textbook-based course is something they do to get a grade. More interesting learning experiences can happen in parallel to this series of requirements. From experiments in ethnography to open discussions about social issues. We can even discuss this as a difference between manifest and latent functions of taking intro courses.

The ideal model, in my mind, would be based on open access material. Not just textbooks or key texts. But learning material in a variety of formats, integrated in an appropriate way. Including glossaries, web links, testbanks, presentation files, interactive exercises, maps, etc. With ways to expand, annotate, enrich, build upon, or customize the material in diverse contexts. Wikibooks are almost like this and it was an interesting experience to use one, this past semester. But it can go much further.
Merci Alexandre pour toutes ces réflexions!

How is Omohundro working out, one month down the line?

I did a mid-course survey for my Intro to Anthropology (year long course) and it confirmed that Knauft's The Gebusi and Spradley & McCurdy's Conformity and Conflict reader are big hits.

I like your wiki idea. It would be like an open-access expansion and great improvement of what can be done with intranet WebCT-style course websites.
I'm really liking Omohundro's book. (Using it with 97 students in my ANTH202 "Intro. to Culture" at Concordia, this semester.)
It's so different from other textbooks that it requires some shifts in the way we think about our courses.
I wish I had spent more time preparing on the specifics, but it's working well.

Because it's so focused on exercises, it really pushes students to engage in anthropological thinking. And the structure of the book allows me to really focus on deeper issues than the usual "if it's week 6, this must be kinship" format.

I did have to adapt some things. For instance, we use the book's exercises in two separate ways.
First, students are encouraged to complete some exercises on their own and submit material from those. But individual exercises aren't graded directly. By mid-semester, students will self-assess their contributions to the course up to that point and those exercises they've done (along with journal entries they may write) will be helpful in this way. I usually had a similar process but without exercises. Students were assessing their "engagement" and "contributions" without this clear basis for evaluation. So it tended to centre on classroom participation and/or forum posts, with some comments and questions about what really counts, what to do when you're shy, etc. So, in this sense, the exercises are really useful because I can just point students to them saying that they should just do some of them to have something to evaluate. In fact, it seems so clear that I had very few questions on the topic. Things may change in the week before the midterm, but it's a good start.
The second way we use exercises is closer to a semester-long project that I used to have in similar courses. This time, teams are completing two exercises during each half of the semester. Each team is relatively autonomous. Every week, in class, some teams report on their exercises in a kind of fishbowl format. They also have to submit something online so I can assign the grades.

One advantage of having those exercises in the book is that they're explained in enough details that few students have asked questions, so far. The exercises themselves are varied and well-integrated in the material. The focus is a bit too US-specific and there are things which make more sense in rural New York than in Montreal, but it still works.

Contrary to a lot of people, I don't assign ethnographic monographs in my intro-level courses (I can expose my reasons for not doing so at another point in time). Because of this, there are some exercises that students can't complete as they are written. At the same time, students can easily choose an ethnographic text to complete the exercise (haven't seen teams doing this; maybe later during the semester).

Something which doesn't work so well in my context is that some exercises require that the teacher do something in the previous class to prepare them. Again, I think students can do this on their own. I spend time discussing exercises in class after they were completed, and that seems to make more sense, for me, than preparing everyone for specific exercises. We already spend a significant amount of classroom time on exercises and it's well-integrated in the rest of the course.

Partly because of the semester-long project but also because I think it's very useful to train students into practical aspects of ethnographic disciplines, I used to have weekly ethnographic themes. For instance, as we were working on kinship, I'd do something about genealogies. Or while we were talking about expressive culture, I'd have something about recording. The practical dimensions of "cultural relativism" in ethnographic fieldwork often served as a nice complement to the study of belief systems. Friendship and social networks with social network analysis. Health with qualitative data analysis. Etc.
Since Omohundro already talks about a large variety of ethnographic themes, topics, and examples in every chapter, I don't need to set those up as separate topics. I do spend some time expanding on several ethnographic issues, as they seem to fit in our classroom discussions. But it's more of a "segue" situation than a well-planned lesson on an ethnographic theme.

Actually, I find it easy, this semester, to work through a rather large diversity of topics which aren't that directly connected with the usual "intro to cultural anthro" material. Students making some very insightful comments about their own experiences or asking important questions about theoretical issues, as well as things which just "cross my mind" as I talk about a given topic...
But that might also have to do with this specific group of students and I might have been able to get the same classroom dynamic with another textbook. Still, I'm sure Omohundro's book is a great help.

By the by, my semester-long project used to involve four parts:
1. Choosing a cultural context and writing a project plan about it.
2. Doing a short participant-observation session during an event and writing a short description of that event.
3. Conducting an open-ended interview with one of the participants and transcribing some of the interactions.
4. Using the data collected through the other sections of the project to write something of a final report.

In most cases, it'd represent a significant part of the grade, between 30 and 45%, IIRC. I usually had those done individually, with up to 60 students, but I switched to teamwork when I got 140 students.
As individual projects, it wasn't that difficult to set up and it was fascinating to read. I've learnt a lot of things about a large number of communities and cultural contexts, especially on campuses without a significant presence of the "Greek System" (sororities and fraternities).
As teamwork, it was a bit more difficult to handle. But I think my teamwork problem wasn't as directly related to the project structure as to the way I set up teams.

Switching to exercises seems to have been advantageous, in my case, especially with teams. Sure, there are still some issues to solve and the fact that I now have a bit more experience with teamwork in my courses may also help. But there's something about these exercises which makes them effective in my current context.
One reason is that it's easier to have them as "low-stake assignments." Altogether, teamwork is worth 20% of the final grade. Which means that, on average, each exercise will be worth 5%. Enough to get students to take them seriously, but not so much as to make them panic.
Another reason is that teams have a choice. Giving a lot of freedom in assignments didn't work nearly as well in some of my upper-level courses (people ended up doing very similar things), but this kind of "selection from a clearly-defined list of choices" does seem to work relatively well, in this case. There's a few teams which have had issues in terms of getting in touch and they end up a bit more constrained in the exercise selection process. But it's still a reduction in stress-levels when compared to the kind of work I used to require and assign.
Interestingly enough, while exercises vary a lot in terms of effort and time needed, students seem to select them based on other criteria. Exercises which seem more difficult or time-consuming have already been done. In connection with the point about choice, given the fact that students are responsible for their exercises, they seem much more satisfied with the amount of work these represent than when I had my four-part project.
Actually, some exercises sound like elaborate versions of the parts in my semester-long project. It's quite possible that what this tells me is that students needed a bit more guidance. If I go back to semester-long projects, I'll put this lesson in practice.

So, even if it were just for the exercises, I'd be happy with Omohundro's book.
I kind of wish I could have used some open access content in parallel to Omohundro's book. It could have been similar to the Wikibook that I used last semester, as a way to make sure we cover some of the basics.
Thing is, Omohundro does talk about all the usual topics, but he does it in an almost-"sneaky" way, across different chapters. Kinship is introduced in the chapter on holism (describing potential relationships between residence and mode of production, for instance) and comes back in the following chapter about comparativism (trying to explain the low frequency of polyandry...).
This is exactly what requires a significant shift from teaching with the usual textbook in cultural anthro. But it also means that it'd be a bit difficult to synchronize Omohundro with material set in the more common format.
In this case, we'd really need more granularity. Instead of assigning a chapter on kinship to accompany Omohundro's holism chapter, it might make sense to have some micro-modules on residence, kin terms, modes of production, marriage, etc. Every instructor could select these modules according to her/his own purposes. Testbanks would be divided by modules, not by chapters. It'd be easy to keep track of where things are going. It might even be easier for students to read efficiently.
In a way, that would require more of an encyclopedic approach. But I happen to think that it might be rather appropriate. Not that we want students to memorize an encyclopedia. But topical modules could be more like resources than parts in a semester-long narrative.

I'll stop before I enter a whole thing about how textbook format has shaped the way we teach in our fields but I'll just say that openly accessible teaching material, especially that meant for introductory courses, could be useful beyond those formal courses in which they are assigned.

Martha Radice said:
Merci Alexandre pour toutes ces réflexions!

How is Omohundro working out, one month down the line?

I did a mid-course survey for my Intro to Anthropology (year long course) and it confirmed that Knauft's The Gebusi and Spradley & McCurdy's Conformity and Conflict reader are big hits.

I like your wiki idea. It would be like an open-access expansion and great improvement of what can be done with intranet WebCT-style course websites.
Wow, thanks for all your thoughts, Alexandre. I will be rereading them in detail later in a couple of weeks' time, when I really feel like the term is over!
I'm done grading the final exam and, I must say, it shows that students have been thinking anthropologically. Much of this might have to do with the cohort, as it seems a nice social dynamic set in within the group. But I'm convinced Omohundro's textbook played a very significant part. It really encourages thinking about the eleven questions which structure the book (on reflexivity, dialogue, relativism, etc.). It also makes it easy to build the kind of exam question which requires more thought than memorization. Oh, sure, I had a question or two on some specific concepts like lineages and bands. But the bulk of the exam was about "thinking questions."
Ideally, I would like to have the equivalent of Omohundro's textbook as a base structure for my course but with open access content. There's a few quirks in the book but the overall approach seems very appropriate to the way I teach.

Martha Radice said:
Wow, thanks for all your thoughts, Alexandre. I will be rereading them in detail later in a couple of weeks' time, when I really feel like the term is over!



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