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.