Teaching: Rationalizing the textbook

The role of the primary textbook is the American government course varies. The question for the course flipping instructor is what kind of textbook (if any) is best suited for the role. I am the co-author of the book I will use in the course (of course), but in this post I am going to attempt to articulate some points to consider when looking at the many alternatives.
Textbooks may be purchased by students, but they are marketed to instructors who make the key decision on required readings. For many instructors, any basic book will do so long as it provides reasonable coverage that meets their needs and expectations. Of course, it helps if that book comes with all the ancillary stuff (study guides, test banks, etc.) that makes teaching large sections easier. Also, in some cases (at community colleges and similar venues) the course is taught by non-political science instructors or instructors who are carrying six course loads. Then there is the question of price. All these factors come into play in textbook decisions.

The textbook options are many -- from the comprehensive 800+ page volume to the "brief" editions of 200-250 pages; from the heavily thematic volume that offers a particular point of view throughout its presentation to the essentially "factual" work that tries to follow the straight and narrow path of conventional and "un-biased" content (or reflects the bias conducive to major market adopters, e.g., Texas community colleges). Although there are many factors that shape the form and content of a textbook, the holy grail seems to be producing a book that is conventional enough for wide adoption but distinctive enough to generate special attention from potential adopters. My co-authors and I can vouch for how difficult this can be....

From the flipped course perspective, a textbook should have the appropriate coverage for each topic covered during the term -- the usual suspects, i.e., chapters on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties, federalism, political parties, elections and campaigns, interest groups, Congress, Presidency, Judiciary, bureaucracy, etc. Other common chapters touch on the media and public policy. The topical structure has become fairly standardized, and any instructor who takes some unique approach to the introductory course will likely find herself or himself heavily supplementing (or even abandoning) the single textbook. But it seems the flipped course benefits from using a basic textbook as a somewhat consistent source of background knowledge to build on.

It also helps if that textbook is neither heavily thematic nor insufferably bland. A strong theme (e.g., who governs?; government from a black or latino perspective; etc.) is likely to prove exciting and generate lots of discussion at the outset, but it can prove tiresome overtime and when applied week in and week out to every conceivable issue brought out in class. The comprehensive and relatively bland textbook certainly leaves more room for injecting all sorts of stimulating discussion and interaction in class, but can prove burdensome for the instructor who has to connect the dots among the various topics in order to keep the course lively and on track.

More useful for flipping is a text that uses a lightly applied theme, core question or organizing thread throughout.-- something that can provide a connection among the in-class sessions. When I first started teaching American government in the early 1970s, I used the very popular
Dye and Ziegler approach that provided a strong and consistent "elitism" theme that was suited to the time (as well as my own views), but I soon found it more productive to rely on the core question "How democratic is American government?" as a basis for my early courses. Both approaches suited my lecture-based teaching, but it was clear that students were less intimidated and more likely to raise issues or questions when I based by lectures on the "how democratic" theme.

When we got together as co-authors on the first edition of our American Government around 1986,
Alan GItelson, Robert Dudley and I noticed that each of us had developed something resembling a "myth and reality" approach for the basic course, and so that became the organizing theme for the book. (That coincidence was probably due to the fact that the three of us taught at the same institution in the late 1970s.) Working with Jean Woy, then the political science and history editor at Houghton Mifflin, we developed the book along those lines, but did so in a way that avoided having the myth-reality theme interfere with providing basically conventional content. It was a lightly applied theme, articulated in the opening chapter as well as in the opening and closing sections of each chapter, but otherwise not overwhelming. (In fact, while we considered putting a "Myth and Reality" subtitle on the book, Jean successfully argued otherwise -- and it was not until the current [11th] edition that a subtitle was added -- Myths and Realities.)

Over the years we've kept that "light touch" theme in the various editions, but slowly another complementary theme emerged -- that of "making sense" of American government and politics. In essence, the "argument" (focused primarily in revisions of the first chapter) was that we all want to understand government -- to make sense of all the news and opinions about government and politics we are bombarded with daily -- and in lieu of some basic knowledge about our political system we tend to turn to (and all too frequently come to rely on) the various myths that we are exposed to in our daily lives and through the media. These myths (along with accompanying beliefs and ideologies) are not necessarily falsehoods, and in fact are likely based on some degree of truth. In short, myths serve a purpose in helping us make sense of government and politics. The goal of our textbook was (and is) to speak to the realities underlying the myths.

While it is obviously self-serving to say so, I think the "making sense" and myths/realities themes provide a solid framing for the flipped course format. Each class session can be related to the pre-class reading and lecture by raising puzzling issues (about party identity, civil liberties, foreign policy, etc.) and attempting to show how we've relied on various myths, beliefs and ideologies to deal with them. In addition, in this latest edition we've added short essays to each chapter -- called "Policy Connections" -- that provide policy-relevant material that can be used as basis for in-class activities.

It is cliche time -- for the proof will be in the pudding. Will our textbook fit the flipping effort? Stay tuned for future posts where I promise an honest assessment after each "module"....
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