Do textbooks reflect, or shape, the canon?


Faculty members get unannounced visits from book reps on a periodic basis. They offer free books, and sometimes bagels. Then, they have two outrageous requests:

First, “Would you like to tell your students to pay tens of thousands of dollars to my company, so that they can have the book I just gave to you for free?”

Second, “Are you interested in writing a textbook?”

Textbooks don’t emerge from the ether. They are typically written by people like you and me. Some are written by big names in the field, and other highly-regarded textbooks come from people who are not recognized as influential researchers.

A textbook doesn’t make you famous, but a textbook that is widely adopted might have a huge influence over the long arc of time. What I’m curious about is:

What is the nature of a textbook’s influence? Does a textbook merely reflect central concepts that comprise a field, or do textbooks play a major role in shaping the canon of concepts dominate the agenda? Is it possible that the research agenda of experts is driven by what you find in textbooks? That sounds a little silly, but maybe it’s true? Stick with me on this.

We all start out learning about our fields using the introductory textbooks. Many of these introductory textbooks, though written by entirely different people, often have similar organization, the same central concepts, and often identical examples. (This is necessary for K-12 books which need to cover certain topics certain ways to address state-level standards. But university accreditors aren’t this prescriptive. Yet.)

If you pick up an intro biology textbook, you’ll see a bunch of the same examples for the same ideas. I natural selection will be explained using finches from the Galapagos Islands. Prokaryotic gene regulation will be explained with the lac operon. Extinctions will be taught with the passenger pigeon. The spread of the starling will be used as a part of explanation for invasive species.

There may be some historic reason how these examples for concepts have emerged as the go-to default for textbooks, but there’s no specific structural or pedagogical reason in most cases. It’s just the example we tacitly agree to use.

This kind of thing persists even when you look at discipline-specific textbooks. For example, a textbook for ecology just isn’t complete without an explanation of competition that includes Connell’s landmark barnacle experiment.

Here’s what I’m wondering: Why is it that Connell’s landmark experiment is truly a landmark experiment? These papers came out about a decade before I was born, so I obviously lack the context as an academic within the field at the time. Yes, it appears that the papers were cited heavily when the came out, and shaped the thinking of others at the time. However, there must be a number of other initially highly-cited competition experiments, that also have the same degree of conceptual clarity, that did not make their way into textbooks.

At this point in time, fifty years later, academic departments are chock-full of ecologists who learned about competition — at some point in their academic careers — with this particular barnacle example. And we all learned the same darn take-home lesson from this example, about what a niche is and how competition works, and the role of the abiotic environment in shaping distributions and species interactions.

By definition, this barnacle study is foundational. It’s at the foundation of people who go on to study this stuff for the rest of their careers.

Of course, I would hope that we all move on past Connell, and think about things in a far more detailed way. But odds are there’s a lecture in our universities that features this example heavily. We’re passing this example on, and it gets passed on because it is in our textbooks.

The choice to put certain examples in a textbook, or to emphasize some ideas in a textbook over other ideas, shapes what students think about.

How and what we think about as a student affects how we think about things as researchers. I don’t think we’re all captive to the ideas that are in the textbooks we read as undergrads, but we all have been subjected to the same ideas. That’s our common canon. That’s how we discuss them with our students, and when we evolve more complex ways to flesh these ideas out, we build on that conceptual foundation that we have as students.

So, it seems to me that the people who write these textbooks have a lot of power in shaping what ideas we think about as scholars in the field. It just has a big lag time.

I am sure textbook authors feel that they need to balance between the commonly accepted canon, and also a progressive view of the field so that we’re not stuck in the rut of precedence. But when these changes happen, are they merely mirroring what is happening in the field, or do they actually cause a change over the course of a decade or two?

I don’t know the answer. Regardless, it doesn’t increase my desire to write a textbook, which hovers between zilch, zero, and nada.

But I do have to wonder, is the legacy of Neil Campbell primarily about the education of biology undergraduates, or does it also include shaping the research directions of researchers who started first studying biology in university using his textbook? What do you think? Has a textbook affecting your thoughts about research directly, or do you think it shapes yourself or others in a more subtle, and perhaps unconscious, way?

9 thoughts on “Do textbooks reflect, or shape, the canon?

  1. Just read this over a cup of tea break. Wanted to just say how very thoughtful I thought this was. I think textbooks are key stones to the start of our academic life, however I have heard others say they are looked on much less favorably on over papers (but I think this is because of the audience of influence they have an effect on).

  2. hmm… there seem to be a few entries on different blogs lately about academecians and their relationships to textbooks when they were students.

    All I have to say is that I’m always surprised about how many people in the sciences and math did not ALREADY form there own opinions of their science by their outside readings as a kid before they got to the formal textbooks in school.

    For instance in biology i had already read enough and gone outside wondering about things enough so that when i saw my first “campbell” kinda textbook, I thought it was completely backwards (molecules to ecosystems) and maybe designed to train doctors into some kind of dogma.

  3. There’s another important reason why those of us who have written a textbook* chose to do so. I don’t have any illusions about it bringing me fame, riches, or sex. Nor am I necessarily aspiring to influence, because the majority of books don’t transform the field, and these days they sell relatively few copies anyway. Instead I’m troubled by the growing disconnect between what students learn in the ‘classic’ ecology textbooks and the front line of the field. The average ecology undergraduate would struggle to place many papers published in our top journals into context, never mind appreciate their importance. In other words, my main aim is to help bridge the gap and make sure that what students learn (at least in my classes) puts them in a position to contribute in the future. We’re reaching back and making sure that the ladder doesn’t get too long.

    I’m sure you’re right that some textbooks go on to become influential, but I doubt that many authors set out with that in mind, and were one to do so it would likely prove disastrous. Textbooks are supposed to be balanced, defensible and durable. A direct attempt to mould the field in your own image would be rightly ignored.

    Natural Systems: The Organisation of Life, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell later this year and available in all good academic bookshops. I’ve got to get a plug for it in somewhere. Contains no barnacles.

  4. Well, Jeremy, looks like you’re getting what you asked for! Looking forward to seeing this, Markus. The disconnect between what we do as ecologists, and what students get in textbooks, is stunning – so this is exciting.

  5. Perhaps worth noting that the mismatch between modern ecological practice and the content of our textbooks is smaller at the graduate (or very advanced undergraduate) level. Think of Morin & Mittelbach’s graduate-level community ecology textbooks, or Ben Bolker’s quantitative methods textbook.


    “I’m sure you’re right that some textbooks go on to become influential, but I doubt that many authors set out with that in mind, and were one to do so it would likely prove disastrous. Textbooks are supposed to be balanced, defensible and durable. A direct attempt to mould the field in your own image would be rightly ignored.”

    Hmm…I think it would be disastrous if “your own image” were highly idiosyncratic or just indefensible. But that still leaves a lot of scope for you to impose your personal stamp and perspective on the material. And to your credit it sounds like you’ve done just that! Or think of the comments on my old post, where I noted that Mark Vellend (or someone who thinks like him) could build an ecology textbook around the ideas in Vellend 2010 QRB. That textbook would be organized very differently than a traditional ecology textbook, and would cover a somewhat more limited range of material than a traditional ecology textbook. But it would not be highly idiosyncratic or indefensible–many people in the field have the same “conceptual roadmap” of the field as Mark does, and so a textbook based on that “roadmap” would have as much chance as any textbook ever does of becoming influential.

    Now, as you say, any given textbook may well be unlikely to become influential. But that’s because any given anything is unlikely to become influential. It’s not because seeking to put one’s personal stamp on the material reduces the likelihood of influence.

  6. Textbooks influence my work in two simple ways: 1) in most cases, when a specific subject or research area makes it into a textbook, I am no longer interested in that topic because it’s officially old news. 2) In some cases, you can compare what is written in textbooks with what you see in the literature (non-textbook literature, I mean) to see where gaps in the data exist; that is, you can see which ideas are assumed in order to make all of the other data fit together, then you can explore those assumptions to see Iif they are correct. My experience has shown me that you can make a big splash in your field doing the latter because those assumptions are usually fundamental in the given area of research and accepted by just about everyone – any revelation regarding their validity can have a major impact.

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