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?