On Textbooks and Rhetoric

I hate textbooks. I also hate wintry mix precipitation, and that isn’t completely avoidable either.

Consider textbooks as rhetoric. To whom are they addressed? When considering textbooks for course adoption, one wonders how this work addresses the students one is likely to have. Does it assume too much or too little prior knowledge? Will it work well with me, as a complement or foil? Does it address the span of topics that the course should cover? There’s the rub: textbooks are not really addressed to students or professors. They are addressed to a form, the course. Sometimes I suspect they are trying to dictate the form, and the actual people must fit into that. Hence a portion of my uneasiness.

Another take: if you, as a student, took a version of the course you are preparing to teach, did your course use a textbook? Most of my undergraduate and all of my graduate humanities courses went textbook-free – with the sole exception of language courses. How does a textbook, as opposed to the use of texts and books, change the pitch and pith of a course? Do we want that, instead of what we might build instead?

Third take, a case contrast. Case one: I teach New Testament again this term, for the first time since spring 2009. I have not read Professor Walker’s (text)book, but I look forward to doing so. Selecting a textbook has always seemed most difficult for this course. Why not go without? I’ve been tempted. Years ago, I tried a series of scholarly articles keyed to biblical texts, with students providing an initial presentation of the article. The results were uneven. Further, I don’t want to create a dynamic in which I am standing in for Scholarship, all of it. Too many students are likely to see just me, to construe such an approach as one person’s views, and use that perceived singularity to dismiss ideas they find uncomfortable. A textbook can provide a multiplicity of scholarly voices and approaches in one package. Then it’s a shield.

Trouble is, I don’t like the available NT textbooks. There is a subtle rhetorical dimension to any textbook, and for whatever reasons, I am exceptionally sensitive to it with NT textbooks. The problem has to do with the implied reader. Beyond implying student readers, NT textbooks all seem to imply student readers with some particular religious views. This is not quite the same thing as expression of the author’s religious views, although these can coincide. A decade ago, I started using Ehrman’s textbook, and then broke from it for one semester to use Perkins’s. Ehrman’s implied readers hold very traditional religious views; he tends to address the questions those readers would ask; he hammers home why they are wrong. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A vigorous articulation of historical criticism is a major desideratum in an NT textbook. Might a less adversarial presentation work better? I used Perkins for one semester. This did not work. Perkins’s more overt combination of historical-critical method with a certain kind of liberal religious commitment pleased no one. The students who are exactly the people Ehrman addresses were not rendered more amenable to historicism, and the students without religious affiliation were put off by the constant theological refrains. One of my best students, who self-identified as an unaffiliated Deist, remarked that every paragraph ended by saying that historical-criticism showed what liberal Christians happened to believe anyway. Back to Ehrman.

I want to put this as strongly as possible: in academic contexts, especially in public universities, textbook rhetoric should not – must not – construct implied readers with any religiosity or lack thereof. Seminaries and religiously affiliated private institutions are one thing, and a public university is quite another. There is no good reason why religious studies courses in public universities should use materials or a rhetoric that constructs the implied students as religious. There are many reasons why we should not. Yet it is extremely difficult to find introductory texts for biblical studies courses that proceed without such a construction. I include in this generalization textbooks that argue against the implied religious reader they nevertheless (or thereby?) construct. Nor am I saying that textbooks or course design should construct implied readers who are atheists. The course – professor, materials, textbooks – can simply refrain from going there. I never have this problem when I need an introductory work in Greek religion; there are many available that do not posit an audience that believes in the Olympian gods, nor others that sneers at people backwards enough to believe in them. It can be done. We just don’t, yet, especially when it comes to biblical studies.

Case two: Apocalypticism, coming up again in fall. My apocalypticism course begins in the ancient period, includes medieval and early modern material, addresses the twentieth century, and usually includes a session on things that have happened (or failed to happen) in the six months before, during, and after the term. (That last element varies; I didn’t include 2012 speculations until 2010. When I teach this again in fall, 2012 will get folded into a session with Y2K, Harold Camping, and other early twenty-first century oddities.) There is no textbook for this kind of course. At best, one can find readers for some of the periods; a few scholarly monographs have the historical reach, but these are difficult for students; and the remaining options are tertiary, i.e. by people synthesizing scholarship for a general audience (e.g. Kirsch, A History of the End of the World). There just isn’t anything right.

This can be freeing. From the first iteration, I structured the course around questions, mainly my own. Now I have six or seven iterations from which to draw questions informed by students and their concerns. (Caveat: one student question is when the world will end. I inform everyone on the first day that I do not know, and that the sun will go supernova in five billion years if nothing else happens before then.) These questions then drive a selection of primary sources, structured by secondary selections. The latter selections are not tied to any one method or course trajectory, but vary across periods and methods. I like doing it this way, so please don’t write a textbook.

We don’t have to like textbooks, but we do have to live with them. You are likely to teach some courses that use them and others that don’t. You will encounter students who hate textbooks, and others who may be shocked at their absence. There are many reasons not to use them: they crowd out primary sources; they pose difficult rhetorical problems; they are expensive and tie you to an avaricious textbook industry. If you teach in public universities and need religious studies textbooks that don’t assume or tacitly construct religious viewpoints, they may be difficult to find. On the other hand, textbooks can save you the demands of assembling primary sources, secondary material, and some assignments. Good ones provide a through-line that many students need and appreciate. In the end, the only two concerns, or perhaps is it only one, is this: what will help me best teach the students I will have?

But I ask again, since I don’t know the answer and I always wonder: In this textbook, who is addressing whom? Does this who mesh with me, or not? Does this whom accurately capture my students, or does it project a ghost I’ll have to reckon with somehow?

2 thoughts on “On Textbooks and Rhetoric

  1. Pingback: Web Round Up #3 | Women Biblical Scholars

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