"They" Write the Books

January 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a radical idea: textbooks are written by people. I know, it doesn’t seem alien to us academics. But in students’ thinking, textbooks and teachers represent two completely separate and different spheres. Teachers – you can take them or leave them. Textbooks are absolute and unimpeachable if often impenetrable.

Kieran Healy, in a comment at Scatterplot, recounts an exchange between a student and a professor who had just offered some ideas from a paper he was working on. The student was skeptical.
S: You mean you’re just making it up?
P: Well, in a sense, yes. But in another more important sense, no.
S: I’m not comfortable with going beyond the textbook like this.
P: Where do you think the stuff in the textbook comes from? Out of the ground in Nebraska or something?
Well, yes. To my students, the origin of textbooks is a matter of mystery and awe. The texts might be handed up out of the Nebraska ground or handed down from a sacred mountain. In either case, human authorship is out of the question. This, despite our constantly referring to books not by their titles but by their author’s name. (“For Monday, read chapter four in Newman/Stark/Tischler/Macionis/Whoever.”)

To students, the author of all textbooks is not someone with a name. It’s “They.” “They” is a windowless fortress-like factory in some remote location, spewing out books that students are forced to buy. “They” produce chemistry books, sociology books, economics books – just about everything on the bookstore shelves for course readings

I had a vague sense of the width of this chasm, in students’ perceptions, between textbooks and teachers. But I didn’t fully catch on until one year when I was teaching criminology and used the textbook I myself had written. Several weeks into the semester, a student had a question about some point I was making or some data I was presenting. I don’t remember the topic or the issue. All I remember is that the student said, “But didn’t they say . . .” and she went on to offer some bit of information.

“They?” I asked, “What they?”
“In the book. Didn’t they say that . . . .” she repeated the information.
“They is me,” I said. “I wrote that book.”

She seemed genuinely stunned, and I sensed that many in the class shared her confusion. The book was a school textbook; therefore it must have been written by the same “They” that churned out all textbooks. Yet here was someone they knew, a very ordinary person they saw two or three days a week, claiming to have written the book, and the evidence on the cover seemed to support his claim.

I don’t think they ever truly resolved the dissonance.

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