Publication Date

November 1, 2000

Perspectives Section


Writing history textbooks is just as important as doing research.

Wait a minute. That's not what tenure committees tell assistant professors. These committees look more favorably on books or articles that involve original scholarship or research. Most rarely consider a textbook when reviewing a professor's work for promotion. So why is writing a textbook just as important as doing research?

A good textbook can reach students, inspiring them to pursue the study of history as a profession itself or to use the knowledge in whatever profession they enter. Probably many of you became interested in a certain aspect of history or the discipline as a whole because of a good book you read. As an editor, I have received many letters and e-mails from students commenting on how their textbook finally explained something they could never quite understand or appreciate before. This kind of enthusiasm creates students who will take more history courses, possibly even major in it or make it their life's work.

Along with benefiting students, writing textbooks can help the authors themselves. Authors must maintain an active exploration of their area of writing, working to find novel conclusions, new criticisms, and innovative synthesis of ideas. Also, explaining concepts in a clear, compelling way often challenges the writer to clarify and verify ideas that aren't as simple or obvious as they first seem. The feedback of national and international peer reviews forces writers to work and rework explanations until they achieve a level of lucidity that will fare well in the marketplace of ideas.

A third advantage of textbook writing is the ability to reach a vastly larger audience than most professors can address in their own teaching. The work they create can help hundreds of other professors become better teachers, and thousands of students become better learners. A textbook can help a teacher try out a new teaching approach or provide the basics so the teacher can expand on some topics in more depth. One textbook author can make a difference in many classrooms.

A good textbook, together with a professor who cares about teaching, can create an excitement for history that was not there before. It is this excitement that will keep research going. The excitement that a good textbook creates will bring many more people into the history discipline, and that is why textbook writing should be viewed as equal to scholarly writing.

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