PAP | Gin and Tacos
I know a significantly older professor who assigns a textbook he wrote for his Intro to ____ course. This is not unusual. But he distributes it electronically for free. There is no publisher. It's just a short (~200 page) pdf he made. He has received offers to have it published and sold, which he has rejected. At first this stunned me. It was a red flag. No external review of the material? No editor? As I got to know him, however, I saw his logic. When submitting a textbook manuscript to a publisher, the first thing they do is bring in a group of reviewers who end up saying "You didn't say enough about X" and "Add a chapter on Y." Then the editor and publisher go to work ensuring that the textbook appeals to the broadest possible audience. Let me explain why these two things combine to produce such unreadable nonsense.
The problem with the "Add more about ____" process is that it effectively doubles (or worse) the length of a textbook. More is not better. There is a practical limit to what can be covered in 15 weeks. Have you ever seen an intro History textbook? American Government? Literature? Sociology? "Western Civilization"? These things are goddamn New York City phone books. They can exceed 1000 pages. In some cases they are broken into volumes, like encyclopedias. I assign a comparatively svelte American Gov textbook that still has four chapters we don't touch, even though I whip through topics at a chapter per week. Students hate paying for a textbook and not using all of it. That's what happens when 50 people get to add something to a textbook – you end up with a massive, information-packed volume that you can't possibly get all the way through.
Then, the publisher and editors make sure the tone of the book is sufficiently "neutral" to avoid offending or alienating…anyone, I guess. This is the single biggest problem with textbooks today, especially in fields like political science and history. The textbook tries to please everyone by eliminating any semblance of an actual argument by the author. Making an assertion or having a specific perspective on events or ideologies is a pedagogical technique. It's not "bias". It's giving the students something they can read, interpret, and rebut. If they agree with it they can be made to explain why. If they disagree with it, that generates a discussion. But our textbooks say nothing at all that students can agree or disagree with. They're just over-processed pap, the academic equivalent of Wonder Bread: bland, insubstantial, devoid of taste or nutritional value, and mostly hollow.