The Form and Function of a Textbook

In the first of a short series of blog postings, author Rob Beamish discusses his motivations for publishing an introductory sociology textbook without all of the "bells and whistles" normally aimed at first-year university students. His book, The Promise of Sociology: The Classical Tradition and Contemporary Sociological Thinking, was recently named one of the Outstanding Academic Titles of 2011 by Choice, a popular publication of the American Library Association.

When I learned that The Promise of Sociology had been selected by the American Library Association as one of the “Outstanding Academic Titles” for 2011, I was completely surprised. It had never crossed my mind that an introductory text would be recognized in that manner. As the surprise subsided, I felt genuinely honoured, humbled, and then proud of the accomplishment. But the strongest emotion came last—a sense of gratification. I was very gratified that others felt there was room—and perhaps even a need—for an introductory text that goes against the grain of the standard, large-format texts currently dominating the discipline. It was reassuring to know that others felt that first-year university students could and would embrace an introductory book that presents an extended argument in a simple, black and white, text-centred format.

There were several reasons for adopting that format—reasons that stemmed from my own goals as a university instructor as well as the feedback I have received over the years as I developed The Promise of Sociology. The first and most overwhelming reason for using a standard book format concerns my primary objective as an introductory sociology instructor. I still firmly believe in the tenets of a liberal education in which students must actively engage with texts that require them to slow down, read closely and carefully, and reflect on the argument that is being presented. I believe this is best done through a text that is not rife with visual distractions—the different eye-catching colours and far too numerous tables, summary inserts, and photographs that interrupt the reader progressing down the page. On the basis of experience and student feedback, I do not believe that the hyper-active format found in many mainstream books can or does successfully compete with, replicate, or really even complement the world of rich, multi-coloured, moving digital images and information that today’s students consume on a regular basis—nor do students require that stimulation. My experience indicates that today’s students need books and forms of instruction that help separate them from the ubiquity of high-sensory information that they actively and passively consume throughout their daily lives. Thus the Promise of Sociology’s format reflects my primary teaching objective.

Many students have said to me, “I really love your book professor, it reads just like a novel.” At first I wasn’t sure that was such a compliment, until I realized that it meant they liked the fact that the book carries a “story line” from beginning to end—there is an overall narrative to the book. And that was a second objective I had in writing The Promise of Sociology. Rather than covering a large variety of topics and never being able to go into any of them in depth, I chose to focus on fewer topics and issues and pursue each in greater depth while making links between them. My students have always indicated that they enjoy the detail of the coverage which allows them to really engage with a topic and explore it more fully than they could in other introductory courses. My first year students want their university experience to be very different from high school—they want the challenge of “deep learning.”

The idea of exploring a particular topic in depth and showing its full complexity stems from my initial overall objective—having students slow down so they can read carefully, reflectively, and critically. It also relates to the format I have chosen and my overall objective for first year students, in particular, and university students in general. Today’s students enter university as seasoned information consumers—in fact, they are bombarded by overwhelming amounts of information from a myriad of media. My goal is to inspire students to progress from being mere information consumers to becoming genuine knowledge producers. Producing knowledge requires sifting through the barrage of information that inundates students, synthesizing what is important, and creating students’ own understandings. I consciously wrote The Promise of Sociology to represent the end result of knowledge production—an integrated whole that can stand on the merits of its own content without the glitz of colours, graphs, charts, summary boxes, and other paraphernalia—those elements can be added to make lectures and tutorials more animated and engaging. Because my overall objective was to write a book in which the ideas and arguments could stand on their own merit, I found it incredibly gratifying that the American Library Association chose to recognize the book as it did.

—Rob Beamish, Queen's University

Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course in introductory sociology or sociological theory and would like to request an exam copy, please email requests@utphighereducation.com. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!

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