Evaluating textbooks for large intro courses

My university has doubled the size of our introduction to cultural anthropology (1 field, not 4 field) course and so I’m changing the way I normally teach it and using a big-ol’ text book for like, the first time ever. I have a whole gaggle of sample textbooks to evaluate. I’m not particularly happy about this since I have Issues with anthropology textbooks — namely I don’t think any of them are particularly good. But setting this aside, does anyone have advice on how to evaluate textbooks for adoption? Please note this is not a request for recommendations for texts (I suspect I’ll get those anyway) but rather questions about the process people use when deciding which textbooks to teach.

Any recommendations?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

18 thoughts on “Evaluating textbooks for large intro courses

  1. I always take a look at how they talk about race. If it’s something on the order of the AAA statement, it gets good marks from me. If it tries to muddle the issue, or isn’t coherent about what race is (and isn’t), I usually leave it aside.

    I like Anthropology: A Global Perspective, by Scupin and Decorse, personally.

  2. Ask an undergraduate to read representative and equivalent chapters from each of a couple of books and rank them, and have them give you reasons why.

  3. You already know what you consider most important–you can probably list 10 people and 10 concepts that you know you’ll be teaching. Jot down those 10 people or 10 concepts and evaluate the textbook based on how it treats those 10 concepts and people (or make it 5 people and 5 concepts).

  4. As an anthropology student, here’s how I wish my professors would evaluate texts:
    Is it well written? And I don’t mean is it a work of literary art, I mean, does the author express themselves clearly and spell things right?
    Does it match up well with your syllabus? Ideally, a textbook ought to elaborate on the class lectures, going into more depth, or connecting ideas in new ways. It it’s exactly the same as what you’ve said in class there’s no reason to do the reading, but if it’s completely separate some students will feel lost and confused. Of course, if you find a textbook you really like, you can change your plan for the class around a bit to fit it better.

    For an intro course, I’d guess you’ll want one with a good glossary, and good coverage of basic principles and broad ideas, since a lot of the students will only have the vaguest idea of what anthropology even is at first.

  5. Price is an ethical consideration (I think profiteering is bad) as well as a practical one (I take it for granted that as the cost increases the number of the students in the class actually purchasing the book decreases). One way to deal with this is to find a textbook for which used copies are more likely to be available. But of course the textbook companies roll out a new edition every fourth year for a reason…

  6. Price is something I always take into consideration. You can often help your students out by not selecting the most recent edition of a textbook. Instead chose the one just before it.

  7. Thank you for this–evaluating the textbooks for the big intro class is very important. A lot of the textbook material is pretty boiler-plate. I first discard the ones that I absolutely could not teach, but fortunately there aren’t too many texts that are unworkable. After that, I leave out textbooks that look like they require a lot of fill-in work from the professor. Some textbooks mention a lot of ideas and anthropologists, but leave it up to the professor to do the rest of the work. I want the textbook to at least have a serviceable nugget of information that I don’t feel like I have to correct or address if it’s not part of the class. Finally, headlines and images are important: It’s worth judging some books by their covers. I was writing something up on this issue, about how some of the new offerings seem to be “doubling down on culture.” It’s in the pingback section below.

  8. I feel your pain. I have taught many four-field intro classes, and I have serious issues with textbooks. Mainly I have no choice sometimes! So you are lucky you can pick your text. My best advise (and you probable already know this), keep it short, easy to read, and cheap. Also remember you are lecturing too, so the text does not need to cover everything. Also, consider using multiple ‘little’ paperbacks in place of one single anthropology ‘tomb stone’. In addition, Grants’ idea of asking other student for help is excellent; I have done this in the past and have gotten great feed back.

  9. Thanks for these very useful ideas everyone. One reason I’ve avoided textbooks in the past has been precisely the issue of price. The current round of pieces I’m looking at are all ‘middle tier’ sorts of textbooks like Hendry’s “Sharing Our Worlds” or Metcalf’s “Anthropology: The Basics” which won’t break the bank.

    The idea of figuring out the 10 things I want people to know about anthropology is a great one — I’ve always wished the students I receive from other people’s intro classes shoulda been taught about 10 things that, you know, are particularly important to _me_. I guess I should figure out explicitly now what those are and use that to look at the textbooks.

    That’s another bloggable project — what 10 things should people who finish an intro course in cultural anthropology know?

  10. I’ve had this dilemma as well, Rex, since I find that most intro textbooks teach anthropology as bowlful of content, rather than grammar or scaffold through which to interpret _any_ content, and want students to focus on the latter approach. And at my school too, our intro classes have nearly doubled, and student fees are through the roof, so cost and scale are at issue. You might take a close look at Social and Cultural Anthropology, A Very Short Introduction by Monaghan & Just. It’s accessible, about $11, short (as advertised) and focuses on teaching anthropology as an interpretive discipline rather than salad bowl.

  11. One way to approach the problem is to not think about it in terms of “teaching the textbook.”

    A well-done textbook doesn’t invite being taught, but being read. Classroom work can amplify some small part of a chapter that particularly fascinates you as you put together your own list of the 10 Things Every Undergraduate Should Know, but one certainly doesn’t need to follow the book’s lead. In the old days, I used Marvin Harris’s “Culture, People, Nature,” not because I agreed with every element of Harris’s approach, but because unlike most others, his book HAD an approach, a clear, explicit point of view, and introduced students to the idea that anthropology as a synoptic science of humanity was possible. Unfortunately, waves of corporate mergers and profiteering in the industry sent the book into a death spiral long before its author expired, leaving behind mostly a variety of “bowlful of content” options.

    In a practical sense, I try to avoid books with too many “boxes,” “modules,” or other sidebars within the chapters, as well as texts with a separate chapter on famous dead theorists, which are hardly ever useful for undergraduates.

  12. “In a practical sense, I try to avoid books with too many “boxes,” “modules,” or other sidebars within the chapters”

    THANK YOU. That sort of thing makes textbooks very difficult to read, especially when they are positioned in ways that interrupt the flow of text. It’s hard enough to find time in the day to read everything without having to figure out where the rest of a sentence is!

  13. I don’t have anything new to add to everyone’s suggestions, but wanted to pipe in that I’d love to hear what people thing about the question “what 10 things should people who finish an intro course in cultural anthropology know?”

    I would imagine the list might vary quite a bit but it would be a great exercise here and a great one within departments. We have large intro courses at my uni taught by several different people and there isn’t really a plan for making sure that all those 1st years come away with the same basic set of knowledge. This makes teaching them in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year much more challenging because there is such a wide range of what they learned and/or what their profs deemed important. Would be great if there were at least a little intersection.

  14. This may be a bit irrelevant, but I would have liked a book on the applications of anthropology. Through my undergrad we picked up on this a bit, but it has been mostly through my own interest and googling that I have come to understand how vastly anthropology can be applied, and that anthropology doesn’t have to be left to ‘Anthropologists’. I’m sure there are loads of great books but I particularly enjoy reading Veronica Strang, and found her book ‘What do anthropologists do?’ to be quite comprehensive and contemporarily relevant in light of multi-disciplinary applications.

  15. I like textbooks for introductory classes that have a good balance of methods and anthropological knowledge. Too often introductory anthropology textbooks are a litany of anthropological knowledge with no context of how that knowledge was gained. The last time I taught an introductory class, I did not have a choice on our textbook and this lack of methodological context was the bane of my teaching existence. My student population started class with a political bias against anthropology and the textbook seemed to affirm their belief that anthropologists *poofed* their ideas in to existence, thus further delegitimizing anthropological knowledge in their eyes. I spent a lot of time defending/explaining why/how anthropologist “knew” things.

  16. I wonder if there are any websites/wikis that review anthropology texts and textbooks from the perspective of the professor (what works well, potential connections to other resources, etc)? I’ve seen a couple of posts here and elsewhere about book recommendations, and think there’s probably a need for this kind of resource. Anyone seen anything like this?

  17. I think about my audience (majors vs. gen. ed. students), my goals for the class, price and major topics I want to cover. If the students are non-majors, a purely text based book is going to put them to sleep, so I’m willing to look at slightly more expensive books with photos and helpful charts. I look carefully at the types of images the authors include – I think it is good for students to SEE people from lots of different cultures- it makes the topics real.I also think it is important to have pictures that do not just show them in ‘traditional’ clothing, but in contemporary and urban settings. Ultimately, a lot of the text material will be the same, but the images can be very different. Another thing I look at is how the book treats the student – I throw out all books that give sample test questions and what-to-study sections after every chapter, this is not a high school class and I do not want my students to think I believe they need their hands held.

  18. Now that it’s been awhile since you posted this (and I am googling in desperation) I wonder, which book did you choose? I have to use a textbook as well and since none of them are particularly good I’m in the same position that you found yourself in.

    What did you end up with?

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