Designing A Textbook-Free Course on African American History

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Last fall, I decided not to assign a textbook for my African American history survey course, and elected to make the content completely free and digital. I hoped to find top-tier scholarship that equaled, or surpassed, the conventional textbooks assigned in such introductory courses. As I revealed this strategy to colleagues I found two reactions. First, many revealed they were moving in a similar direction, providing novel approaches for improving my content and suggesting ways to use social media in class discussions. The second response came from professors who had never considered this approach, and many asked that I write a retrospective on the course and share my syllabus. Regarding these latter points, I am providing the syllabus here.

As an instructor who teaches about social justice, racism, and collective resistance in an age of exorbitant tuition rates, I felt an obligation to pursue financial justice in the classroom. Indeed, an increasing percentage of people matriculating into institutions of higher education come from first-generation and/or underrepresented student populations, often financing their own education while balancing work, school, and familial responsibilities. Though I have little control over tuition rates or inflation, I wanted to provide my students some relief from the economic burdens of American higher education. Knowing I held creative control over my course content I could alleviate at least one financial drain. Purchasing the assigned books for each semester can be a daunting task.

Many students purchase their books gradually throughout the semester, and choose the texts most pertinent to their immediate needs. In 2013, the National Association of College Stores calculated that the average college student spends $655 per semester on textbooks. And this number increases each academic year. The researchers found that students typically purchase their books after paying tuition and institutional fees. Craving knowledge and looking toward the future, many students accumulate debt to afford the privilege of University credentials. Cognizant of this issue, I developed the “Textbook-Free” Introductory course, using content that is available digitally and without cost.

To ensure this course operated smoothly I identified reliant digital resources that provided trustworthy academic scholarship and/or thought-provoking debate. I hoped to maintain the balance between “primary” and “secondary” sources that is a hallmark of most introductory textbooks. In combination with the databases available through my University’s library, I used content found in various platforms, including Black Perspectives (BP), Documenting in the American South, Jacobin, C-Span 3, and YouTube. Each resource proved especially useful. The resources in Documenting in the American South are especially strong for those studying African American life under Antebellum Slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Using this resource, my students accessed a free, digitized version of Harriet Jacobs’ compelling memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, alongside narratives from formerly enslaved abolitionists like Olaudah Equiano. 

To contextualize the primary documents I linked them with multiple essays from BP, a website providing high-quality scholarship on various topics in African American history and the broader diaspora. The contributors are professional researchers who voluntarily submit their essays for the benefit of public knowledge. Students found the essays particularly engaging and appreciated that they were contained between 1000-1500 words. Typically, I assigned one primary source alongside two or three essays from BP. I should also note that I regularly write for BP, and though I had trepidation in assigning some of my own work, many of the students appreciated that they had the opportunity to analyze my scholarship. Though I never asked them to address this point specifically, some of them enjoyed reading my work: “I absolutely loved not having to buy any additional materials for class. I would much rather read the articles, and I did like the articles that you wrote.”

Each of the written resources functioned in similar ways, and none of the individual essays went above 2000 words. I used this strategy because extended reading on a screen can induce distraction. If the readings were short, interesting, and lucid, students engaged them with an enthusiasm not often elicited through textbook chapters. Additionally, they had constant access to the content through their personal devices. One student mentioned her appreciation for the digital readings, as she was prone to losing textbooks not attached to her major: “Textbooks are boring to read. I usually just throw it in my room, never open it…and just pray that I do well. The articles were more convenient.” The notion of boredom was repeated by her peers, suggesting this was a common theme among the collective. Another respondent revealed an added convenience, in that she could finish reading the final article during her walk to the class meetings. Others noted they could read the assignment on their mobile device during downtime at work. Though I knew most of my students held one or two jobs, I had never considered the convenience of them completing coursework in this capacity. Considering that they submitted their weekly responses through an online portal, I can speculate that many of them saved valuable time by uploading their saved drafts through a smartphone or another handheld device.

To appropriately gauge the content’s successes and/or failures, I asked them to submit a course assessment at the end of the term (separate from the University’s mandated student questionnaires). I structured this assessment with two questions, and, if they chose, allowed them to remain anonymous in their response. The first question asked if the course was still “valuable” without a standard, purchased textbook. Secondly, I asked them to provide a recommendation: “Should I continue or discontinue this approach in future Introductory courses?” I assumed most, if not all, of my students appreciated that the course did not force them to accumulate an additional expense. They unanimously preferred the digital content and recommended that I continue to provide it, and they offered great detail in their answers. They cited their frustration with the rising costs of higher education and celebrated how the course saved them money and introduced them to a digital world replete with free historical resources and access to the writings of professional scholars. 

Highlighting the financial component, they bluntly noted their financial struggles. “I already had to pay more than enough money out of my pocket for tuition and other textbooks this semester” one student noted. “I’m saddened at the fact that next semester I’ll have to pay over 300 dollars in books again!” another lamented. By citing their financial difficulties openly, they used their response to voice their concerns and challenge the corporatist abuses found in many facets of higher education. Others took a different approach, noting the class provided a path to financial equity missing from the conventional, textbook-driven courses: “By forfeiting the need to buy a textbook, you allow students who can’t afford to pay for a book the chance to learn an equal amount of information.” They ultimately appreciated the dissemination of this scholarship to a public audience. Knowing that misinformation flows throughout social media, their introduction to this digital content was exciting: “It’s interesting to see how much information that is out on the web that is accessible to many people.”

In the end, students unanimously praised the “Anti-Textbook” course for what it offered, a collection of high quality audio and visual materials that were freely accessible. However, I should state that my intention is not to call for an elimination of physical texts in the classroom. I still assign scholarly books in my Upper Division courses that explore specific topics. But after teaching an “Introduction to African American Studies” course nearly every semester since 2014, I noticed the discussions were superior on the days where we dissected the digital resources that I posted as supplements to the textbook. As a person who loves holding books, turning pages, and reading their words, I pondered why the digital resources seemed more popular. Ultimately, it became evident that indifference, time restraints, and accessibility were the primary issues.

Students who take a 100-level Introductory course are often anticipating boredom, and if the professor assigns them a rigidly structured textbook, they might assume the course is structured around the book’s chapters and will not allow for adjustment or creativity. Eventually, many of them shut down in the discussions, even if the material presented in the class interests them. The textbook becomes a financial burden without a practical benefit. As noted above, many hope they can simply forego the textbook and survive the class. Since most of my students come from outside the AAS Major, I want to present them an alternative model for studying the Black Experience in a classroom. I wanted to show them that history is not “hidden” in a dusty corner of the library, but that the newest, most dynamic scholarship is literally available at their fingertips. This course did not relieve all of their financial burdens, but it did, at the very least, manifest sympathy for their plight, saved them some money, and helped them access knowledge on more equitable terms.

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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Comments on “Designing A Textbook-Free Course on African American History

  • Avatar

    Yo, I am in the camp that is moving towards this. I teach the first half of the American intro.

    Classes are broken down between lectures and small group reading analysis. Typically, where students look for specific themes in the reading from the night before or compare them to in class readings.

    Readings are more deliberate and are focused on including many more perspectives. (Indigenous, enslaved, free person of color, oral histories, women, men, etc)
    I have a short introductory passages, always under 2,000 words, and students are expected to spend most of their time with primary-source documents .

    I select introductory readings from Newberry, Gilder Lehrman, Library of Congress, etc that are often written for these purposes but rarely used by college professors.

    For primary documents, they’ll read 4-6 each week. But I have heavily edited these for the most descriptive, salient, or revealing passages, such that 3 pages may be reduced to 1.

    I do use “American Colonies” by Alan Taylor for the first half of the semester. It’s the best comprehensive introductory book I’ve encountered. It’s broken down into 3-5 page sections. I have students select a couple of those for their reading each week.

    I get consistently high readership. And students have responded well to have more voices in the readings.

    I did not set up the class intentionally as a text-free class. I just liked having more freedom. So I did not evaluate the students for feedback on that specific element.

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    Thank you very much for including your syllabus, fascinating though daunting for someone like me, college grad of a zillion years ago. I just might try to vicariously follow your the fall schedule/2019 and get back to critically reading such important resources absent or non-existent years ago. If you have tips on this idea or a way to “audit” your class, please send!

    T. Clements (retired public school teacher)

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