You have chosen…wisely? Textbooks for Almost-Surveys

Last month, I wrote about my decision to walk the fine line between survey and seminar in my upcoming American Crises module. Having decided upon my six crises, I now turn my attention to finding the one, indispensable, utterly comprehensive, miraculously accessible, precisely focused and all-around perfect textbook for the module. Having taught surveys of American History for many years, I have developed quite a collection of possibilities, all with their own quirks and eccentricities.

Tindall and Shi’s America: A Narrative History

Used as the primary textbook at a number of universities, this weighty tome provides exactly what its title suggest–a narrative history of the United States.

Positives: Tindall and Shi provide a comprehensive account of the nation from pre-settlement to the modern day, following a number of useful social and cultural diversions in addition to the standard political narrative of US history. Past students have found it easy to read and assimilate and have recommended I continue to use it in the future. It is also available in a digital format, though I have not yet had any students purchase this version.

Negatives: As a single volume, the book is somewhat expensive at £45, though the previous edition is equally comprehensive at half the price. Stylistically, the narrative is written in an authoritative, summative voice, which lacks explicit or implicit sourcing. This has, in the past, sets a poor example to students, encouraging one-stop shopping for evidence and a lack of critical analysis of the evidence presented. Finally, I found the book relatively heavy, although this can be considered a positive if your student accommodation is infested with spiders.

Eric Foner’s Give me Liberty.

Also used as the primary textbook at a number of universities, this textbook comes in a variety of formats (single and split editions) which offer a single-author narrative of the nation.

Positives: Same as Tindall and Shi, as well as being slightly easier on your shoulders in terms of weight, especially if purchased as two volumes. Also, having a single author makes the inevitable ‘Textbook author argues’ statements in essays more bearable.

Negatives: Depending on the version your purchase, it is roughly the same price as Tindall and Shi but feels less comprehensive–though this is merely on account of it lighter packaging.

Mary Beth Norton (et al)’s A People & A Nation

A glossy, full-sized textbook, which comfortably lies on the student’s desk for easy reference and referral.

Positives: Like Give me Liberty, A People & A Nation comes in a variety of formats including full, brief, and split volumes, as well as ‘renting’ and purchasing electronic chapters, making economical and customisable adaptations possible. Cengage also provides (depending upon your location) electronic bundles at an additional £5-£15, allowing lecturers to link to additional primary sources, essays and activities through the Cengage website. The text moves along quickly, but is very well signposted, illustrated and indexed and covers a wide range of events and trends in American history. There is little tangible difference between the brief and full editions in terms of content, making either appropriate for a survey module.

Negative: As an edited volume, the precise author of any particular passage is impossible to determine, making critical analysis of claims difficult (see above). Likewise, there is no further reading section or explicit indication of where the material used was obtained. There are graphical annotations which ‘link’ to electronic primary material, but this is only helpful if the add-on packages have been purchased and are regularly used. Without these, the text can appear somewhat shallow, especially post 1968, and required additional material from scholarly journals and the instructor. However, as my module ends in 1968, this is not a major issue for my module. Finally, the full versions of the text, even the brief version, puts America: A Narrative History to shame in bug-squashing ability.

Boyer (et al)’s The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People.

Another survey offering from Cengage, it provides many of the same features, although a slightly different emphasis on events.

Positives: Same as above with the possible addition of a more readable layout, with high-contrast, colour-coded sections and resources.   The links to electronic material are still present but less intrusive to those who haven’t purchased them. There is also a slightly greater emphasis on the pre-Jamestown Atlantic world than A People & A Nation.

Negatives: Same as A People & A Nation.

Grey Points: These points can be deemed either negative or positive, depending on your point of view. Throughout the text, there are key definitions and biographical notes in the margins and clearly distinguishable (through a gold colour) pronunciation guides for names and concepts. Although these are very useful (and prevent such mishaps as the pronunciation of the Antipodes as Anti-pods), these are questions that students should find exhaustive and complete answers to themselves, rather than simple rely upon what the editors deemed sufficient explanations.

Philip Jenkins’s A History of the United States.

This is a much more compact textbook than the others, at a mere 366 pages of unillustrated, concentrated text. That being said, it covers the same period, 1492 to the present, in a readable narrative format.

Positives: This volume is a much less expensive (just a mere £12) than its rivals and provides roughly the same level of depth and analysis in the core text.  Its single author gives an appropriate focal point for historiographical analysis, though the lack of footnotes or other explicit citations still places this firmly within the realm of tertiary narrative. There is, however, a sizeable further reading section at the end of each chapter, which should encourage more focused reading afterwards. For my own module, the first six chapters work fairly well for my six crises.

Negatives: Because of its less sectionalised layout, only the main thrust of historical trends and events are fully represented, though cultural and social history are not neglected. Also, the monograph format, and consequent inability to lay flat without breaking the spine or using a book snake (and how many undergraduates actually own a book snake?) makes it more a ‘read’ than a ‘reference’.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

I have not actually read (or owned) this volume so I cannot properly adjudicate its value for my module. However, based on the selection of material that appears in student essays–and Zinn is a very popular ‘secondary source’ at every university I have worked at–it seems an likely contender.

Positives: A very popular (pun-intended) narrative of the history of the United States, which students enjoy reading and find authoritative. Its single authorship and purposefully analytical and critical appraisal of mainstream American narratives make it a good jumping off point for seminar discussion and historiographical analysis.

Negatives: It has a tendency to induce sophomore socialist syndrome. This isn’t the fault of the book (or socialism), but rather an unintended consequence of mixing young adults, deep in the midst of their post-adolescent idealistic phase, with a book that, upon shallow reading, tells them everything they’ve been told about American history is ‘a lie’, which often translates into ‘a concerted conspiracy’ by the time it reaches student essays. Like the monolithic tone of mainstream narratives, Zinn’s monograph tends to produce (in student minds) an equally monolithic view of American history, rather than the enlightened critical debate it intends. It appears, to this outsider, that it must be used with significant guidance.

Major Problems in American History
 (Volumes 1 and 2)

A course reader with documents and essays from across the standard span of American history.

Positives: Not a traditional textbook, but rather a collection of primary material and scholarly essays. This promotes in-depth analysis of historiographical arguments and relevant raw material, but is pre-packaged for easy distribution and access. Is sold as a split volume, making it both lightweight and relatively economical. Cengage also offers lecturers the ability to ‘create their own’ readers, either electronically or in print, if the pre-packaged selection does not suit their needs.

Negatives: Does not provide the overarching narrative that students need to put these sources in context, and therefore the lecture series must fulfil this role or an additional narrative history must be provided. For transatlantic migrants, such as myself, it is important to note that there are significant difference between the US and International versions of these books, so if you’ve moved, you’ll need to double check the sources you want are still available in the version your students can purchase.


So what are my conclusions?  I am still not sure.  I have, for some time, leaned towards the Major Problem series, as I find the homogenising effect of standard textbooks a terrible obstacle to critical engagement. Nonetheless, I am acutely aware that my students will have little to no background in the grand narrative of American history, and may therefore feel lost jumping from topic to topic–although, I suppose this is what many of them had done in their secondary history courses. I therefore turn to you, dear reader, for advice. For a thematic module on American History, which book would you choose?


One thought on “You have chosen…wisely? Textbooks for Almost-Surveys

  1. Emma Louise

    As a student who has just done an American History module (a very well taught one I might add!), I offer my humble opinion purely from a student perspective. I personally much prefer the Major Problems series as I found the primary sources much more engaging than the narrative Tindall and Shi. Though of the narrative textbooks, Eric Foner’s was more readable, to me, than Tindall and Shi.
    Perhaps for the poverty stricken students (are there any other kind?) you could do a quick bare bones outline of the historical narrative, for those coming to the module with no previous knowledge? I am sure that some students would be able to do this all by themselves, but there would undoubtedly be those that would not bother. Perhaps it could be an pre-first seminar activity to assign bits of the narrative to various groups to bring along to the first meeting? Or the students could email you their assigned chunk and then you bundle it to send out to the class? Of course this would bring the danger of a Wikipedia copy and paste scenario. But maybe given such an exercise as an alternative to purchasing a core narrative textbook, it might make some students more inclined to do it well! Then all you would need to recommend would perhaps be the Major Problems series.
    Best of luck deciding which books. Would love to know what your decision ends up being.

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