Beware of the textbook

I have previously commented that students should be encouraged to prepare for their lectures, undertake some preparatory reading and so be able to ask questions that they have already thought about – rather than going to a lecture “cold”. But what should they be reading?

The obvious answer is the course textbook. But does that convey the essence of the discipline, or just a list of the key facts? Hyland  (2004: 106) comments that “textbooks construct a fiction of the discipline for novices and outsiders“. So is this creating a problem for later on? Even when a textbook is considered excellent, it can create problems. Paxton (2007) has summed this up nicely:

“I argue that the discourses and practices of first year university economics textbooks provide a model of literacy practices which contradict many of the literacy practices of the discipline of economics”.

This is exacerbated by the way in which textbooks tend to be “single-voiced” and “give the impression of consensus in the discipline” that will encourage “rote learning and plagiarism”. This sounds like a major issue for our students as they progress from the elementary courses to more advanced courses, if they have the facts, but not appropriately embedded within a disciplinary discourse or knowledge structure that accurately represents the subject being studied.

I have heard students comment on similar issues when being given a diet of review papers to guide their study. One comment was, “it’s like someone has already done the thinking for us, so all we can do is memorise it. Where’s the challenge?” The student was asking to be directed to the conflicting primary sources so they could weigh up the pros and cons of a particular argument. It is noticeable that most students do not make this comment. Is this because they are not that insightful, and really do believe that everyone in their disciplinary area all thinks the same thing? Or is it because they have worked out what is going on, but will just play the strategic examination game! and avoid rocking the boat? Either way, it should be of concern that students are not working in authentic disciplinary ways.

Some academics are also concerned that there appears to be a disconnect between the pedagogy of the discipline and the nature of the discipline. Only when the discipline and the pedagogy are aligned will academic faculty development make sense. If there is a miss match between the disciplinary practice and the dominant pedagogy, then most research-active teachers will be more interested in the discipline than in the pedagogy. This results in the neglect of teaching development. This is not to say that we should not use textbooks. Textbooks have a role. But teachers need to understand the nuances of that role and need to guide students to reflect on what it is that textbooks do, and what they do not.


Hyland, K. (2004) Disciplinary Discourses: Social interactions in academic writing. The University of Michigan Press.

Paxton, M. (2007) Tensions between textbook pedagogy and the literacy practices of the disciplinary community: a study of writing in first year economics. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6: 109 – 125. .


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