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11.5.09

Picking a Textbook

As I mentioned a few posts down, I'm picking a textbook for the World Regional Geography course I'm teaching this fall. Since I've been thinking about this stuff, I thought I'd record for posterity what kind of factors I took into account.

I'd like to be able to say I put a big emphasis on logistical matters like price and consistency with older editions. Unfortunately, textbook publishers don't seem to differentiate themselves much on this count.

Turning to content factors, one thing I'd like to see is some anti-essentialism about the regions the world gets divided up into. Unlike, say, the periodic table or evolutionary clades, geographical regions aren't "real" or eternal. They're pragmatic devices for understanding -- and therefore the borders of the regions depend on what your goal in dividing things up is. I would like a textbook that addresses both the natural and social processes that create differences among areas, as well as the processes by which we come to see certain areas as composing a "region." Relatedly, it would be nice to get away from the assumption that regional and sub-regional boundaries must always follow the borders of countries.

I want a textbook that avoids lists of facts. I understand the desire not to stereotype entire continents. But if students are presented with a list of unconnected items of information -- the ethnic groups on this island are the X and the Y, the northern part of this country is more economically developed than the south -- they're not going to remember it. I certainly don't want to teach a class that mostly involves memorization.

But at least "the ethnic groups on this island are the X and the Y" is an actual piece of information. Too often textbooks fill their pages with meaningless generalities like "this region has a great diversity of environments" or "this country has a rich cultural heritage." That kind of vapid statement may get you points with someone looking to check off that you have a "multicultural" perspective, but it doesn't actually teach students anything. Give me something of substance -- an explanation of the qanat system in central Asia, or an overview of the Aboriginal Australian Dreaming -- that shows the rich cultural heritage of a place.

All the textbooks I saw tried to present personal stories and vignettes from people living in the various regions. Unfortunately, they struggled with actually presenting the voices of actual people, opting instead for unattributed statements or third-person narration sourced from Western news stories. In the age of the Internet, it shouldn't be that hard to find someone in any part of the world who can write you a 400-word box in their own words on what it's like for them living in that place.

Finally, I looked for what for lack of a better term I'll call a political economy perspective. It's too easy for students to see various parts of the world as isolated and each going their own way (at least until McDonald's opened in their capital city). So a good textbook has to avoid pulling any punches in setting out just how each region was, and still is, shaped by wider forces and other regions -- for example, the impacts of the slave trade and colonialism on Africa.

I ended up picking the textbook by Lydia and Alex Pulsipher (the second author was my housemate for a while in grad school, but I picked the book based on the considerations above), but that book is not innocent of the concerns above, nor were the other books I considered irredeemably flawed.

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