Rediscovering the written word

Textbooks have been neglected in favour of other media, but Tara Brabazon argues the case for their importance

August 28, 2008

Media Studies is in the throes of a self-harming cycle. Metaphoric cutters and disordered eaters are mingling with shoplifters and crackheads. The cause of this bloodletting has been the stretched-out, pumped-up and knocked-down phrase, Media Studies 2.0. Credited to the University of Wales, Swansea’s William Merrin, he formed a blog – obviously – to probe and circulate the term.

Very quickly, this decision created a night of the long blogs. The resultant posts were angry, aggressive, nasty, bitchy and personal. This was a feral, spitting and kicking bout of blogging when numerous comments were removed because of abuse. It rippled the calm surface of scholarly discourse.

But Media Studies 2.0 and blogging are not my current concern. A fascinating comment was made by Merrin while discrediting Media Studies 1.0 as having as much relevance to “the young people” as a crack pipe for an Eastbourne nana. To make his case, Merrin looked at Media Studies textbooks.

“The diversity of individual research projects might suggest that there is no commonly agreed conception of what media studies is and no identifiable mainstream discipline, but in practice these do exist, being found in the key texts we produce to introduce the subject to new students: our undergraduate textbooks. Looking through these one is struck by their similarity.

“They employ a remarkably similar classificatory scheme, with a fairly standardised list of topics (audiences, institutions, representation, effects, semiology, advertising etc.), an emphasis upon the main broadcast forms (TV, cinema, print, radio) and a near-identical selection of ideas, perspectives, debates and content. Although their actual use may be limited to introductory modules their significance lies in the fact that they represent the public face and point of self-definition of the discipline, identifying the agreed, core knowledge new students must learn.”

This statement made me think about textbooks, not only in Media Studies but in broader academic life. Is the health of a discipline to be judged by the content of our textbooks?

I am a voyeur in textbook world. In my degree programmes, they were never assigned. The expectation was that reading must be more diverse and wide ranging than could be encased in the covers of a single book. Similarly, I have never taught a course with a textbook. For some masters modules, I use readers to augment the refereed articles given to students. Fine examples include Cox and Warner’s edited collection Audio Culture and Miles, Hall and Borden’s The City Cultures Reader.

Both are works of scholarship in themselves, surveying the historiographies of sound and urbanity and re-presenting the greatest writers, ideas and intellectual moments. But these texts were never constructed – or used – as the endpoint of course reading, but as a platform to commence it.

The question is not only who writes textbooks, but who reads them and why? Also, the word “textbook” is inelegant and imprecise because of the diversity of works encased within its definition. Readers are historical collections of important scholarship which, for underfunded libraries, offer a sticking plaster for an incomplete collection.

Edited works take on a contemporary topic or problem, requiring either a diverse geographic spread of scholars or – in a book on methods – a range of specialists. A third category includes dictionaries, key terms and key concepts, offering introductory and dippable sorties with the foundation of knowledge.

The singly authored textbooks, with bullet points and questions concluding chapters, are probably the focus of Merrin’s critique. The question – and it is a fascinating research problem – is how this type of book is being used by staff and students. Are they the spine of a course, leading curriculum development, or merely a supplemental resource for less able scholars?

Textbooks are even an area of controversy in Wikipedia. “Terrorism” causes few conflicts. Neither does “Iran”. But the entry for “textbook” is noted as confronting multiple problems. When turning to its Wikipedia history page, a series of conflicts scar the prose about American publishing, the discursive disconnection between authors and publishers, the nature of capitalism and the costs to students by demanding the purchase of new editions.

So textbooks – a banal, basic guide through knowledge for the inexperienced – are moving through a moment of change and attack. For writers and publishers, some topics are more appropriate for textbooks than others. Those paradigms, fields and knowledge systems that change more slowly offer some potential: property law rather than criminal law, sociological methods not urban sociology.

The problem for writers comes in the desire to review and represent an entire field. This is matched by a publisher’s imperative to move textbooks through regular editions to ensure continued sales and the destruction of a secondhand market. There are costs to credibility through this activity.

Publishers who used to release a mixture of scholarly monographs and textbooks built their corporate image through edgy and more risky titles. When such publishers moved more strongly into the textbook market, academics disconnected from their list. Two publishers were my constant companion through the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was exciting to see their logo on the new books stand at the library and I bought as many titles as I could afford.

But over the past 15 years, they published fewer books that built new knowledge, preferring to regurgitate old work. It has been years since I bought a book from their list. Clearly, the money is in the textbook market. The question is if – after years of reproducing rather than creating knowledge – the branded image of these publishers starts to decay in the academic community.

For writers, textbooks are hard work. They are particularly difficult to justify in intellectual terms because – while noted as an act of scholarship – they are not counted as research by any measures of qualitative peer review. They are not writing that takes risks.

They do not make knowledge. They dispense knowledge. It is also difficult to hold an image in our minds of who an audience could be. When an editor discussed with me who these books are written for, he said “a 19-year-old woman, more interested in her boyfriend than university”. So they are meant to be easy, often remedial, introductions to a field in which the student is not motivated or even intrinsically interested.

Textbook publishing is where academic writing and commerce are most tightly linked. If the aim is to make money, then most academic writing is pointless. Compared with the cost of research materials, stationery and equipment – let alone time – it is grossly undercompensated.

There are some well-paid textbook authors, but it is not easy money. Textbooks are not difficult to write in terms of content. They are nightmarish to construct because of the form. While the knowledge is not new, it is necessary to present information in a way that is attractive, engaging and – most importantly – pitched at the correct level. That explains the necessity to hold an image of the audience for these books.

Textbooks rarely make it to non-university bookshops. But they dominate online retailers and are cross-promoted with other titles. There is also a burgeoning secondhand market, both physically and digitally through Amazon’s marketplace sellers.

It is here that the textbook publishers, with their multiple revised editions, are attacked by both academics and students. The addition of a few pages and the correction of typographical errors signals another edition and the destruction of secondhand sales.

William Merrin, in his Media Studies 2.0 campaign, was particularly critical of the place of “new” media in “old” textbooks:

“More recently there has been some attempt to update these textbooks with the inclusion of new media. Discussions of new media, however, typically feel tacked-on; they are often analysed and understood through broadcast-era concepts and categories and their use as illustrative examples for students usually lacks any consideration of their challenge to the broadcast-era system of media and mass communication research. The placing of new media as a final chapter in textbooks is also common, ignoring their transformation of the entire preceding content of the book.”

While Merrin may be right – and I can think of several examples where his interpretation is completely accurate – he has not been thoughtful in questioning how a textbook is formed, developed, commissioned, marketed and revised. His argument would have been more effective if it had been contextualised in not only the transformations of the academic field of Media Studies and the wider media environment but academic publishing.

The problem that Merrin diagnoses is witnessed in Chris Barker’s Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. This book was first published in 2000 and offered a solid, foundational introduction to the field. But in 2000, audio-cassettes were still being sold, the physical retailing of popular music was booming and reality television was in a foetal form.

There was space on free-to-air television for current affairs before gardening, cooking and home renovation ate through the medium. In the past eight years, this book has gone through three editions. It was a tough time to be revising a textbook. Traces of the earlier book survive, with some additions for “digital media”.

But unless a new book is to be commissioned and written, the skeleton of the earlier text inevitably remains. This means that the chapter on one medium – television – spans from pages 315 to 345, while all of “Digital Media Culture” occupies pages 346 to 372. There is no mention that television is actually part of digital media culture. This addition of a chapter, rather than a reconfiguration of all chapters, is completely understandable, but it does feed Merrin’s critique. But surely a first-year textbook in its third edition should not be the lamb that we sacrifice at the table of elite scholarship?

So we return to where we started. Should we judge Media Studies – or any paradigm or discipline – by the calibre of its textbooks? At this moment, it is probably unfair to judge the value of either books or journals. Both have been through an upheaval in all stages of production, including the rationale for initial author approach, peer review processes, commissioning, digital rights management, proofing, production, promotion, sale and distribution.

Christine Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age captures the scale of these transformations and the conflict between academic protocols and digitising commercial publishers. But it was Stig Hjarvard, in his article in the 2006 European Journal of Communication, who offered a key corrective to consider in our thinking on this issue: “Academic books discussing the content of academic books are common. Academic books dealing with the industry of academic books are, however, extremely rare.”

Because writing is a solitary act, because we sign individual contracts with a specific commissioning editor and because it is so difficult to attain a book contract for a challenging, important but low-selling title, academics rarely share their knowledge and experience about scholarly publishing. Studying the academic book industry is a rare and delicate pursuit.

Until academics understand and theorise the relationship between textbooks and disciplinary knowledge and how to revalue the monograph in an age of dictionaries and introductory guides, we will continue to attack publishers and writers of textbooks. It is ironic that in the history of Media Studies, the platform we have neglected is not, to summon Merrin’s phrase, “new media” but the book.

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