The Critical Textbook

The Critical Textbook

Nothing enshrines an idea quite like printing it in a textbook. In fact, the textbook is the ultimate canon: a fixed tome of knowledge, shared across institutional boundaries, with the authority to dictate pedagogical decisions and arbitrate student success.

The textbook affects more than just students, of course. Today’s scholars were yesterday’s students, and the ideas and assumptions that ruled their professional development in the tender, impressionable student years can easily permeate their thinking as scholars. Some of these ideas are groundbreaking and can springboard students into brilliant scholarly lives. However, many of those ideas and assumptions are half-baked or uncritically promulgated, and — left unchecked — can stunt the growth of our collective wisdom.

Critical pedagogues seek to empower students to be agents of change, to question received wisdom, to create new knowledge. As Jesse Stommel has argued, we seek to challenge binaries like scholar/teacher, teacher/student, individual/community. A physically and legally-fixed expression of ideas from a scholar outside our learning community easily works against those goals.

On the other hand, a physically and legally malleable resource — a Google doc, a wiki, a whiteboard — can help our students act as scholars and teachers, curating and creating new knowledge. We have the technology to build a new kind of textbook—what I call the critical textbook. The critical textbook is hackable (both in principle and in practice), open (both open-access and open-source), and belongs to no one person. It is not a tome of knowledge; it is a metaphor for knowledge—full of good stuff, but not beyond revision. And there is much that is in need of revision.

Take an example from music: the post-WWII European movement known as serialism. As with most artistic movements, post-war serialism is a complex movement where composers with complex agendas wrote complex music in a complex time and place. It also happens to be a relatively unpopular movement — among American performers and audiences in particular. As a result, the majority of professional musicians and music scholars engage serialism almost exclusively through their undergraduate survey courses in music theory and history, and therefore to a large degree mediated by the textbooks for those courses.

So how do the textbooks define serialism? And what is the problem?

A survey of the most common undergraduate music theory textbooks that cover serialism reveals a fairly uniform definition: serialism is the organization of pitch (notes), rhythm (length of notes), dynamics (loudness of notes), timbre (the sound color or instrumentation), etc. according to the same pre-determined mathematical structures. Early editions of Kostka/Payne’s Tonal Harmony (up through the fourth edition) add that composers (purposefully) avoided making direct decisions about the way notes, chords, and rhythms would sound (Fourth Edition, p. 551).

Most suggest historically that the works of early-twentieth-century composers Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen were key influences on the movement and offer Pierre Boulez’s Structures Ia as a prototypical example of serial music. (See Tonal Harmony by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne, Joseph Straus’s Introduction to Post-Tonal Music, Richard Watkins’s Soundings, Elliott Schwartz & Daniel Godfrey’s Music Since 1945, and the New Harvard Dictionary of Music.) Robert Morgan’s text goes into more detail and includes more nuance. However, he cites the same historical influences, and he includes Structures Ia among several of Boulez’s works as prototypical examples.

Altogether, these texts enshrine the now standard idea among musicians: serialism is a specific compositional technique, exemplified by Boulez’s music of the early 1950s, influenced by the works of Webern and Messiaen. This is a huge problem, because serialism is as much (if not more) an ideological and aesthetic movement as a technical one, and it persisted long after the technique exemplified by Boulez in the early 1950s had been abandoned by Boulez and his European colleagues. (M.J. Grant’s Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics is a wonderful, in-depth treatment of serialism in just this way, one which laid the groundwork for my own dissertation research.)

This misrepresentation of serialism came about largely because these composers wrote prolifically about their music, and early scholars of post-war European music took the composers at their word. (Charles Wilson’s “György Ligeti and the Rhetoric of Autonomy” provides an excellent explanation of this problem in contemporary music scholarship.) Specifically, a single article by composer György Ligeti (“Pierre Boulez: Decision and Automatism in Structure Ia,” in Die Reihe 4, 1958, trans. to English in 1960) laid out a definition of serialist technique that dominates American music textbooks. This article is often characterized as an accurate definition of serialism, as well as a polemic against serialism. However, it appears in the mouthpiece journal of the European serialists, and is one of a number of articles by Ligeti and others (including Boulez himself) that point out the limitations of this technique and explore other possible ways to accomplish their aesthetic goals. In other words, it engages and critiques only a specific serial technique (which had already fallen out of favor by the writing of the article), and it represents not a polemic against the movement, but an advancement of one ideological strand within it. (This is, of course, a simplification. See the last chapter of my dissertation or Grant’s book for a more detailed treatment.) Though scholars of serial music have long been critical of the early, unnuanced view that made it into the general music textbooks first, most musicians with other areas of specialization only know the textbook version.

This is an important cautionary tale for scholars of all disciplines. Serialism is not the only movement or topic misrepresented in textbooks, and this problem is not unique to the discipline of music.

But this is an even more pressing cautionary tale for critical pedagogues. Not only does this tale point out the problems that result from the propagation of a factual error, it is an example of how textbooks work in general: One perspective on an issue, written often by a non-specialist in that issue, is presented without nuance, but with authority, and in a fixed expression that is both physically and legally prevented from being altered. If we faculty view teaching as a moral act, and education as — at least in part — a practice in intellectual freedom (see Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education, the Practice of Freedom), textbooks in their standard form will often be counter-productive.

If textbooks are counter-productive, what are our alternatives?

In many ways, the opposite of the textbook as described above is what we need to serve our students best. We need multiple perspectives on the same material, in order to facilitate critical thinking about that material. We need expert or specialist authorship that can address all areas of content with nuance, even when a textbook is for a survey course. These two points together will often require multiple, perhaps even many, authors for a single course’s core resources. (And some of those authors may be our students, who bring valuable knowledge and experiences into our classes, and whose collective inquiry during a class will often reveal more about some topics than a single textbook author can produce, no matter how expert.) Further, the material, like the discussion points in our classes, should be open to contradiction and revision, meaning it must be a (physically and legally) malleable, even hackable expression.

We have the technical means to create such a textbook: multi-authored, physically hackable, and legally alterable. In fact, several services have launched in the past year or two that aim to be a user-friendly, inexpensive tool for collaborative writing and publishing (Draft, PenFlip, Authorea, etc.), in addition to older (though still very young) mainstays such as Google Drive and GitHub. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc. is developing a new publishing division, led by Robin Wharton and me. One of our emphases will be to use tools like these to develop and experiment with workflows that lead to these kinds of collaborative, hackable books.

Writing and reading are social acts. Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing seeks to encourage active public discourse by publishing works that are born out of, or facilitate, community (inter)action — works that are crowdsourced or collaboratively authored, openly accessible, encourage remixing and republishing, and/or blur the lines between author and reader.

While we will be casting a wide net, textbooks are an ideal target. Critical textbooks do not take students from beginning to end at the same time and place. Instead they facilitate student access to existing knowledge, and empower them to critique it, dismantle it, and create new knowledge. That’s what we want to create.

Our minds are not limited to the ideas penned by others. The resources we use to facilitate inquiry and critical reasoning should be as malleable as our minds.


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, Robin Wharton, Paul Miller, and Sean Atkinson.

[Photo, How university open debates and discussions introduced me to open source by opensource.com, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]