The McGraw Hill textbook

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

I imagine by now we've all heard of McGraw-Hill's appalling conflation of slaves with "workers" who came to America to work. If not, you can read up here

There seems to be a few American Studies-esque questions buried in this story. What happens to the old adage we tell ourselves about history belonging to whoever gets to tell the story in the digital age when there are intelligent kids walking around with cell phones? 

How are we to consider America and Americanness as a nation of immigrants, captives, and victims of invasion—basically a bunch of people who never really wanted to live together and still haven’t gotten over that? The history and presence of the construct of “race” obviously ties in. 

Seems to me there are even questions about work, education, childhood, and motherhood in the way the McGraw-Hill story played out.

And I’d hate to miss out on the question asked on H-Afro-Am: what is the role of the scholarly community in the debacle? The H-Afro-Am inquires into a scholarly community demanding accurate discussion in textbooks, but Roni Dean-Burren, who brought the matter to light, drew attention to a couple pages of people with PhD’s after their names who are listed in the book’s first pages as “Academic Contributors.” How heavily involved do you suppose any of them were in the writing of the book? How much drive to you think there might be among academics who want to change the world to be more closely tied to textbook writing for high school students? (Or maybe some other kind of content more befitting the digital age those students live in?) I don’t think writing college textbooks ranks in tenure reviews; what sort of encouragement is there to work on high school texts?

Probably none. But I expect we all have heard a professor or two express amazement at the things their incoming freshman classes don't seem to know. Is there maybe some role for those of us who "know" to do a better job sharing our knowledge? Thank goodness Cody Dean-Burren, the ninth grader who took the picture of the offensive caption, thinks so. But are the pages of PhD's at the front of the book to blame? It seems easier to blame the more anonymous, corproate publisher, but does that entail abdicating responsibility? Academics regularly put our names and credentials on textbooks, but are we really shirking responsibility for their contents? 

Your post brings up an interesting and important topic that I feel humanities scholars in particular can no longer afford to ignore: the need to create meaningful partnerships between higher education and high schools. Currently, in my position as the coordinator of the Pathways in Technology (P-Tech) program at SUNY Orange, I have created and implemented a faculty liaison program with our partnering high school. This experience - which has allowed us to overlay our remedial English and mathematics curriculum and foster reading and writing skills across the curriculum - has taught me several things that answer your query "Is there maybe some role for those of us who 'know' to do a better job sharing our knowledge?"

1) The academy needs to stop being macro and start being micro. We can affect real change on the local level and should be doing so. Volunteering to work with your local high school faculty to align their curriculum with college-level expectations is simply the best practice to create better freshmen.

2) Establishing trust takes time, but trust yields real results. High school teachers are embattled, and will naturally see college faculty as critics rather than allies. In our program, we meet on a bi-weekly basis. While the first few meetings were almost combative, we were eventually able to establish a trusting relationship which allowed us to do real work and yield significant results for our students. A one-time event is simply not enough.

3) Make meaningful change a part of your advancement process. Most departments retain the right to determine standards for advancement, promotion, raises etc. One of our liaison positions, for example, is now codified as a duty of the assistant chair of that department. We also pay a small stipend for the extra time. Instead of accepting why writing a textbook or working with a local high school is not part of your tenure process, question why these kinds of important and visible activities are not valued by your department and administration.

4) Be willing to learn from high school teachers and to question your own assumptions. Don't assume that someone who has spent the last twenty years grading 9th grade essays instinctively knows what "college-level" writing looks like. Don't assume that a teacher can simply incorporate a text/ document/ film etc. without the approval of a whimsical school board. Don't assume that every child has a safe study space at home, or textbooks, or access to the internet. When done right, working with a local high school may be an eye-opening experience and can offer substantial insight into our own student populations.

The only way to fix the issue of "college-readiness" is for faculty to be actively involved with high schools, and for colleges and high schools to form meaningful, local partnerships. Further, in an environment increasingly hostile to the humanities, this kind of collaborative work can only help raise the profile of fields like American studies in the public imagination. Most importantly, these collaborations yield real results: for example, our 9th grade students, many of whom entered the program at "below proficient" writing levels, had a 90% pass rate on the (normally) 11th grade U.S. history regents (with nearly half scoring 85 or above) because of the overlay of our remedial writing curriculum.