Saturday, 13 July 2013

On books written for students: a polemic

In times past there were two kinds of books that scholars could write: books for other scholars and books for the general public. But now a third type of book has insinuated its way into our minds and hearts: books written for students. In the past several years it has become fashionable for authors to write books for students, and for publishers to publish them. It may even have become fashionable – who knows? – for students to read them. 

Just look at the endorsements on the back cover of the latest theology paperback: "an essential book for undergraduate courses" – "a landmark work that will be required reading for graduate courses in the field" – "now all new students will have a sure guide to the terrain!" – and so on.

This is a bad state of affairs – bad for writers, bad for publishers, bad most of all for students and the discipline – and I must raise my voice against it. 

Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one? It is the same with students who pay good money for the opportunity to study the Christian tradition, and end up squandering their time reading about the views of various theologians without actually getting to encounter a real theologian at close range.

Now introductory survey books are a fine thing. I have read, or started reading, some of them myself. But who are they for? The answer, which ought to be obvious, is that they are for the general public. Anyone interested in Shakespeare can pick up an accessible introduction to his plays: that is why such books are written. But a student who enrolls in a university course on Shakespeare should protest vehemently if they found they were expected to read the same introductory material. The reason you go to university is to study the thing itself – Shakespeare's plays – under the guidance of an expert in the field.

It is the same with theology. It is an excellent thing that an interested member of the public may learn about Christianity simply by reading a good scholarly survey. But if that person subsequently showed up at seminary or divinity school, they would (or should) be scandalised to discover that their teachers wanted them to spend their time reading introductory books. The teacher's job is to help students engage with the tradition for themselves. That's the difference between spending $10 on a paperback and spending $10,000 on an education. It's the difference between reading a book in the comfort of your own armchair and submitting yourself to the rigours of an academic curriculum.

In the discipline of theology, the primary sources are not only scriptural texts but also those texts and lives which have proved generative of subsequent traditions of reflection and debate. Thus Irenaeus and Origen and Augustine are primary sources; Aquinas and Calvin are primary sources; Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila are primary sources; the life of St Antony and the life of St Francis are primary sources.

There is a bizarre assumption that primary sources are for the experts while students need the easier, more accessible stuff of secondary literature. But the truth is exactly the reverse. Anybody can read Augustine's Confessions or Julian of Norwich's Revelations – but it takes an expert to appreciate a judicious scholarly survey. That is why publishers struggle to sell copies of their Introductions and Guides, while Augustine and Julian of Norwich have never gone out of print, and never will until the end of the world.

This is not to say that primary sources have to be old books. If you are studying liberation theology, then some of the works of Gutiérrez are primary sources, since these works have generated a tradition of reflection and debate. If you are studying feminist theology then the works of Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether are primary sources. If you are studying political theology then not only Augustine and Calvin but also Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr might be read as primary sources. But not an introductory survey of liberation theology or feminist theology or political theology.

Does this leave our publishers with nothing to publish? Our aspiring authors with nothing to write about? By no means! Those of us who write should commit ourselves to the two main types of books outlined above: books for other scholars and books for the general public. But please, for the love of God, let us leave our students out of it.

Now I know publishers need to market their books to a wide readership, and I know there is Money to be made from textbooks. But writing for undergraduates is not only bad for the long-term health of the discipline, it's also a mug's game as far as writers are concerned. To write well, it is necessary to have a certain audience in view together with an aspiration to move that audience in some way: perhaps to persuade your scholarly peers to see things differently, perhaps to engage the interest of non-experts, or whatever. If you are aspiring to write for a captive audience – a student readership, required by force to read your book – then the quality of your writing will tend to measure up to the size of your aspiration. That is to say, you will end up writing a boring and tedious book that nobody would ever read without being forced into it. How much better to enlarge our aspirations, to envisage a wider audience of non-captive readers who might just enjoy learning all this stuff – if only we can keep them turning the pages. That, in my opinion, is what publishers ought to be looking for and encouraging in their authors, alongside their primary (and always necessary) commitment to publishing books for the scholarly community.

But as far as publishing books for students is concerned, we ought to be concentrating on finding the best ways of putting the primary sources into their hands. And here is where our publishers could actually be doing a lot more. In fact, at a time when the market seems to be flooded with Guides to This and Introductions to That, there is a surprising scarcity of exactly the kinds of books students really need. There seem to me to be three categories of books required here:

1. First, the anthology. It is only stating the obvious to say that anthologies are one of the most convenient ways of putting primary sources into the hands of students. There are some excellent anthologies around, but not nearly as many as you'd think. Wiley-Blackwell has tended to corner the market, with books like Alister McGrath's Christian Theology Reader, David Ford's Modern Theologians Reader, Samuel Wells' Christian Ethics reader, and Gene Rogers' Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. There are some from other publishers, such as Oliver and Joan O'Donovan's political theology sourcebook (Eerdmans) and Bryan Stone's new Reader in Ecclesiology (Ashgate), but they are few and far between. Given the range, diversity, and complexity of the Christian tradition, you'd expect to find a lot more options here, even at the most basic introductory level. And Gene Rogers' Holy Spirit: Classic and Contemporary Readings shows that the anthology doesn't have to be a dull chronological business, but can be a creative and provocative work in its own right, in which traditional texts are framed from the outset by contemporary questions and perspectives.

2. Second, the student edition. It was once common – and, in some humanities disciplines, still is – for publishers to produce special study editions of important works. Typically these include scholarly introductions, bibliographies for further reading, footnotes to help students understand the main text, and perhaps discussion questions at the end. Often headings and sub-headings are also introduced to help reveal the internal structure of the work. The Popular Patristics Series (SVS Press), Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press), and the Works of Saint Augustine (New City Press) are excellent examples of this kind of publishing; and of course Penguin Classics has long published a handful of important Christian texts in this style. (These series are all marketed to the general public, but they are also ideal as student editions.) Another notable example is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series by Fortress Press. But there is really not much else to speak of in theology. In some cases, simply inserting headings and sub-headings into a text would do wonders for the text's teachability. An obvious example: the whole of Barth's Church Dogmatics ought to be published with headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings, etc, with a separate table of contents in which students can take in the complex structure of each volume, chapter, and paragraph. (I have an edition of Thomas Aquinas's Summa with a big fold-out table like this, where you can see the whole plan of the work all at once.) To anticipate the objections of purists: there is nothing unseemly about interpolating headings into classic works. We've been doing it for centuries – where do you think Bible chapters come from, or Shakespeare's five acts? It is a tried and true way of helping readers to comprehend, study, and discuss difficult books.

3. Third, the study guide. This is less important than the first two categories, but there is still a legitimate place for separately published guides to primary sources. The aim of such books is to help students to understand a work's background, its internal structure, perhaps its reception, and some of the main scholarly debates surrounding it. There should be a strong component of discussion questions. Most importantly, such books are of use only if they are extremely concise, and if they point students back constantly to the primary source. The danger of such study guides – just think of CliffsNotes and SparkNotes – is that they easily become another substitute for reading the work itself. The longer a study guide becomes, the greater the risk: so keep it short and simple. In the best case such guides can be a valuable stimulus to the students' own engagement with the text, and can help them to stay focused on the big questions raised by the text. This kind of publishing is all but nonexistent in theology, though I've seen a couple of examples recently, both by Wipf & Stock: Jason Byassee's guide to Augustine's Confessions, and Kenneth Oakes' companion to Barth's Romans.

A final word to teachers. When it comes to assigning texts for student reading, every book has an opportunity cost. No matter how wise, wide-ranging, and benevolent the latest Dummy's Guide to Christology might be, a student who spends nine hours reading it could have spent those same nine hours reading Athanasius, Cyril, Rosemary Ruether, or whoever else you believe has a generative importance in the tradition.

But shouldn't we be suspicious of the power dynamics involved in identifying any specific body of texts as authoritative? Yes! I don't mean to suggest that we should all try to agree on a fixed canon of theological texts. But I do think every teacher of the discipline is responsible to decide on a kind of functional canon of primary sources for the purposes of their curriculum. Once you've decided what the primary sources are, you should try to ensure that every course or subject involves a direct encounter with those sources.

It is disempowering if students only ever get to hear other people's views about the tradition, without ever having the opportunity to engage it directly for themselves. If you want to cultivate a highly critical stance towards "canonical" Christian sources, that's fine. But the best way to do it is to help your students to read those sources for themselves. No matter how much critically informed secondary literature your students might read, you'll still be giving them mediated access to the tradition instead of helping them to engage it head-on for themselves. An education in which everything is mediated through expert opinion is ultimately disempowering, and only reinstates the authority of the expert without cultivating genuine intellectual freedom or independence.

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