As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been teaching with the American Yawp online textbook this Spring semester. At the conclusion of the semester, I had my students complete a brief survey about the course, which included questions about Yawp, what they liked about it, and what they didn’t. The results were very positive.
I should say at the outset that the students completing the survey were in two sections of my eight-week (March through May) U.S. History I class, which concludes at the Civil War. That’s important because currently Yawp includes primary sources only up through the 1920s, due to the challenges of obtaining permissions to reprint materials published after that date. That meant that I could draw upon the Yawp Primary Source Reader, which I did liberally, while supplementing students’ reading with other materials (which I provided to students, free of charge).
Two consistent themes ran through students’ comments in each section of my U.S. History class: affordability and readability. Echoing the sentiments of my students in January, students in my 8 week classes repeatedly emphasized that one of the great things about Yawp was that it was completely free. We all know how expensive college is. Even at a community college, which strives to make college as affordable as possible, the costs of books and other materials for class can be quite high, and quite a few students remarked that Yawp’s best feature was that it was completely free of charge. I found, as well, that Yawp’s availability to students was also a major help early in the semester. When using a physical textbook, I invariably encountered students who immediately fell behind in class during the first couple weeks of the semester because they ordered the textbook online, trying to save money (who could blame them?), and were waiting for the book to arrive. Switching to Yawp alleviated that problem, because no student had to wait for the book to arrive in the mail.
Likewise, students remarked about the readability of the textbook. One student remarked positively about the “writing style,” saying “it was very engaging and provided different perspectives.” Another agreed that Yawp is “a very well written text book,” and went on to say: “I was more drawn to it than any other textbook I had previously.”
Students did have some criticisms, though—but even their criticisms demonstrate a thorough and thoughtful engagement with the text, and a clear desire to help the textbook improve over time. During the semester, my students caught several typographical errors, and one student remarked that additional “cross references to parts of the text which were addressed in a different chapter, in a different context,” would be an improvement. This is a theme that is worth examining in closer detail, because other students remarked about the thematic organization of the textbook, and the repetition of particular issues, ideas, events, and themes across multiple chapters. The intent of this, of course, is to signpost for students especially crucial topics and to help them make connections with other topics across time. But some students preferred it be strictly chronological, not thematic, while others, like this student, thought the text “seems to jump around,” as another student put it. Including some sort of reference to earlier or later discussions of the same topic—say, in the margins—might well help students connect what they are currently reading with what they’ve already read. It’s definitely something to think about.
Another student commented that the textbook was “a bit too text heavy,” referring, I think, to the possible ways Yawp could take further advantage of its online format. This is also worth thinking about, especially for the chapters that cover the late nineteenth century, and the twentieth century, when radio, film, and eventually television make their appearance. Though Yawp’s primary source reader ends after the World War I chapter, it certainly could integrate primary sources from the early twentieth century that aren’t texts: anti-war songs, recorded to protest World War I, for instance, as well as early films (perhaps most obviously Birth of a Nation) could be included in the Primary Source Reader, or even simply placed in the midst of the textbook chapter itself, blending traditional text with audio or film clips—something printed books simply cannot do.
Yawp is, of course, a work in progress, and these suggestions, gleaned from student comments, are just that: suggestions meant to help the textbook improve. But it is worth reiterating that students in my class all but universally told me that they thought it was already an excellent resource: that it was a better textbook than most if not all other textbooks they had encountered, at a price that is literally impossible to beat. For those of us involved in making Yawp, this is very encouraging feedback. For those of us using it in the classroom, this feedback also suggests that students are shrewd, thoughtful judges of the materials we assign, whose insights can help us decide what to use in the classroom, and how to use it to improve student learning.