Active Learning from Day 1: Comparing Textbooks

I like to start my semesters the way I intend to continue them, with an active learning activity on the first day of class. But what do you do when you don’t have any content yet? You let the students develop the content themselves. My last several (regular) posts for this group will focus on activities for the first day of class that don’t require any student background knowledge yet get them used to the idea that they’ll be out of their seats and interacting regularly in this course.

In Introduction to World Politics/International Relations, students are frequently unsure what exactly they’ve signed up to study. A significant minority think they’re studying the politics of other countries, others think they’re doing global current events, and others think it’s foreign policies of great powers. Over the years I’ve built a collection of textbook samples that vary widely in their approaches to the field. I give pairs of students a worksheet that asks them to compare two textbooks to the textbook we’re using in the class. What topics are included in all of the books? Can you find a topic that is in one book but not the other two? For fun, I throw a couple ambiguously titled comparative politics textbooks into the box. The point of the exercise is for them to define the central core of topics in the field of IR, and then we identify some of the contested or less-central issues that appear in a minority of books.

When I have a 75-minute class, I then ask them to compare two different editions of the same book, at least two editions apart. (This part of the activity is only possible because I’ve been collecting textbooks for 15 years and raided some retiring faculty members’ stashes as well; your campus library may have old titles that were previously in use at your school.) We compare topics that were prominent in immediate-post-Cold War titles to those that appear in post-9/11 titles, and in a few cases, we can even compare Cold War books too (I’ve got two Morgenthaus that I’ll sometimes entrust to students and a couple early Russett and Starrs). Students are usually quick to notice that the central core topics haven’t changed that much but that a lot more has been added to the scope of the field since the end of the Cold War. We talk about the implications of that for what we teach and study, and how.

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