Jesse B. Markay

  • Textbook Alternative Pilot (TAP) Evaluation
  • Jesse B. Markay, Department of History, Sonoma State University

As part of the Textbook Alternative Pilot project (“TAP”) I identified two texts that would be excellent alternatives to standard U.S. history textbooks. One is The American Yawp, an online open source. The other is OpenStax College’s U.S. History, part of a project under the auspices of Rice University. Each has its strengths and because they are free to students, it will be possible to choose elements from both alternative textbooks and not cause students to incur any cost.

The American Yawp

The American Yawp is a free, online, collaboratively built American history textbook designed for college-level history courses and is currently in a Beta version. The project is formally operated under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (CC-BY-SA) License and is designed to meet the standards of a "Free Cultural Work." The text grew out of a collaboration of 300 experienced college instructors whose contributions were refashioned by a team of editors. The title American Yawp comes from a line of Walt Whitman poetry: “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable,” he wrote, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” The editors explain their vision for the text:

Long before Whitman and long after, Americans have sung something collectively amid the deafening roar of their many individual voices. Here we find both, chorus and cacophony, together, as one. Always free, always open, this textbook offers the story of that barbaric, untranslatable American yawp…Whitman’s America, like ours, cut across the narrow boundaries that strangle many narratives. Balancing academic rigor with popular readability, The American Yawp offers a multi-layered, democratic alternative to the American past.1

The Editorial Advisory Board is comprised of a truly remarkable assortment of some of the most renowned American historians and the Digital Content Advisory Board is similarly composed.

The American Yawp is elegantly simple and accompanied by an assortment of stunning visual images. There are none of the trappings of most textbooks: no sidebars, no chapter questions, no links to outside sources. The writing is clear and consistent. While there is no overarching theme, the text does what a textbook ought to do: provide a readable reference that might serve as the basis of classroom discussion and free-up the instructor to focus on particular historical themes or events items rather than be locked into a chronological recapitulation of American history.

OpenStax College’s U.S. History

OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University. A draft of their U.S. history online textbook is free and currently available at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11740/latest/. That portal brings users to a site which allows instructors to customize the text as they see fit. U.S. History will also be available in low-cost print and iBook textbook editions.

OpenStax College U.S. History was written by a committee of experienced instructors with a typical G.E. U.S. history survey class in mind. It does look like a typical textbook with chapter outlines, learning objectives, review questions, timelines, maps, illustrations and sidebars that focus on personal stories of characters alive at the time of the chapter material. Each chapter includes a number of valuable links to various collections of documents and illustrations relevant to an item in the text.

Assessment and Recommendations

My judgment is that the writing style of The American Yawp is superior to the serviceable, functional style of the OpenStax text. But OpenStax’s U.S. History is certainly readable enough and does contain other valuable material. I would not hesitate to use selections from both in my G.E. class and will make a similar recommendation to my colleagues in the History Department.

1Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., The American Yawp (2014).