Thoughts on Textbook Writing

Thoughts on Textbook Writing

By Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University

I have been an author of an introductory American government textbook since 1986. It has been a rewarding intellectual experience and, in my view, has made me a more productive scholar—even though writing and continually revising a textbook entails an enormous amount of work.

In the 1980s, when the late Ted Lowi and I were colleagues at Cornell, Ted wanted to take another stab at writing an American government textbook. This was an era when the more “modern” textbooks such as Burns and Peltason (1963) and Cummings and Wise (1996)—tomes filled with illustrations and aimed at engaging students—were replacing the more monographic works such as Key’s (1962Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, which had sought to present the author’s unique perspectives rather than attempt to cover the field. Ted had written a textbook that had many pictures—I remember that Jim Burns said he liked them—but it was idiosyncratic and did not do well in the marketplace. Jim said, “I told you so.” Ted invited me to coauthor the new textbook and, with some misgivings, I told him I would give it a try. After all, I thought, how difficult could it be to write a textbook? The publisher wanted only about 800 pages—a piece of cake!

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