Courtesy of Library of Congress

A Conversation with Ben Wright and Joseph Locke, Editors of The American Yawp

by Rachel Beltzhoover and M. Omar Siddiqi

As instructors and administrators step cautiously into the digital age by adopting e-books and using more interactive online resources, the efficacy of traditional textbooks is increasingly a question of heated debate. Comparative cost, accessibility, and personal preference of both students and teachers are all factors that fuel that debate. Entering the fray is The American Yawp, an open-source textbook that will be offered in both digital and print formats. Ben Wright and Joseph Locke, co-editors of The American Yawp, described how and why this project came about: "We set out to construct a project not only native to the new digital landscape, and therefore capable of bridging the innovations of the digital humanities with traditional classroom learning, but one that democratizes the study of American history through collaboration. An open text offers students and instructors a free and flexible alternative to rigid proprietary texts."

Taking its title from Walt Whitman's iconic poem "Song of Myself," The American Yawp draws content from the collaborative efforts of a large, geographically diverse body of contributing historians. Jordan Taylor, a doctoral student in the history department at Indiana University and an editorial assistant at the Journal of American History, is one of many contributors to the project. Asked what drew him to the project, Taylor said, "I was able to write about several of the topics I am most interested in." For Taylor, producing content for a survey-level text proved useful to his ongoing research. "The process of creating a textbook entry on these topics was appealing, because it forced me to think about my research in new ways," Taylor said. "You see your dissertation in new ways when you're trying to write only eight hundred words to an audience of college students." For Taylor, the collaborative nature of The American Yawp represents one of the text's greatest strengths. "No single scholar, or even any small group of scholars, can be an authority on the entirety of American history," he said. "The writers associated with The American Yawp, by focusing on topics of interest to them, draw on a command of relevant scholarship and an ability to incorporate fresh insights into the familiar story of the United States."

A beta edition of The American Yawp website launched last fall and the text is now fully available for adoption by interested instructors. The text of The American Yawp will continue to evolve with the help of a feedback forum in which instructors and users can raise concerns and suggest edits. Feedback received through the course of the academic year will help structure subsequent revisions to The American Yawp.

Website metrics for The American Yawp indicate an average of four hundred unique daily visitors and approximately one thousand page views. During the fall 2014 semester, total unique visitors numbered about ten thousand, resulting in approximately fifty thousand page views. Over one-quarter of recorded page views occur on mobile devices such as smart phones and iPads.

We spoke with Wright and his fellow co-editor Joseph Locke about The American Yawp and the future of the American survey textbook.

Why is there a need for an open-source, online U.S. history textbook?

First, we have to clear up misconceptions about "open-source" texts. We are conscious that [when] many outside of the digital humanities hear the term "open-source," [they] think of Wikipedia, assume that anyone can modify our project's content, and reject the project as unreliable. Digital scholarship must retain the high standards of the academy and our goal has been to balance the promise of open access with the rigor of academic peer-review. We are "open" in that we offer free and unrestricted access while encouraging the reproduction and modification of our content for non-commercial uses outside of our control. In that way we hope to democratize knowledge and bring more participants into the conversation while maintaining the highest standards of the discipline. We think that the untapped promise of the new digital landscape and the crippling surge in textbook costs demand the creation of an open, online American history textbook. An open text offers students and instructors a free and flexible alternative to rigid proprietary texts.

And it's free. According to studies we've seen, confirming our own anecdotal experience, the average university student spends over $1,000 a year on textbooks. Soaring tuition and crippling student loans are already handicapping a generation of students. We think textbooks shouldn't add to the burden. Moreover, community colleges and four-year institutions that cater to non-traditional or first-generation students rely disproportionately on traditional textbooks, meaning that the very students least able to afford them are often the same students required to purchase them. We therefore designed The American Yawp as a free and open resource far removed from profit motives, business models, and for-profit educational organizations.

Has it been difficult to find contributors and editorial advisors? Why do you think scholars want to participate in the project?

Not at all. Scholars across the profession have expressed overwhelming enthusiasm for the project. We are constantly hearing that there is a great need for a project like this. There seems to be a common perception that textbooks are too expensive, that they need to adapt, and that open collaboration is the appropriate model. There's an eagerness for it. And at this point, hundreds of scholars and instructors have freely and eagerly volunteered their time and expertise.

How does the editing and review process differ from that of a traditional textbook publisher?

We wanted to open up the traditional model of textbook production. Every aspect of The American Yawp, from the construction of text to the editing of a finished product, is a collaborative venture. Whereas a traditional text might have half-a-dozen authors, we have several hundred, all overlapping and working together. Our precise strategies are still evolving. We began as a small group of like-minded scholars sharing lecture notes, moved on to collaborative writing sessions, and, finally, settled upon a modified form of invited, crowdsourced content production. As we move forward into the editing stage we intend to continue experimenting with controlled wikis, open commenting, and traditional review processes to knit together a rigorous and readable product. Moving forward, the digital platform will let us keep up with trends in scholarship and technology much faster and more effectively than traditional texts.

How do you plan to encourage instructors to adopt The American Yawp in their U.S. history classrooms?

We think that the historical profession has been waiting for a credible, user-friendly, open textbook for a while now. We embarked upon this project because we both wanted to use something like this in our own classrooms but couldn't find anything quite like it. We'll do the traditional legwork to raise awareness of the project over the coming months, but we believe that a polished, reliable text will satisfy an existing need. Meanwhile, hundreds of contributors already have a stake, which, we hope, will spawn enough word of mouth to push the project forward. We are scholars, not marketers, but we are confident that the quality and advantages of the product will do that work for us.

As far as you know, is The American Yawp the only open-source online U.S. history textbook being developed at the moment?

Not quite. In fact, there have been a few important early innovators in this field, perhaps most notably Digital American History, and at the moment a bumper crop of new texts seems to be under development by a number of major, not-for-profit educational institutes and foundations. To the best of our knowledge, however, ours is the only project grounded in collaboration that is fully free and open. We're happy to see more and more projects like ours: we think they can only help students, instructors, and general readers to better access and appreciate the American past.

Rachel Beltzhoover is a former editorial intern for The American Historian. M. Omar Siddiqi is an editorial assistant for The American Historian and a graduate student in the Indiana University history department.