UTD prof creates online textbook

The American Yawp is an online, open-source textbook that will become available in print this fall. Photo courtesy of Yawp.


A UTD professor’s free online American history textbook is going to get a print edition with a major update this fall.

The American Yawp, named after a quote from American poet Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” is a contributor-based open source textbook that has been available online since 2014 for free and is now coming to print this fall. The textbook was co-founded by arts and humanities professor Ben Wright and University of Houston-Victoria’s Joseph Locke in 2014 because the professors realized students weren’t buying the textbooks that were assigned to them.

“Myself and a colleague were talking about how we teach and we were talking about how, quite frankly, most of the textbooks are too expensive for our students, they’re not buying them, and quite frankly, we thought that the quality wasn’t that good,” Wright said.

The consequence of creating a free textbook is that no one involved with the Yawp is paid. Wright and Locke’s creative-commons based philosophy led to Wright and Locke paying hundreds for web hosting yearly, without compensation. Even after the book’s publication this fall, neither the editors, nor the publisher, will be receiving any money beyond compensation for printing.

The professors were able to write a textbook without any money by only asking for small contributions from all professors involved. The current edition of the Yawp was written by over 300 hundred historians and edited by over 100 more, all on a volunteer basis. Wright and Locke screened all the editors and contributors, and many were asked to write for the textbook after Wright or Locke read their work.

“I think for most people, the ask was pretty small,” Wright said. “We would, for example say, ‘In 300 words, what do undergraduates absolutely need to know about your research — your area of expertise. That’s a question that, on some level, every academic is yearning to share that anyway.”

Wright said he found that having hundreds of writers actually helped broaden the content of the book, while also making sure that every page was written by an expert in that period.

“Most textbooks are only written by one person or a very small team, and I think American history is just too big and too broad for any one individual, or even a couple of individuals, to fully wrap their head around,” he said.

Even with the best information from specialized historians, the text has to be widely comprehensible to undergraduate students.

“You have to do a balance between a narrative, telling stories that are exciting and gripping, and also capturing the kind of analytical and ideological key issues in various areas, so finding that balance between producing something that’s readable and engaging, and something that’s thoughtful and enables students to kind of grasp the key ideas,” Wright said.

Students and educators have expressed their preference for the text through their numbers. The website had over 2 million visits by 300,000 users during the fall 2017 semester. George Cuba, a biomedical engineering sophomore, said he enjoyed reading the textbook, even beyond what was assigned for class.

“The writers — I don’t know how they do it, but they make history so much more entertaining, but still factual,” Cuba said.

Cuba said he also appreciated the timely updates given to the textbook. Namely, the section added after Donald Trump’s election that brought the book up to present-day America. Lora Burnett, a teaching fellow at the school of Arts and Humanities and Yawp contributor, said she values the book’s ability to respond to new data and analysis.

“I appreciate how the American Yawp … realizes that some of the best, most up-to-date historical thinking is going to come out of the classrooms where new professors and new scholars are exploring new ways to teach history,” Burnett said.

The book is going to get a makeover in the fall, with the release of two professionally-edited paper volumes that will be available for $24.99 each. The new, peer-review edition will be copy edited by the non-profit Stanford University Press, and will be simultaneously released online. Wright said he’s also looking to possibly add a note-taking application and more interactive elements to the site this fall.


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