From the desk of Senior Editor, Robert Runté
Jeet This Week (June 23, 2015) on CBC’s Q gave a fascinating rant entitled, “Canada hides behind the myth of boringness”. It’s worth the nine minutes and 3 seconds it takes to listen, though I’m most interested in what he has to say in the last half: his theories of why Canadian history is (portrayed as) so boring.
He’s not wrong when he says “Canada has constructed a mask of boringness…a facade….” (7.28) It’s not that interesting things don’t happen here, it’s that we don’t want to acknowledge anything negative or controversial in our history. Jeet’s explanation is, in my view, right on. Worth a listen.
I can’t even refute Jeet’s statement (8:23) that
- “If I’m working with a Canadian editor, and there’s anything that’s quirky or funny, that gets taken out right away. Whereas, if I hand the same piece to an American editor, they’ll like, again, just circle it and say, ‘put that in the first paragraph’.”
I would love to say that never actually happens, but…that’s been my experience as a writer too. When my co-editor and I turned in our first textbook (Thinking About Teaching: An Introduction) I was really proud of the fact it had a lot of funny bits in it–which the publisher’s editors promptly made us take out. The problem was that when the publisher sent the text out to instructors in similar courses across Canada–that is, the book’s potential buyers–they all complained that we weren’t ‘serious’ enough about the various topics covered. That made no sense to me: since when did ‘serious’ equate with ‘dull’? But I needed tenure, which meant I needed to get the book published, so what could we do? We took the funny bits out.
I did manage to retain one extended Star Trek reference, and I fought to keep one chapter that was clearly outrageous (because it was an article I had written, and therefore, again something I needed for tenure), but that was the best we could salvage. (Well, it was still a decent textbook, just not what you’d call entertaining.) Significantly, while the text went out of print relatively quickly, that one ‘outrageous’ chapter has been reprinted in course readers in Education courses across Canada every year since for the last 25 years–because, I suspect, it’s really hard to find readings on Canadian education that aren’t boring.
The point, of course, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Now that I am Senior Editor with a publisher, I’m finally in a position to say ‘no’ to boring textbooks. Our series on the Prime Ministers of Canada does not shy away from the controversial, from the negative, or from engaging writing.
Nor have we committed the other crime against history that Jeet didn’t get into: textbooks that condescend to their readers. Have you looked at your kid’s text lately? These days, most K-12 texts seem to strip out substance for pages of colorful but questionably relevant pictures; include cute cartoon characters to cajole students to read the next paragraph; include ‘review questions’ that send students on a ‘scavenger hunt’ to find facts they can pluck out of context to fit in the blanks of meaningless worksheets. Head::Desk. As if students could never find their own history interesting, could never voluntarily read a biography of their Prime Minster(s); could never actually read a block of text without pictures. Perhaps there are students so overwhelmed by hypertext and visual media that they can no longer tolerate actual books, but if those hypothetical kids actually exist anywhere, they are not our target audience. We publish books for readers, and believe that given half a chance, kids, like adults, prefer books that don’t talk down to them.
And that aren’t boring.