I debated whether to begin the year on a positive note. I had fun with Oreos (more coming in that department, by the way). But now it’s time to get serious.
I posted this last May:
Alexs Pate, the author of Amistad, visited my college last year to speak about rap, writing and a whole mess of stuff that was on his mind. I ran across a one-sentence note I made during his talk:
Writers need an empathetic imagination with their characters.
Rephrase this as:
Teachers need an empathetic imagination with their students.
Of course I would add that textbook authors need this also.
So I’m using Stewart’s Calculus, Early Transcendentals (7th Edition; don’t get me started on editions). It’s my first time teaching Calculus 2 so I’m reading the text extra closely-in an attempt to model critical reading skills for my students and to imagine what will be easy, helpful, challenging and unhelpful as my students engage with the text.
On the surface, I imagine that about 90% of Calc texts are more or less identical. The curriculum has certainly converged. (heh) Limits, then derivatives, then integrals.
So it’s really only at the level of minute detail that most texts differ. Do these details matter? I’m gonna say yes. We are trying to get students to read the text. In order to convince them that this is a reasonable thing to do, we have to convince them that the text’s author gets them as the audience.
So here’s a thought experiment.
Consider the following problem (an example in the text): A tank of water in the shape of an inverted cone is filled with water to a depth of 8 m. The tank has a base of radius 4m and a height of 10 m. How much work is required to empty the water by pumping it to the top of the tank?
Do you have a picture of the cone in your mind? Have you oriented it in space so that you can begin to label variables? If so, then you’re ready…
- Where did you put the origin?
- What did you label the axis along which you’ll integrate?
- Which direction is positive on this axis?
Stewart gets it wrong on all three questions:
- The origin is at the top of the cone.
- The vertical axis is labeled x.
- The positive direction on the x-axis is down.
Yes, I understand that we’ll get the same answer either way. But if we are trying to teach students, we need to choose examples from which they can learn. This involves understanding something about how they think and then using this knowledge to make good instructional choices.
Nitpicking, you say? But did I mention that this is the SEVENTH EDITION?!? And have you seen the guy’s house?
"I had no idea you could make any money writing books. That was not a motivation at all. It was a surprise, but it enabled me to build this house. And I’ve got to continue to work to pay for the house. The house’s cost ($24 million) is double the original estimates."
I don’t begrudge the man a nice home. But that cone is sloppy writing. When the most commonly adopted Calculus text does such a poor job of meeting students where they are, I get angry.
Maybe we’ll get a better one in the eighth edition.
Now back to work.