Thursday, September 14, 2006

More Signs That I Am Becoming Old

Someone decided that there wasn't enough angst going around in the Math Department and decided that now would be a good time to call all the textbook publishers and tell them that we were thinking of choosing a new textbook for our engineering calculus sequence, which enrolls about a thousand students each year.* So book reps have been appearing in my office and have been talking to me about the latest greatest calculus books.

Now we get to wrestle with traditional versus reform and early transcendentals versus late transcendentals. I think I'm probably going to come down in the traditional, early transcendentals camp. Does this mean that I'm becoming old and conservative?

I like to think not. I like to imagine that I teach an enlightened calculus that leaves my students well-prepared for whatever it is that has tossed them into the path of calculus in the first place. I want them to be nimble at the basic calculations, but I also want them to be able to solve problems when given only a graph (and no formula) or where understanding the concept (such as the area interpretation of the integral) will greatly simplify the solution of a problem (using the area of a circle instead of trig subs) or when being able to interpret the physical meaning (with units!) is essential.

I think, though, that a traditional calculus book would make it easier for me to teach the type of course that I want to teach. With all the classic examples in the book, I can assign those as reading and spend more class time on the things that I want to emphasize. With plenty of routine exercises in the textbook, I can assign those as suggested practice problems and then collect a few beloved, long-and-involved problems for us to work on in class or as in-depth problem sets.

Who am I fooling? Yesterday I was sitting in my office looking at the next section of Stewart and fuming, "There is not enough on trig subs in this book! How can I teach a self-repsecting calculus class without plenty of sneaky, algebra-heavy techniques for evaluating tedious integrals!" But maybe that's just me and trig subs. We have a bit of a history. I have a love-hate relationship with that technique (much like my love-hate relationship with the Joe Frank radio show -- if you ask me, "why do you continue to listen to it if you hate it that much?" then you just don't understand). Back when I took calculus, trig subs was the first topic that destroyed me. The test on that unit was the first math test that I ever failed. After failing the test, I decided to do the problems in the textbook (novel idea, I know), and after a while I could do them. The following year I got the highest grade on a physics test because there was some problem where something was happening over a circular region, and you needed trig subs to evaluate the integral, and NO ONE ELSE IN THE CLASS COULD DO IT! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!

Yes, I am getting old and conservative and cranky. Not only do I want to inflict archaic technique of integration on my students, but I have started openly mocking them in class about their dependence on their calculators. Yesterday one student used a calculator to evaluate 1 - (1/2)2 and another used a calculator to graph y = x2 - 4. Back in my day, we couldn't use calculators on math tests and were instead given log tables to simplify the calculations! I took calculus before the first TI graphing calculator went on the market! Dinosaurs roamed the Earth!

On Monday's test, the bonus question will be for my students to guess how old I am. I haven't decided if there will be a point penalty for being wrong by more than five years.


*Business Calculus has well over 2000 students a year. Changing the book for that class would get me all sorts of publisher swag and free trips to vacation locales for "conferences" about how to teach from the book.