Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tales from the Unformed Textbook Committee

The text for Calculus Lite is going out of print. Not just a new edition; the book as we know it will cease to exist. This requires a search for a new text. (Yes, the same authors have a New! and Different! calculus text, but it is enough New! and Different! that the search procedure has been triggered. Trust me on that.)

I'm almost certainly going to be on the textbook committee, and I have an agenda to push. Whatever textbook we pick, it should be teacher-proof. If on the first day of the semester we hire some out-of-work rocket scientist from another country* to teach Calculus Lite, I want to believe that the textbook will make things OK.

What I'm looking for in a textbook is very clear and readable text with examples that exactly parallel the exercises. Every type of problem at the end of the section should have a prototype in the text. Also important is what I'm hoping not to see: any references to algebra-laden proofs (proof of the product rule, I'm thinking of you) should be conspicuously absent. Or, at worst, tucked safely into an appendix. Watered-down cookbook calculus? Perfect.

Secret message to the textbook reps: Don't even bother sending us the Hughes-Hallett book. I will disappear every copy that makes its way near us.

Is this how I teach calculus? No. Is this how I want to teach calculus? No. But I've been teaching calculus long enough and have picked up enough skill at doing it that it doesn't matter to me what it says in the book. The book is for the students and should be something that can help them when they are out of my nuanced and illuminating presence. I'll continue to teach calculus the way I always have (possibly with the same PowerPoint slides!) no matter what book we use.

*I pick this example for a reason. Our students have limited experience listening to people with accents, so some of them have a hard time following the lecture at first and find themselves forced to rely on the book. Also, some of our new instructors come from cultures where admission to university is a privilege reserved for only the most skilled and hard-working students.