In praise of course­books

In praise of course­books

Writ­ing a course­book is both a lot harder and a lot more reward­ing than one might imag­ine.

Writ­ing a course­book is both a lot harder and a lot more reward­ing than one might imag­ine.

Two months ago (or so) I was con­tacted by the physics depart­ment of the Regional Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion, India, who asked me if I would be inter­ested in writ­ing a course­book for sec­ondary schools. It seemed like an excit­ing thing to do so, after going over the specifics and dis­cussing the entire project, I accepted.

How it all started

The Insti­tute had the pur­pose of the book set up right from the start (it was sup­posed to be a teacher’s resource) but, as I began to plan the con­tents of the book and draw up an out­line, I felt myself grav­i­tat­ing towards making it slightly dif­fer­ent from a reg­u­lar teacher’s resource.

Part of the project involved updat­ing exist­ing resources that had been pub­lished in-house exclu­sively for the Insti­tute but we quickly moved past that and expanded the scope of the project: rather than simply updat­ing mate­r­ial (some of which I was not com­fort­able with anyway), it was finally decided that I would start from scratch, define my own scope, and get a com­pletely free rein. I only had to ensure that I cov­ered as much physics as (and, per­haps a little more than) we expect stu­dents to be famil­iar by the time they apply to under­grad­u­ate col­leges.

Of course there is a com­mit­tee of physi­cists going over every word I write, as there should be. Part of acad­e­mia, for better or worse, is peer review and it helps keep things grounded, pro­motes argu­ments, pre­vents errors (at least better than what one man alone can do) and, as a whole, is expected to improve the qual­ity of such works. 

I also decided, at this point, that I would not write a teacher’s resource to accom­pany exist­ing texts alone but, rather, re-write the course­book itself, pro­duc­ing a single, com­bined text that would serve as both the course­book for sixth form stu­dents and a teacher’s resource. I wanted it to be some­thing both stu­dents and teach­ers could use in a class­room as well as some­thing that was designed to enable self-teach­ing.

Bring­ing in a new per­spec­tive

Among the many things I was hoping to do, per­haps the most dif­fi­cult was to think like poten­tial stu­dent or teacher read­ers might. Stand­ing about halfway through the first of two vol­umes now, it has been dif­fi­cult to think about what ques­tions they might have and what they might not think about that they should. I think it helps that I am young enough to still remem­ber modern, early edu­ca­tion com­pared to a fifty-year-old pro­fes­sor who has, in all like­li­hood, lost touch with being a stu­dent 1 in the tra­di­tional sense of the word.

Writ­ing a course­book is infi­nitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more sat­is­fy­ing’, says Anne Hout­man of the Rochester Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy; this is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with. 

I do have read­ers (who will go unnamed) who are help­ing out by read­ing the book as it is being writ­ten and ques­tion­ing sec­tions of the con­tent, offer­ing advice, point­ing out errors et cetera, all of which have been incred­i­bly help­ful for me so far. I think it has bet­tered the text­book in a way I could hardly have done by myself.

The layout and approach is also some­thing I have given con­sid­er­able thought to. I finally decided on arrang­ing the book as a main text and sev­eral side notes, the former being exclu­sively for stu­dents and the latter for teach­ers and read­ers teach­ing them­selves. Keep­ing in tone with the older vol­umes (which my new vol­umes are intended to suc­ceed) I have included sev­eral class­room activ­i­ties that, besides reg­u­lar lab­o­ra­tory ses­sions, will make physics more hands-on’.

The phi­los­o­phy behind the book

Although I would prefer to steer clear of big words like defin­ing a phi­los­o­phy’ behind my book I do think it is impor­tant to be clear on the whys and on what prob­lems I hope my book addresses.

Right from the start my biggest ques­tion was how I would handle math­e­mat­ics in the book. Intro­duc­ing math­e­mat­ics as a stand­alone chap­ter and then moving onto physics, while appeal­ing, is hardly the most effec­tive method of learn­ing in my opin­ion. Math­e­mat­ics has to be taught in con­text to physi­cists rather than in the glo­ri­ously abstract regime so many math­e­mati­cians seem to prefer.

My solu­tion was to have a sort of ref­er­en­tial chap­ter at the start of the book that would out­line all the math­e­mat­i­cal tools a reader of the book would need. The intro­duc­tions were all done in the con­text of physics, with exam­ples they would have come across by then or would come across soon. More impor­tantly, though, rather than being a dic­tio­nary of math­e­mat­ics for physi­cists (which was what I was against) the chap­ter is intended to be some­thing read­ers would turn back to con­stantly through­out their read­ing of the rest of the text.

This means most of the chap­ter invokes phys­i­cal ideas from else­where in the book and, mutu­ally, the two chap­ters would strengthen the notions intro­duced by each other. This has called for a con­stant revi­sion of that par­tic­u­lar chap­ter as the rest of the book is writ­ten, which is some­thing I am fine with.

Also, on a deeper level, I want the book to address some prob­lems I have, myself, seen many stu­dents expe­ri­ence. It could be some­thing as spe­cific as a cal­cu­lus shock, where stu­dents are shoved into the manner of think­ing and the ideas of cal­cu­lus rather than eased into it 2 , or a com­plete lack of grip on the struc­ture of a physics course, or worst of all, an exam­i­na­tion-focussed, type-of-prob­lem based learn­ing rather than learn­ing directed towards appre­ci­at­ing the ideas and think­ing that under­lies most of physics 3 I will not bore you with the details of how I am address­ing these, but if there is any­thing I have left out, I always appre­ci­ate a help­ful e-mail.

The other major chal­lenge has been prob­lems. Prob­lem solv­ing is at the heart of physics and think­ing up new prob­lems cre­atively is noto­ri­ously dif­fi­cult. In fact, all of this has given me a new­found respect for all the course­books we read and tossed aside during our formal edu­ca­tion. Crit­i­cise a book all you want, but you cannot deny the effort that went into writ­ing one 4 .

In praise of course­books

Says Anne Hout­man, a behav­ioral ecol­o­gist and head of the School of Life Sci­ences at the Rochester Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, that writ­ing a course­book is infi­nitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more sat­is­fy­ing’. This is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with.

The manner in which an idea is intro­duced, the har­mony between ideas across pages and chap­ters and vol­umes, and the thought that the words you put to paper will define how some­one views the field for a long time are not so much daunt­ing as con­stant reminders of the huge respon­si­bil­ity that comes with writ­ing a good qual­ity book. More localised con­cerns include ensur­ing the same nota­tion across chap­ters and the same approach to making state­ments, offer­ing proof and putting the math­e­mat­ics in a phys­i­cal per­spec­tive.

As Dr Hout­man points out, course­books will effec­tively be reviewed by more peers and for longer in its life­time than more than most research papers. Also, unlike papers again, course­books will likely be cri­tiqued and reviewed by stu­dents and the public too (but in a manner dif­fer­ent from most sci­en­tists’ reviews).

Although my intended audi­ence are sixth form stu­dents, I have ensured that they are intro­duced to ideas they will encounter in higher stud­ies too, and not merely ver­bally. This means, unlike older vol­umes of books from the Insti­tute tar­get­ing stu­dents, my two vol­umes do not treat cal­cu­lus as optional. There is some hand-hold­ing but no spoon-feed­ing, although, by the end of every chap­ter the learn­ing becomes more inde­pen­dent. I also man­aged to add in some exter­nal ref­er­ences for stu­dents and teach­ers inter­ested in fur­ther read­ing because, just as there will be stu­dents who find the book hard to cover, there will be those who cover it with ease and may look for more read­ing mate­ri­als.

All-in-all, per­haps this has been the only thing I have con­stantly looked for­ward to work­ing on every­day besides my research; and I was right in my think­ing the day I was first con­tacted by the Insti­tute: this is excit­ing work. But it calls for more thought than I had ever expected and I like that too because it makes my work that much more mean­ing­ful for me and that is some­thing I value greatly. Also, taking a moment like this to put my thoughts into words has been some­what encour­ag­ing (not that I have ever had any short­age of that). And if you will excuse me now, I have a course­book to write.

  1. All sci­en­tists are stu­dents, but not in the class­room sense, which is an entirely dif­fer­ent thing from the con­stant self-​teach­ing that most of us in acad­e­mia are wont to do.

  2. This is funny to some extent: schools rarely intro­duce arith­metic to young kids by call­ing it arith­metic, like­wise with alge­bra. They are both is intro­duced as part of math­e­mat­ics rather than as some com­plex tech­nique sup­pos­edly impor­tant in the grand scheme of things. Cal­cu­lus, on the other hand, walks onto the stage with an aura of tough­ness and com­plex­ity most people cannot under­stand. This is silly. It has, all through his­tory, worked against cal­cu­lus and left us with stu­dents who never could wrap their head around it because they were told it was dif­fi­cult. And this is also why most non-​sci­en­tists end up crit­i­cis­ing higher level maths and physics as some­thing they do not need in their daily lives: when one never learns to appre­ci­ate the nuances of cal­cu­lus or trigonom­e­try, they will never realise how often they can poten­tially make use of it to gain a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on sit­u­a­tions.

  3. That last point felt non­sen­si­cal even to describe.

  4. There are excep­tions to this: some books are clearly devoid of effort and orig­i­nal­ity while others were writ­ten by ghost writ­ers. These are both little more than dis­graces and we should all prob­a­bly agree to never speak of them again.

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