Thursday, April 5, 2012

Day 5: Pobject's textbook

I handed out nametags to all of my students on the first day of class. They were baby blue and pre-lettered with the words “HELLO / my name is,” offering below this a big blank white space where the wearer would put her name. Several nametags still spangle the front cover of my desk copy of the text I used for that course, alternatively ascribing ownership to “Al Gebra,” “G. Amatri,” and “Cal Q. Luss.”

We graduate students had no say in textbook adoption, a decision made at the department level. We were stuck using the fourth edition of James Stewart’s canonical Calculus, a brick of a book whose later incarnations have become the guy to beat (or at least repeat) among calculus texts. I was happy with the book at the time. I’d yet to develop my rich loathing for math textbooks in general (and calculus texts in particular), and it came with colorful graphics, oodles of examples, and shit-tons of exercises. What more could a first-time teacher need as he set to planning his course?

The bloom fell off the rose. The insubstantial tweaks Stewart makes from one edition to the next are nose-thumbings at the very notion of revision, and given the cost of college today it’s hard to justify the ever-rising cover price. Worse still, the book exemplifies the full-throttle race to “cover” content that too many of my colleagues try to run: books like Stewart’s offer the seduction that all a student ever needs to know can be written out in 1300 pages or so.

But the book still brings back happy memories. It’s a reminder of an age of academic innocence, a time before I got involved in bitter debates over campus-wide curricular overhaul, before I knew about the Delaware Study, before I could tell you what a “memorandum of understanding” is. Back then my most difficult challenge was trying to help my students see why the Product Rule just. Makes. Sense.

Those were good days. Now I let my mind drift back to the glass-walled classroom at the far south end of Stevenson Center. There, on that August night before my first day of class, I stood and soaked in the scene. “Soon there will be learning here,” I thought, breezily. The room was as still as an empty cenacle. The air was electric: there was wonder there, and potential, both as dense as the bold black markings on every page of Stewart’s book.

I’ve taught Calc I well over a dozen times now, and though it never fails to be fresh in some way, the innocence of that first time is irretrievable.

Were we ever so young?

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