TITLE: The Prospect of Writing a Textbook AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 16, 2006 2:25 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is
a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and
then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last
phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to
your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out
to the public.

-- Winston Churchill

So maybe I think of myself as a writer, at least part of the time. Why haven't I written a book -- especially a textbook -- yet? My wife often asks when my book will be ready. She would like to see all the work I've done, both solo and with my many friends and colleagues, to be more visible in the world. My parents asks occasionally, too, as do some other colleagues. For many folks, a book is "the" way to make one's ideas usable by others. Papers, conference presentations, and a blog aren't enough. To be fair my wife and many others who ask, I have been working for several years with colleagues on new ways to think about teaching first-year CS courses, motivated by real problems and pattern languages. We have progressed in spurts and sputters, as we learn more about what we are trying to do and as we try to make time to do the hard work of developing something new. I have learned a lot from this collaboration, but we haven't produced a book yet. I suppose that I just haven't found the project that makes me write a book yet. A book project requires a huge amount of work, and I suppose that I need to really want to write a book to take on the yoke. Other than my doctoral dissertation ("Conceptual Retrieval from Case Memory Based on Problem-Solving Roles") and several long-ish papers such as a master's thesis ("Temporal Logic and its Use in the Symbolic Verification of Hardware" -- written in nroff, no less!), I have never written a large work. But I occasionally sense what it must be like to write a textbook, a monograph, or even a novel. When I am at my most productive producing ideas and words, I see common triggers and common threads that tie ideas together across time and topic. When I am blogging, these connections manifest themselves as links to past entries and to other work I've done. (Due to the nature of blogging, these links are always backwards, even though my notes often remind me to foreshadow something I intend to write about later and then to link back to the current piece.) However, I know that when I have blogged on a topic I've only done the easy part. Even when I take the time to turn a stream-of-consciousness idea into a reasonably thoughtful piece for my blog, the hard work would come next: honing the words, creating a larger, coherent whole, making something that communicates a larger set of ideas to a reader who wants more than to drop occasionally into a blog to hear about a new idea. I don't think I fear this work, though I do have a healthy respect for it; I just haven't found the One Thing that makes me think the payoff would be worth the hard work. The closest thing to a textbook that I have written are the lecture notes for my Programming Languages course. They are relatively complete and have been class-tested over several years. But these are largely a derivative work, drawing heavily on the text Essentials of Programming Languages and less heavily on a dozen other sources and inspiration. Over time, they have evolved away from dependence on those sources, but I still feel that my notes are more repackaging than original work. Furthermore, while I like these notes very much, I don't think there is a commercial market that justifies turning them into a real textbook, with end-of-the-chapter summaries and exercises and all that. They serve there purpose quite well -- at least well enough -- and that's enough for me. What about the personal and university identity to be gained by writing a text? Reader Mike Holmes pointed me to a passage on the admissions web site of one of our sister institutions that their "professors actually write the textbooks they and professors at other colleges use". That's a strong marketing point for a school. My university likes to distinguish itself from many larger universities by the fact that our tenured faculty are the ones teaching the classes your students will take; how much better if those professors had written the text! Well, as Mike points out, many of us have had courses with author-professors who were average or worse in the classroom. And if a textbook has few or no external adoptions -- as so, so many CS texts do -- then the students at Author's U. would probably have been better off had the author devoted her textbook-polishing efforts to improving the course. Maybe this is all just a rationalization of my lack of ambition or creative depth. But I don't think so. I think I'll know when a book I'm meant to write comes along. Could my work on this blog eventually lead to a book? Another reader once suggested as much. Perhaps. It is certainly good to have an outlet for my ideas, a place where they go from abstractions to prose that might be valuable to someone. The blog is also an encouragement to write regularly, which should help me become a better writer if nothing else. Then, if a book I'm meant to write comes along, I should be prepared to write it. -----