TITLE: The Prospect of Writing a Textbook
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: December 16, 2006 2:25 PM
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is
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
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" --
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.
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