Monday, September 05, 2016

Text books shall have a few tock-ticks before many tick-tocks

‘Every judgment I write is a lie’ – Justice Albie Sachs, Constitutional Court, South Africa
How is that for the opening of a course to students of a university? That must have got the students to sit in attention!
I take that as the starting point for this short post of mine, on an altogether different subject – about text books.
What Sachs wanted to convey was that his judgments “did not emerge from the dispassionate placing of logical propositions in rationally ordained sequence.” To soothe students’ nerves, he clarified: “Every judgement I write tells a lie against itself,” implying that the judgment imposes order that was never even espied when it was in the making.
I teach certain subjects in the field of civil/structural engineering to undergraduate and higher level students. I find it funny that “text books” are prescribed along with the syllabus for each of the courses I teach.
Syllabus, OK, but text books? I am not so sure. Of course, to make things far less comfortable, there is also a potentially (dis)comforting list of “Learning Outcomes”, thanks to the measurement-freaks, management-types pushing education into the strait-jackets of “measurable metrics” for assessment. But, that is a different story.
Getting to text books (at least the ones prescribed for the students in the institution I am serving) are highly synchronized to the finished writing of Sachs, the final judgment in a case.
The judgment “told a story in such an orderly, clear, sequential narrative form... There would be simple forward progression – tick-tock.”
I will take the readers through a short stretch of the subject I teach – Structural Analysis; to put simply, why a structure stands and how to make one stand. The books are just like the judgment Sachs mentions. One comes before two, comes before three and erelong we are at the end. At the start of a chapter, the method is mentioned, mostly by name and not much more, and we are quickly into tick-tock – eqn. 1, 2a, 2b, 3, 4... QED.
One cannot even smell the history of the method. Oh, you say, history is for sissies. No.
In the subject under reference, each step has been a painstaking construction what precedes – think of Newton standing on the shoulders of giants who came before – true here as it is in physics. This flavour is missing in text books.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not want history stinking up a technical text book. Not at all. What I want is a whiff, just a whiff. A paragraph or two of why arches were the desired form of spanning an opening in the olden days (people did not know how to handle tension; so they sent the load down by compression); how slowly but steadily approximations in the design process are being whittled down, where they started and where they are now (think of Slope-deflection method and matrix analysis); how a particular topic came to be applied in fields, if not disparate, at least quite removed from the ones in which it made its mark (Finite Element Method from aerospace into civil engineering structures); think of the many different ways in which heat was conceived, even as a fluid before we got down a more consistent conception! So on.
There is a danger, of course. We have a very structured question paper – this many short questions (2 marks), this many 15 mark questions, this many 20 marks etc. So, imagine a text book that has a short paragraph at the beginning of a chapter that does what I have asked of it – set out the context of the topic. That is manna from heaven for our teachers who set question papers. A simple, “State how this came about.” The student has to merely regurgitate that first paragraph. Tut, tut ...
But, you cannot suggest that the opening paragraph cannot be part of the subject matter for tests/exams. Then, why have it at all? After all, over a 500 page long textbook, the publisher would have had to add say 15-20 pages because of this history/context stuff. There is no return on these pages, for the publisher, the teacher and indeed for the students also! Does not make business sense!
Here it is – the way to make business sense of history. Teachers have to invest in (study more than the prescribed “text books”, for example) first learning the historical context of the development of the field, and second, translating what they have learned into meaningful questions that set no store by rote learning, even in history!
Let us go back to Sachs and his judgments. It is not for want of tangible returns that can be put in an MS Excel sheet, he avoided the many tock-tick-tocks that his judgment clock must have made. Rather, he was duty bound to give the judgment as tick-tock.
Yes, our text books should also give a similar tick-tock narrative. But, having an initial few tock-ticks would boost the legitimacy of the latter many tick-tocks.
Raghuram Ekambaram



Gopal Adhikari said...

You wrote my heart out. I like reading your blogs.
I can remember a course on concrete design which I attended in 2009. Prof Collins from Univ of Toronto delivered a month course at Rose School. By that time, I spent almost 12 years dealing with concrete structures. So I was quite complacent that I know everything about concrete structure. When I completed that course, I realised I learnt structural design not concrete design only. There were no powerpoint slides, only chalk and talk. No spreadsheets, only hand calculations. The course was focused on learning the behaviour of the structure rather than mastering some code-prescribed equations. Historical development of current days design equations. In a sentence, he changed my perspective on structural design as a whole. He widens my horizon.
in our brief encounters in Delhi, I realised you are Collins type of professor, the rarest of the rare nowadays. I think you should have joined the teaching profession long time ago.
best wishes.

mandakolathur said...

Thanks Gopal for such unstinting appreciation ... I tend to write what I feel first and hoe that feeling directs my thinking.

Thanks again.