Saturday, March 29, 2014

Set It Free

When I was a Project NExT Fellow back in 1999, one of the hottest discussion topics was calculus reform. In a session on the topic at one of our conference gatherings, I listened to a talk by Len Van Wyk titled something like “To Reform or Not To Reform: and why it doesn’t matter.” His thesis was that when we teach a course, each of us brings to bear resources far beyond the text. If I pick a traditional text whose primary focus is rigor and detail, I’m almost certain to supplement it with intuition and perspective; if I pick a reform text whose emphasis is on intuition, I’ll likely complement the text’s exposition with some additional discussion of rigor or formality.

Regardless of one’s take on calculus reform or how the landscape of teaching has changed since 1999, I take the following broad lesson from Len’s talk: for most courses I teach, the textbook plays a secondary role in what I plan to accomplish in the course. From that point of view, I have come to feel that $150 is way, way too much for a student to pay for a calculus text, particularly if it is being used largely as a source of problems. That observation applies not just to calculus: much of mathematics fits this description. Further, I assert that calculus is well-understood and largely agreed upon as a body of knowledge by the mathematical community, and has been for a long time. Viewing calculus as the property of the mathematical community – and indeed, humankind – collectively leads me to want to find ways to share the subject with others at the lowest cost possible.

Today, an electronic text is the obvious medium for freely sharing with humanity, and the internet is the natural vehicle. Moreover, an e-text is great for a projector in class, students on laptops (searchable, always with them), live links to java applets, and markup on iPads and tablet PCs. The combination of the internet and modern computing technology have prompted new questions for the communication of ideas, and new possibilities for those of us interested in sharing them. Are traditional print textbooks even really necessary?

Having now written a free, open-source, primarily electronic textbook, I’d like to encourage others to do so. Here are some key questions that merit asking before undertaking such a large project:

  • Why do I want to write a textbook?
  • Writing a book is a big endeavor. Is your book needed? Will it be worthwhile to you? to others?
  • What are the features of your proposed text that no other (for-profit) text has?
  • How do you want students to use your text? How will what you write shape students' experience?
  • Will writing a free, open text be something you can take satisfaction from, independent of (or in the absence of) royalties?
  • Will the project be something you can be committed to for many years to come?
Of course, if you do join this movement, be sure to seek counsel from others with experience. Reading this blog is a great way to begin; I know from my own experience that other contributors here are happy to correspond by email and at conferences and to share insights and offer support.

Early in my career at Grand Valley, I had an annual performance review meeting with my then-chair, Phil Pratt. Phil was the author of a series of widely-used computer science texts, and in the meeting, I alluded to my desire to write a textbook someday. Phil encouraged me, and said he had one piece of advice: “Don’t have zero days.” When I looked a bit quizzically at him, he clarified: “Be sure that you do something for the book every single day.” Since that time, I’ve heard another highly successful textbook author say something similar: “I try to write 2 pages a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year.” Remarkably, a person who achieves that writes 500 pages a year.

From my experience in now writing two texts, here are a few thoughts on things to strive for:
  • Have a written overall plan: outline, timetable, attainable goals.
  • Think about your audience. Write for students, not your peers.
  • Appearance matters. Research and develop a visual style that is professional but not unnecessarily flashy or complicated.
  • Use standard LaTeX. Make it easy for others to use and edit. You want to be able to give the source code away. Be sure to read David Farmer’s post on this site and Rob Beezer’s, too: if you do your .tex right, your book will have an incredible number of potential outlets in terms of electronic format.
  • Think about how to use LaTeX’s href package in a meaningful way.
  • Have a plan for high quality figures. They contribute in major ways to your text’s visual appearance and to the effectiveness of your communication.
  • Organize your files carefully and intentionally. Investigate how you'll share your source with others. See some good counsel elsewhere on this blog.
  • Make key decisions about licensing, such as the Creative Commons. Think about how you'll allow and encourage others to contribute.

My impression is that most textbooks grow out of a base set of notes/activities/ideas that the author(s) have personnally class-tested with success. If you aspire to write a book, but don’t have such a foundational set of materials, consider starting there. Student feedback matters. Your peers’ feedback matters, too, even (perhaps especially) if you’re planning to make your work freely available. When you have a 2-3 dozen pages written on your project, seek some serious editorial feedback. Not just your friends; see what your professional critics think. Think about what a professional editor would say. Being conversational and informal is different from being sarcastic or trying to tell jokes within your text.

Early on edit, edit, edit. It will be good preparation for what is to come. And it will make your work much better: hard writing makes for good reading. In every way, work to have consistent style. Line up some alpha testers, as having multiple users and reviewers will significantly improve your work. Perhaps you have some colleagues who want to join you in the writing itself; one of the great things about a free, open project is that you can take on collaborators easily, and integrate the contributions of others. Throughout, the more you can communicate with others with experience and interest, the more opportunities you’ll have to improve, publicize, and promote your text.

Writing Active Calculus has proved to be the most rewarding writing experience of my professional career. I hope that others will continue to join in this movement and to make contributions to the betterment of mathematics textbooks, teaching, and learning through the marvelous resources being promoted on this site and elsewhere.

Matt Boelkins
Grand Valley State University

Monday, March 17, 2014

What should go at the "front" of a "book" on the web?

Where is the first place you turn to when you open a physical textbook?  Table of Contents?  What is the first thing you read?  The Preface?  Chapter 1?

What is the first thing you want to see when you connect with a textbook in your web browser?  The first time, the one-thousandth time?

This is just one of the many things David Farmer and I have been grappling with where the physical world of books offers little guidance.  We don't have any clear answers.  (Though for a research article, the answer is easier - title and author, then the abstract).  Ideas, desires and advice are welcome, since we will be acting on it.

There is a typical blank slate at  What would you fill it with?
  1. Preface
  2. Table of Contents (presumably navigation is already present)
  3. Huge graphic that looks like a book cover
  4. Copyright, license, ISBN, URL, Dedication, Contact info,...
  5. Nothing
  6. Chapter 1
  7. Something else

And a related question:  what do you like to put in the "front of the book"?  Preface, Prologue, Acknowledgments, Table of Contents, "copyright" page (w/
ISBN, etc), ...  What else?

Rob Beezer
University of Puget Sound

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

GIT and social coding for open math books

In this essay I want to argue that the open source math book community should move en masse to GitHub. For proof of concept, I’ve taken the liberty of creating a GitHub “organization” at

I think that GitHub can help us achieve many of the goals that have been expressed by other authors in recent blog posts here. Jim Hefferon has suggested that we have something akin to CTAN -- GitHub would let us achieve that without incurring any expenses (actual dollars for paying for servers, or time spent developing hosting software and maintaining the site). David Farmer has suggested that the community should adopt a standard for “meaningful math markup” and in a separate post he suggested developing a standard for the numbering of theorems, lemmas et cetera -- such standards, along with software tools for helping authors to make use of them could become community endorsed projects on GitHub.

I’d like to issue two disclaimers. One is that, even though I keep beating the GitHub drum, I have no financial interest in the company. The other is that I am still a Git neophyte. I decided to host my book, A Gentle Introduction to the Art of Mathematics, at GitHub last autumn. I had made the decision to offer multiple versions of the book and keeping everything organized seemed like a daunting task. I had been introduced to Git and GitHub at an MAA Prep workshop on WeBWorK back in July, and it seemed to fit the bill for my needs. I’ve found that using a Git repository for the source code of my project simplifies my life tremendously.

A little background information:

There are two similarly named entities under discussion, Git and GitHub. Git is a revision control system written by Linus Torvalds. If you’ve used RCS or CVS or SVN, you’ll have the general idea. The system allows a group of people to work simultaneously on the code for some software project and it automatically integrates the changes. Very rarely, there can be a so-called “collision” in which incompatible changes are made to the same lines within a source file, but for the most part the merging of various contributor’s work gets done automagically.

GitHub is a hosting service. It is operated by a company whose business model includes offering their service for free to open-source projects. This seems appropriate as the backbone of their system is the (open-source) Git software. But GitHub does much more than merely hosting source code repositories, a user and/or organization can have blogs and wikis, there is a nice system for tracking bugs and issues.

Many well-regarded projects are currently hosted at GitHub:
  1. The community-driven taco repository (okay, so this one may not be that well-regarded, but it is delicious!)


It is free for open-source projects.

No need to “reinvent the wheel.”

Each Git repository that someone downloads is a full backup of the project. Thus the data is very reliably backed up in a distributed sense -- a very different scenario from what would have happened a short time ago had the linux box in the back of my office gone pffftt!

Having lots of projects available from a central source will give prospective authors a boost by providing examples of best practice.


What if the company goes belly up? (I deem this rather unlikely.)

Only viable for open source projects -- some notable math books are free but not open.

A full revision control system may be overkill during the early stages of a project.


“Authorship” may become a somewhat nebulous term. The normal model in open source programming may not be quite right when it comes to books, and academics need be cautious about getting appropriate credit for their work when it comes to P&T.

A balance would need to be maintained between the open, inclusive, “big tent” approach and the desire to be a bit more restrictive. Personally, I’d lean towards the experimentalist side of things and rely on other organizations (e.g. AIM) to provide an imprimatur indicating the projects that are more fully baked.

To date, I don’t think any open source math book has taken full advantage of the social coding paradigm. This may be largely due to the “Authorship” issue above. I’d like to see some truly collaborative project gets going and I think that GitHub is currently the best place to do that.

A final word.

Last Spring I dealt with a nightmare scenario when my university transferred control of its web servers from the IT department to Public Affairs. My personal site was deleted and it took several months to get it reinstated. During the interim, I created a Google site and informed those adopters, that I knew of, of the situation. I would have been a much happier person if I had been working in a manner that wasn’t dependent on infrastructure that wasn’t under my control! GitHub may not be entirely under my control either, but hosting projects is their core business. Possibly I’m becoming too cynical, but it seems to me that the core business of most university websites is appearing attractive to high school seniors...

Joe Fields

Thursday, March 6, 2014

An Archive for Open Math Projects

As part of my talk in the JMM Baltimore session I raised the possibility of a central site for connecting Open Math initiatives. I'd like to expand on that.

I worked for a time on the Comprehensive $\TeX$ Archive Network (CTAN). If you write $\TeX$-related software that you want to offer to the community, then you send it to CTAN where users can find it and where the standard distributions MiKTeX and TeX Live (as well as commercial vendors) can also find it. I saw there the advantage of having an authoritative single source — think of the waste if every $\LaTeX$ user had to do their own search for the latest version of the package that makes hyperlinks.

There are sites that offer lists of open math books (the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) comes to mind but there are others such as the Open Textbook Library). These sites are great but have limitations. For instance, AIM requires that a work has been used by someone other than an author, which rules out some in-progress projects. Other sites are restricted to one subfield or another, or are simply restricted to what the site's owner has run across. I'd like to see a comprehensive archive with a mission of helping the community, including helping it grow.

Some Advantages

  • One stop shopping for users: Instructors and students alike can easily see the choices. This also includes one-stop shopping for aggregators.
  • People could search by topic, level, license, etc.
  • Opens the possibility of offering and collecting reviews, keeping a count of adoptions, as well as allowing upvotes and comments.
  • Gives new initiatives the chance to get noticed. Established projects appear on the top of search engine results, naturally. New works could use a boost.
  • Offers authoritative versions. I have a text that has been online since 1996-ish and when a person enters my information into a search engine, years-old versions are prominent.
  • Links to other resources, such as mailing lists or events. For instance, the site could have been used to announce the Baltimore session on open-source texts.
A few words about technicalities. Such a site could point to the material, but does not have to hold that material. For instance, if a project is hosted on GitHub, then an archive could just point to the repository rather than taking on the technical burden of running a repository on its own. Indeed, this seems to me to be the technically correct approach, since holding the material in two places can be a problem.

As I mentioned, I have some experience in this area. The network traffic is not that great. When I ran the CTAN site there was traffic (particularly in late August), but it was not a major issue.

In addition there are now software systems well-adapted to writing such sites. I like Django (free, open-source), but there are a number of others. Such systems reduce the burden of development.

Such a site would be, I would think, a boost to the community. But in some ways the technicalities are not the hard part — the hard part is getting people to adopt the site. I wonder; are folks interested?

Jim Hefferon
Saint Michael's College

Monday, March 3, 2014

Trench Texts Find an On-line Home and Are Now Open-Source!

What follows is a (lightly edited by me) announcement from Bill Trench about some free (and now) open-source texts.  What's really exciting here is that not only has Bill found a place to distribute his texts on-line (through his own institution's repository), but that he has made the $\LaTeX$ source available under a Creative Commons license!  Thank you Bill for this tremendous gift to the open-source textbook community.

Effective March 1, 2014, DigitalCommons@Trinity is the primary download source for:
  1. ELEMENTARY DIFFERENTIAL EQUATIONS, previously published by Brooks/Cole Thomson Learning, 2000,
  2. ELEMENTARY DIFFERENTIAL EQUATIONS WITH BOUNDARY VALUE PROBLEMS,, previously published by Brooks/Cole Thomson Learning, 2000,
  3. INTRODUCTION TO REAL ANALYSIS, previously published by Pearson Education, 2003,
  4. FUNCTIONS DEFINED BY IMPROPER INTEGRALS, previously published by Harper & Row, 1978,
  5. THE METHOD OF LAGRANGE MULTIPLIERS, previously published by Harper & Row, 1978.
The $\LaTeX$ source code and graphics files for Items 1 and 2 are in a zipfile posted on and, which also includes the includes the $\LaTeX$ source code for Item 6.

The $\LaTeX$ source and graphics files for Items 3-6 are in a zipfile posted on

Items 1-6 have been judged to meet the evaluation criteria set by the Editorial Board of the American Institute of Mathematics in connection with the Institute's Open Textbook Initiative

They may be copied, modified, redistributed, translated, and built upon subject to the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Instructor's solutions manuals are available on request to the author, subject to verification of faculty status. They are not licensed under Creative Commons and may not be reproduced, modified, or circulated without my written permission.

I thank Professor Jane Costanza, Head of Discovery Services, Trinity University, for including my work on DigitalCommons@Trinity. I also thank my Trinity University colleagues-at-a-distance Ryan Daileda and Peter Oloffson for their encouragement and consistent support. In particular, Professor Daileda created my personal webpage in March 2009 and has generously donated his time to maintain it since then. My contribution to the cause of free and open textbooks would have been impossible without his help.

Please forward this message to colleagues, friends, and students who may be interested.

William F. Trench
Andrew G. Cowles Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Mathematics Department
Trinity University
San Antonio, Texas, USA