Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What's in a Name?

Every instructor office in my building has one wall of bookshelves.  The full professors have exterior wall offices, so they have a window in the middle of their bookshelves, but they still have them.  For the most part, the shelves are too short for the average book to stand upright, the shelves having been built in the forties and books getting progressively larger dimensionally if not in scope of subject.  Nevertheless, in any given office, the shelves will be crammed with books, papers, and binders.  I have a shelf reserved for food and a shelf with two sets of stacked in/outbox trays to aid the organization of papers, but I too have stacks of books for the courses I take and the courses I teach. 

When I came back to school, I returned as a full-time instructor, taking a class here and there to make sure that I was still capable of doing the math before I plunged into the program as a full-time student.  Thus, I began my new career sharing an office with another full-time instructor.  My department tends to couple the teachers in that position - they all have masters in math or math ed but not PhDs.  So, they don't get an office to themselves.  The department does the same thing with grad students once they've completed 18 hours of grad classes.  Since my office mate and I get along so well and often work together on classes we teach, no one ever suggested moving me out when I switched from full-time instructor to full-time student.  This means that the other bookshelves in our office get crammed full of new textbooks publishers send out to entice us away from our current publisher.  Nothing interesting at all about that.

But in the offices occupied by graduate students, the most interesting books can be found.  This is because departing grad students often leave behind textbooks that they used or found.  The student assigned to an office inherits those books and sometimes leaves behind books of his/her own.  In this way, a grad student's office often contains textbooks ranging in age and subject. 

Case in point, L's office.  He and his office mate inherited a small zen sand garden and a wide variety of relatively ancient textbooks.  One afternoon, while killing time until the algebra seminar began, L and I sat in his office, and while he played online games, I read the titles of the old textbooks.  Baby, they don't name 'em like they used to.  Here are my favorites:

Intuitive Calculus  (There are few people, even mathematicians, for whom Calculus is innately intuitive.)
Brief Calculus  (The most ironic book because it was one of the largest and thickest on the shelf.)
Mathematics: A Practical Odyssey  (It sounds pretentious and adventurous all at once.)

It made me wonder: if the authors of scholastic books fretted and worried over picking a title the same way a fiction author does (myself included), more people might be drawn to mathematics.  Wouldn't you rather read Algebra: The Safari for Solutions than Algebra and Its Applications?  No?  Well, I guess there really is no hope then, is there?

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