Posted by: brian | September 6, 2007

Irrelevant and obfuscatory

If I ever write a text book, I’m going to try really hard to make it actually useful. And provide relevant content. And make sure it’s clear – or at least reasonably so.

Within the first 3 days of classes, I’ve been frustrated by both of my textbooks.

In one of them, the author(s) is/are discussing the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning, we’re told, is informally called “top-down” – it starts at the higher level of theory and works down to details and observations. Induction, in contrast, works from specific observations up to general theories. For this reason, it is sometimes called a “bottom-up” approach to research. Then we get this little gem, inserted parenthetically:

(Please note that it’s bottom up and not bottoms up, which is the kind of thing the bartender says to customers when he’s trying to close for the night!)

Yes, they include an exclamation point, presumably to emphasize the importance of this clarification between the two phrases. And thank goodness for that, because if I’m in a discussion with someone and they mention inductive reasoning, I don’t want to embarrass myself by looking around for a glass or bottle to drain before grabbing my coat, slapping a fiver on the counter, and dashing out the door! Not only was the information irrelevant, but it completely derailed my train of thought. Now every time I see an opening parenthesis, I don’t know if I should be paying attention or not.

In my GIS textbook, the first sentence of the first chapter is:

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are also commonly known as Geographical Information Systems outside North America.

I had to read it four times to figure out what they hell they were telling me. I wrote technical documentation for 5 years, and I’m pretty sure that sentence would never have made it past my reviewers (and they weren’t writers).

Obviously, expertise in a field of study does not translate into an ability to communicate one’s expertise. Sadly, it seems that most textbooks are chosen by others who, while experts in that field, frequently share that lack of understanding good communication. I guess it’s the college textbook version of the circle of life.

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Responses

  1. Oh, I HATE it when textbook writers try to make with the funny. A light tone? Sure, if it works with the topic! But don’t give me mental whiplash, esp since the humor often doesn’t make it all the way through. If I can remember any examples I’ll pass them along….

  2. I didn’t mention that that author also pointed out how confusing it is to go to an airport: “do I go to arrivals because I’m arriving at the airport or does the person I’m picking up go to arrivals because they’re arriving on the plane?”

    Also, exclamation points make textbooks better! Apparently!

  3. Now that I think about it, another reason that particular sentence wouldn’t have gotten past my reviewers at 1BM is that it has nothing to do with IBM WebSphere Application Server for iSeries e(swoosh-logo)server(TM).


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