Professors at GVSU write, co-edit textbooks

Megan Webster

Textbooks are a necessary part of college. They are the foundation of any course, serving as a guide for the professors in their lectures and giving students constant access to a primary resource for their classes.

At Grand Valley State University, there are multiple professors who have either written or co-edited textbooks of all levels and subjects. Matthew Boelkins, a mathematics professor, co-wrote a calculus textbook called “Active Calculus,” which is used in mathematics 201 and 202, with fellow GVSU mathematics colleagues David Austin and Steve Schlicker.

Boelkins said there were two main reasons why he decided to embark on this project: engagement and price for students.

“There was not an existing calculus text that focused on engaging students actively in learning the material, and almost every other existing calculus text was ridiculously expensive,” Boelkins said. “I thought that there was an opportunity to provide a new perspective through the text and saw a way to do it in a free or low-cost way for students.”

Boelkins said the path toward a textbook actually began without him knowing it. He was creating documents in his classes, and after a sabbatical, the project gained a foothold and was finished within a year with the help of co-writers.

“I was doing preliminary work on the textbook by writing activities and notes for my students to use in class,” Boelkins said. “In the winter semester of 2012, Grand Valley supported me with a sabbatical, and during that four-month period, I wrote the first four chapters of the eight chapters in the single variable version of ‘Active Calculus.’ In the summer and fall of 2012, I wrote two additional chapters, and David Austin and Steve Schlicker each wrote an additional chapter to result in the current eight.”

The process of writing a book, Boelkins explained, is not an easy task. He said there was always something to be done that could make the textbook better. Whether it was in the writing, revising or formatting, there was always something to be done that could make the textbook more effective for calculus students.

“The current print version is about 550 pages, and someone has to not only type all the words but also generate graphics, write exercises and format the text nicely,” Boelkins said. “Once the textbook is shared publicly, there is still a lot of work to do: I regularly correct errors, revise earlier work and consider ideas for how the book can be better.”

Boelkins made sure to mention that despite all of the hard work, the textbook was a lot of fun to create.

“While the writing and editing processes are consuming, they are also fun,” Boelkins said. “I enjoy the process of trying to communicate mathematics in a way that is both accessible and engaging to students.”

Charles Lowe, an associate professor of writing at GVSU and co-editor of “Writing Spaces,” said he began the project of a textbook because it made sense for faculty to create textbooks, not companies.

“It always made more sense to me that we should think about faculty members being involved in creating textbooks,” Lowe said.

The process for writing a textbook can be different depending on the subject being written about and the direction the textbook is meant to go in. Lowe said “Writing Spaces,” which is used in first-year writing classes, was a project that required a process similar to an academic collection of essays due to the overall goal desired for the textbook.

“The process is very similar to, with the type of book we did, to an academic collection of essays where you put out a call for participation and people submit proposals,” Lowe said. “Then, we review proposals, then once they submit texts, we have people help peer review them and help refine them.”

Once a textbook has been edited and published, the work isn’t over. Boelkins said in the case of his calculus textbook, there are always ways to make it better, more interactive and more accessible to students in different formats. The motivation to keep going lies in the goal of supportive learning.

“The book has experienced quite a bit of positive feedback from users at other institutions, and I look forward to a hopefully long future of supporting the learning of others as they study calculus,” Boelkins said.