Gas station without pumps

2019 February 15

Why do I write?

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:56
Tags: ,

O Why Do You Write? Charles French asks

I have a question for all you out  there who write, and that includes writers of books, poetry, plays, nonfiction, and blogs. If I left out any kind of writing, you are included also.

Why do you write?

I wrote my textbook Applied Analog Electronics because I was creating a course for which I could find no suitable textbook. I wanted a college-level introduction to electronics that was focused on designing things, not on applied math. I don’t have an objection to math (there is plenty in my textbook), but I wanted it to be there to solve a particular design problem, not just with sterile exercises. The central theme of the book had to be iterative engineering with design, construction, and debugging of interesting circuits, with almost everything else as support for that activity.

All I could find on the market either delayed design until the third or fourth course (which seems to be the standard approach in EE departments) or was very hand-holding—telling students exactly what to wire and leaving no electronics design to the students.

When I started the book writing, I already had a fairly thorough set of lab handouts and felt that the book would be a simple rewrite with a bit of additional material. Boy, was I wrong!

The book has taken over much of my life (when I’m not teaching the course from it or grading student work) for the past few years. I had a “finished” draft at the beginning of January, but students in my class have pointed out about 170 problems with it, and they are only halfway through the book. A lot of the problems were tiny copy-editing things (commas, spaces, spelling errors), but some were substantive. I have about 50 to-do notes accumulated for me to work on this summer.

I think that this year’s students have been motivated to find errors by the token amount I pay for each error found (25¢) and by the “leaderboard” on Piazza, where I keep track of what I owe each student. To encourage more feedback, I try to be generous in allocating the quarters—something doesn’t have to be a real mistake, if I agree that the wording can be improved or something needs to be rewritten for clarity or completeness.  Students can ask questions about something they don’t understand, and if that triggers a specific idea for a change to the book, I give credit for that also.  (Having question-triggered corrections means that even students at the bottom of the class can get credit for book corrections.)

The question of why I write on this blog is a harder one.  Sometimes I am trying to share something I learned, sometimes I’m asking for help finding a solution to a problem, sometimes I’m motivating myself by making something public (like my weight and exercise records), sometimes I’m just thinking out loud (like many of my posts about the design of my course).  I’d like to say that I blog for the social connections, but so few people respond to my posts that I can’t really pretend even to myself that I am having a conversation.

I think that a few of my posts have been valued (at least Google thinks enough of them for people to come to them with searches), so I have some incentive to keep on writing.


  1. Years ago, I wrote a book, Technology Challenged, while developing a short curriculum, both on technological literacy. I was delighted to find that whenever I had a mental block on one, refocusing on the other broke it.

    Chapters mapped to lessons, and whenever I lost track of what I should teach in a lesson, the chapter gave me inspiring concepts to teach. Whenever I got lost in a chapter, lessons reminded me to address the practical and teachable. I’ve forgotten much of the detail, but not the synergy.

    Do you find that positive interaction between your book and your class?

    Comment by Miguel F. Aznar — 2019 February 15 @ 21:13 | Reply

    • The book writing is almost entirely driven by what happens in class and lab, but they can’t really happen in the same week, as teaching the course is more than a full-time job. I have just finished grading today’s quiz, I still have about 10 hours grading to do on the previous lab, and another 40-hour grading load is due at midnight tonight. Anything bigger than a typo fix or a minor rewording to a sentence will have to wait until the summer.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2019 February 15 @ 22:16 | Reply

  2. Well,
    we are having a conversation,
    of sorts,
    since I responded,
    Social connections are overrated.
    You think,
    therefore you are.
    And you think unusually well.
    I think it is most admirable that you seek connection with people,
    who might not even understand what you are doing,
    like me.
    I like everything about you are doing in this post.
    End of conversation.

    Comment by cindy knoke — 2019 February 15 @ 22:17 | Reply

  3. Sorry, missed the what in the second to last line, making it unintelligible.

    Comment by cindy knoke — 2019 February 15 @ 22:23 | Reply

    • I had no trouble figuring out what you were trying to say. Compared to figuring out the 10-page (or longer) papers my students write, often with no grasp of the fundamental vocabulary or English grammar, one missing word is a cinch.

      I’m glad you commented, and Miguel also! That makes two new commenters today! I was surprised the Miguel came up as a new commenter needing approval, as I have talked with him often IRL.

      I am by profession a teacher and I find it hard to keep talking with no response from the class—my best classes are ones in which students ask me a lot of questions, so that I can try to understand where they are confused and provide help where they most need it. Similarly on the blog: I can dump material out here, but I think I write better if I know more about my audience—what they need (or want) to hear about, what they are already bored with, and what would just confuse them completely.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2019 February 15 @ 22:55 | Reply

  4. I read all of your posts. I just don’t usually have something to say in response. I find your weight and exercise posts fascinating — you do such a careful job, it’s like watching a nutrition and health journal article in real time.

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2019 February 16 @ 05:59 | Reply

  5. Most of your posts are well over my head technically speaking. Some are entertaining and some make me sit back and think. Those are pure gold. I post for many of the same reasons you do. My big return are the comments I get on some of my posts. I get some great ideas in those replies and things that make me consider my teaching. Working in a small school with no other CS teaches sort of limits my ability to get feedback. Blogging opens that up a bit. Admittedly not in a big way but so far I am extremely happy by the interest if the readers I have.

    Comment by gflint — 2019 February 17 @ 11:37 | Reply

  6. Thank you!

    Comment by frenchc1955 — 2019 February 17 @ 17:10 | Reply

  7. I greatly appreciate the effort you put into your book and blog and in making them widely available. It’s good stuff…please keep it up. I especially like that you use tools, like the Digilent Discovery 2, that mere mortals can afford to buy and follow along. I’m considering using your book to teach electronics at a local makerspace.

    Comment by Curt Gridley — 2019 February 18 @ 10:17 | Reply

    • Let me know if you do use my book—I’m particularly interested in feedback from other teachers. (I also have a solutions manual for the textbook, but I’d trying to limit distribution of it, as there are far too many cheating sites on the web that publish such things.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2019 February 18 @ 11:40 | Reply

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