Scitech | Minus pretentious jargon

Paul Dawkins and his online math notes

Have you heard of Paul’s?

It was halfway through the Fall 2009 semester – I was working on a linear algebra problem set with a few classmates and no, I hadn’t heard of Paul’s Online Math notes.

By the time finals rolled around, the $70 paperback textbook I had purchased for the course had taken up permanent residence under a pile of dirty laundry. I was whipping through problems involving the likes of eigenvalues with the website open in upwards of ten tabs on my Firefox browser.

Paul Dawkins is an associate math professor at Lamar University, in Beaumont, Texas. He has undergraduate and masters degrees in Mechanical Engineering. When he finished grad school, he was offered a job as a math professor, and he’s been teaching ever since.

He explained that he started the website in 2003 as a place to post notes for his differential equations class when the price of the textbook that he was planning on assigning increased by $50 with no notable improvement in content. The site has since expanded to include math notes from linear algebra to multivariable calculus.

The site has gotten 3.3 million unique hits already this year, which, as the website wraps up its seventh year of existence, have been unexpected. “I thought I would be lucky if even a couple of my students accessed it, to be honest,” said Dawkins.

Despite his modesty, Dawkins’s profile on ratemyprofessors.com includes pages of comments from students that he’s never taught.

“His online notes are better and more useful than the actual class with an actual professor that I am taking at a different school,” said one commenter in July 2010.

The prose on the website is clean, there are as many example problems as there are words, and the first person plural is ubiquitous. “Let’s” try this, and “we” do that. We’re a team, we are looking at these triple integrals, working through these Jacobean determinants together.

Though Dawkins is aware of this quality, like everything else about the website – its success, its simple design, and even the teaching career that launched it into being – it isn’t exactly intentional. He said he’s got theories about the appeal of his writing style, and why students seem to like it: mostly that it departs from the traditional, rigorous style of math pedagogy.

The website is free of gratuitously fancy vocabulary. As Will Liu, a U3 Electrical Engineering student, put it, “He doesn’t phrase his shit in that pretentious math jargon.”

Dawkins said that he’ll never write a textbook. “That means dealing with the very people I set out to avoid,” he explained.

There are also no ads on the site. “I have no interest in making money off it, which I suppose sounds weird, but I don’t,” Dawkins insisted.

But one can make a living from running a successful math website. Elizabeth Stapel’s Purple Math offers math lessons in pre-algebra through basic calculus; the small side bar ads for math books from Amazon, widgets that advertise for a software called Mathway, and an online tutoring service offered through the site serve as Stapel’s primary form of income. Stapel hosts the site herself, while Dawkins runs his off of Lamar’s server, and unlike Dawkins, she doesn’t currently have a paycheck coming in from a university.

I asked Stapel if she’d ever consider publishing a textbook. She emailed me an animation showing how to multiply two matrices: a hand pointing to each pair of numbers on the left side of the equal sign, and then the product in the appropriate spot on the right. “How would this be presented in a static textbook?” she wrote, also citing the ability to hyperlink pages as a reason she favours web over text.

But the problem with transferring one’s vision to a hard-copy educational material goes deeper than widgets and linking abilities – neither of which Dawkins uses much on his site (in fact, he actually offers free ebook PDFs of the web text). Stapel explained that it would be difficult to approach a textbook publishing company with a website, and be received with enthusiasm for preserving the style. According to Stapel, the process works the other way around: “[Publishers] write up proposals and outlines, and then they hire the writers.”

Editing web content offers another advantage over textbooks, which remain static until they’re re-released as a new, more expensive, edition. “The material is under continual review and improvement,” explained Stapel. Neither Dawkins nor Stapel has an official proof reader.

“So you follow more of an open source mentality, that you have so many readers and if there’s a mistake –,” I began to ask Dawkins. “Somebody will let me know, and somebody does,” he finished.

This model of free internet material departs from the traditional rigour that goes into material put out by universities. It isn’t fact-checked, copy-edited, or formally cleaned up. The notes aren’t peer reviewed. The notes aren’t bringing in grant dollars. The notes are an organized explanation of university- level math, not original research that can be printed in a journal.

“I don’t know how familiar you are with the politics up there [at McGill], but I’m sure they’re the same as down here. It’s really a situation of publish or perish,” explained Dawkins.

Nonetheless, he doesn’t spend time doing research – search his name in Google Scholar and the sole hit is a paper on eigenvalues from 1998. “I suspect some look at it like, ‘it’s just some idiot trying to avoid publishing,’” he mused.

The accessibility of the notes, the small handful of emails he gets every day, the barrage of thank yous that roll into his inbox around finals season, aren’t a currency that the university can necessarily value. “I will admit I’ve not gotten too far up the chain,” he explained.

“[Tenure] is part of how I can get away with working on this, to be honest with you. I’ve got tenure, so they can’t tell me I should be doing other things,” he noted.

Dawkins nonetheless loves teaching, although he can’t say quite why. At Lamar, he spends his time holding open office hours, dealing with the recent increase in class sizes, and keeping up his online math notes.


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