Samara Burns, M.A. in philosophy student at University of Calgary
Throughout my graduate degree I had the opportunity to work as a student assistant for the Open Logic Project. The project began in the philosophy department of my home institution, The University of Calgary, and was motivated by the lack of intermediate logic textbooks available for professors to use. Those textbooks that were available were very expensive, and often confusing for students who were relatively new to logic. In response to this issue, the Open Logic Project created a collaborative, customizable open-source textbook. This kind of book has several advantages over traditional textbooks. Formal logic makes use of mathematical symbolism, but the symbols used vary from book to book. The customizable features of the Open Logic textbook allow faculty to choose the symbols that they wish to use. The book also gives instructors the ability to change the content as they see fit, and students do not have to pay for an electronic copy.
The book is written in LaTeX and stored on Github. Typesetting in LaTeX makes the customization aspect of the textbook easier. Important symbols and words have been tagged throughout the text and, if a faculty adopting the textbook wishes to change a certain symbol or word, they can simply alter one line of code rather than searching the entire document. Adding or removing chapters from the book is just as easy. The Github platform gives others the ability to make changes and “push” them to the main hub if they feel those changes benefit the textbook overall. The collaborative nature of the project means that the book is continually being updated, expanded, and improved upon.
The project was instigated by my master’s thesis supervisor, and I was one of several student assistants hired to help develop the text. I worked on several chapters in the textbook. In most instances, I was given class notes from professors affiliated with the project and was responsible for converting them into cohesive chapters. Each chapter turned out to be about fifteen pages in length. I was not only required to translate the notes into appropriate sentence/paragraph structure, but because of the format of the book, I had to remember to tag key words and symbols in order to accommodate customization. This led to some technical difficulties along the way. As the chapters progressed, new challenges would arise, such as the need to create and integrate diagrams into the chapters. This required extra research and time to execute correctly.
Ultimately, the key to success on the project, for me, was open communication with the two professors I was working with, and clear communication regarding expectations and deadlines. In addition to this, getting feedback on my work was extremely important, and I had to give myself enough time to make extensive revisions to my pieces. I discovered that writing a textbook is a different experience than writing an academic essay. The editing process was extensive, and was done both in-person and through email. In-person meetings were helpful, as we sat down down with a physical copy of the chapter and determine what sections needed revision or expansion. The GitHub platform facilitated online editing, as my professors had access to my work as I uploaded it. They could edit the chapters directly or contact me with their feedback.
My experience with the Open Logic Project has given me a new appreciation for teaching. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to TA for a course where the book was used. This gave me the opportunity to see how students were responding to the text and gather feedback from them. Student feedback was used to improve the textbook at the end of the semester and the changes were published on GitHub. Being part of the project gave me tremendous insight into which elements of a textbook are most important for student learning, which will be valuable knowledge as I continue to teach in the future.
- When conceiving a new project idea, look for existing gaps in the textbooks available for your field.
- Get graduate students involved!
- Clearly communicate your expectations and deadlines.
- Give students feedback about their work at various stages of the project.
- If you are using an open textbook in your classroom, don’t discount the feedback your receive on it from students. Try to contact the textbook creators if you discover elements that need editing or updating.
Samara Burns is currently finishing her master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Calgary, where she studies formal logic. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in 2018.