Tuesday, February 27, 2007

F. A. Cotton RIP and Textbook Selections

In the academic world there are three seasons. The teaching season is followed by the testing season which is then followed by the textbook season in an eternal hamster wheel of learning. Yeah I know, what about research? Research is not a season but a constant state of mind. Right now, it is textbook season and full colour encyclopedic texts with an average mass of 2.5 kilos are falling on my desk with the steady thump - thump - thump of the artillery rounds from Charlie that haunt my dreamless sleep. The organic texts are the worst. I can understand that general chemistry textbooks have to be generic clones of each other with an almost Bataan Death March one-chapter-a-week broad spectrum coverage of our ever widening discipline. But Organic Chemistry? Is it really necessary to show your typical 18 year old University student 1500 pages of organic chemistry, hike up our elasticized waistbands and proclaim (as if we are some latter day Hemingway) that since we were taught (somewhat indifferently) by I. B. A. Famouschemist that they as well would be best served by eating the whole banquet of organic chemistry as we did? Holy moly, no wonder they bolt for the nearest exit like a bad Mexican meal.

With that in mind I heard with deep regret that F. A. Cotton had passed away this past week. He was prolific, a generous and kind scientist that was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because we were too busy awarding it to biologists. Some 27 years ago F. A. Cotton became Gandalf to my Frodo when the awe inspiring copy of his "Advanced Inorganic Chemistry" landed on my desk as the text for my second year Inorganic Chemistry Course. I was stunned. Not only that, Cotton was not the only required text. We also had to have a copy of Huheey "Inorganic Chemistry". It was felt that Cotton and Wilkinson was "too systematic" and Huheey was too "topical" so that a balanced diet of the two texts was required. To make us feel better it was noted that we would not be required to purchase any more texts for Inorganic Chemistry until we graduated after we had self sacrificially gotten through Moria, crossed the river, climbed the mountain, slain the monster and destroyed the ring (all metaphorically of course). I have to admit that having been through that system, my internal compasses all point me in that direction as well. I would love to choose completist and exhaustive texts for my students that would work for many courses. I remember, however, that I am teaching the average student, not the geniuses and the deadheads (they have their own fates independent of what I do). I select my texts for the student that needs the eat the elephant one bite at a time. It is my policy as well to carefully select my texts and follow them so that the student gets the maximum use out of their investment. Well I remember the horror of a course when the professor was forced to select a new textbook (because the one he carried with him on the Santa Maria had gone out of print). He made us all buy the new text but it was only half way through the course that we realised that he was lecturing and testing us as if we had his old textbook. Promises made in the crucible of that type of experience are what shape us as professors.

Sleep well, F. A. Cotton friend and guide of my youth. Your legacy and legend will continue, especially since we as a discipline have discovered the importance of branding. We will bring in ghost writers to revise your texts just as we have the other great, dead chemistry textbook authors. You may writhe in your grave with what they will write in your name but your name will go on.


cfcasper said...

Very sorry to hear the news, and I completely agree about the Nobel Prize. Every year I thought it would finally be his chance, but it always went to a biologist. A shame he ran out of time.

Ms. Buckyball said...

He was my "group theory professor" when I was a first-year graduate student. His contributions in Inorganic Chemistry will be remembered.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.