Chemistry professor Brent Iverson discusses the role of teaching in the evolution of his textbook.
Dr. Brent Iverson is chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He was recently honored with a University Distinguished Teaching Professor award and is the Warren J. and Viola Mae Raymer Professor. His most recent research delves into molecules’ interactions with DNA and their possible therapeutic effects. Organic Chemistry I and Organic Chemistry II are two of the classes Iverson teaches at the university.
Being a student in Iverson’s Organic Chemistry I class, I have always marveled at the fact that I was being taught by the guy who literally wrote the book. So, I chatted with Iverson to learn about his experience in writing his own textbook and how it enhances his teaching.
Korzekwa: What is it like to have written your own textbook and to be teaching out of that book?
Brent Iverson: The great thing about being able to author a textbook that you then use in your class is the feedback loop that is created. I can see in real time what works and what doesn’t work.
What do you do with that knowledge?
If something doesn’t work, I look around and try new things in my class, and then if I find a better way to do something I get to immediately incorporate it into the textbook. So we continually change, modify, enhance and literally evolve the approach.
How is the experience different than teaching out of a book you didn’t author?
If you’re using other textbooks that come off the shelf, there’s not that feedback or that ability to enhance and make things better. It might be a great book, but if I can’t change it, it’s stuck in time. I can’t make it evolve with the class.
What are some ways you come up with new ideas for your textbook?
Quite often the things that I change in the textbook come about because I have discussions with students in office hours. And if I’m truly at a loss as to what to do I will just ask students for advice. I’ll say, “Okay, how would you suggest that I talk about this?” And it’s really easy. The undergraduates are wonderful here in this regard because if I open it up at an office hour, I always get volunteers. I have learned a lot from this approach.
When did you start working on the textbook?
I wrote the solutions manual starting back in the 1990s, but as a co-author with Bill Brown and Chris Foote it’s been about six years. Last edition, I convinced Dr. Anslyn from our department to help. That was a great move, as he is a fantastic teacher, and he has brought many important new ideas to the book.
Everything about the books seems very honed to me, as a student. How do you accomplish this?
The key is feedback. I can think that I have given the most stunningly clear and lucid description, but what I think just doesn’t matter. What matters is whether students get it or not. I do think of teaching as an evolving process — it should never be static at all. You should always try new things. The most important thing is to let students inform you about what is working or not working.