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I'm a grad student in Italy, for context. My professor wrote some lecture notes about a course I just finished. They are not well written, not because the professor isn't good but because he wrote them in a rush since he wanted to give us some material for the period of Coronavirus, so he wrote them lesson-by-lesson. I think future students could benefit from well-written notes, and I would like to ask the professor the LaTeX source of the notes to add some lectures that he skipped and fix some grammar/paragraphing issues (and obviously give them back to him afterward, without sharing it with anyone if he doesn't tell me to). Is it common to do this? I don't want to seem over-flattering.

Update: the professor was super kind and he replied that he thought it was a good idea, but only if this didn't interfere with my ordinary classes. I'll write a few more chapters and then send them to him.

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    I think the specific case is not common. But there is no harm, I think, in asking. But you also want them for your future career and so it might be worth the effort. – Buffy Jul 27 '20 at 18:24
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    I wouldn't phrase it as "to improve them" but rather to "add my own notes". Much like you might write on paper. Of course if they are in acrobat format (or even kindle) you can annotate those without having an editable version. – boatcoder Jul 28 '20 at 11:13
  • In Germany, it used to be par for the course for students to actually LaTeX lecture notes taken during lectures, from scratch. Not sure it is still done today. But as prof I would be grateful for such cleanup jobs to be done on notes I developed. – Captain Emacs Jul 29 '20 at 4:21
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    Tangentially, it is extremely uncommon to ask professors for an edible copy of their lecture notes. I need to get my eyes checked. – Cireo Jul 29 '20 at 21:33
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    Why not just ask? The professor may or may not allow you to do this but I doubt they'd be offended. Professors are just people. Be professional of course, but you don't need to walk on eggshells around them. – Jair Taylor Jul 29 '20 at 23:43
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No, in my experience this is not common.

But that shouldn't stop you from asking. Your suggestion is certainly within the reasonable parameters in which simply offering your help wouldn't be offensive. (Provided of course you do so tactfully, i.e. following the usual etiquette when pointing out that someone else's work could be improved upon.)

I have friends who would be very happy to receive such an offer as they would finally turn their messy notes into something of high quality! But bear in mind that while accepting your offer may seem like a "no brainer" to you, there might be perfectly reasonable reasons why your professor might turn you down. For example, even though your offer seems like a way to improve the lecture notes at no cost to the professor that is not the case. Improving the notes will require co-operation and further editing by your professor as your professor will have to make sure that you did not introduce significant mistakes or misinterpretations. And they simply might not have the time for that!

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    It might be a good idea to send the fixes in small chunks so that the professor can check and apply them one-by-one when he has time. For this a version control system like Git can really help. Perhaps the professor could dump the LaTeX into a private GitHub respository that's shared with only Mauro Gilberti. – md2perpe Jul 28 '20 at 10:37
  • It’s not common, but the situation is not common. – gnasher729 Jul 28 '20 at 14:37
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    @md2perpe Based on my experience helping faculty while working at a university's technology help desk, the odds that a professor is even going to know what github is, much less feel comfortable using it, are pretty low – Kevin Jul 28 '20 at 15:07
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    @Kevin. Since the lecture notes are written i LaTeX the topic is probably in science and then it's a lot more probable that the professor is at least somewhat comfortable with programming than if his topic is for example history. – md2perpe Jul 28 '20 at 16:01
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    @md2perpe yes, I should have said probability is low. And while it's slightly better among scientific/technology field professors, I'd bet a dozen doughnuts less than 10% of them would say "yeah, github's a good idea" for a way to collaborate on editing lecture notes – Kevin Jul 28 '20 at 16:29
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There are two parties involved in this, you and your professor. Let us think from both your perspectives.

You wish to help your professor and also want to ensure that the notes are of the best possible quality ( you think they are not currently).

Your professor depending on his objective and personality may like this idea or frown upon it. If the lecture notes are a property of the university and the professor is forbidden from using it in any other context without their permission then he should be more open to sharing the source with you. But if suppose he was planning to write a book or thinking of leaving his job and working in some other place he might be reluctant in sharing it with you as he would like to build upon it, later.

If he were having a personality who does not like criticism from his students or for that matter anyone he would naturally get offended by your proposal. Also, it depends on how much he trusts you in sharing the source with you, not only on how good you will hold on your promise of not sharing it with anyone but also on your ability to improve the notes.

From your perspective, you are a good person offering help for free for the greater good. This is commendable and you must politely approach him. If you are really keen on doing it, you could write the notes from scratch for one lesson basing on existing notes to show that you could add value. Then send the notes to the professor asking for his review and request him for the latex source as it will help you in working efficiently.

Professors in many universities ask the students to share their notes and the best-written notes get extra credits. So students engaging in building material for lectures is not uncommon.

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    "Professors in many universities ask the students to share their notes and the best-written notes get extra credits." In all my experience in US academic institutions, I've never heard of such a thing. Perhaps it is more common in other places? I wouldn't do this if I were a professor, either. I just don't see the value. Good notes already translate to higher grades for most students, and for those who can master the information in other ways, it doesn't matter to me whether they take notes or not. – Cody Gray Jul 29 '20 at 6:09
  • @CodyGray I have evidence of this from MIT. I have seen this mentioned by professors in many courses. And taking notes is one way of mastering the concepts. Writing properly helps a lot. There is no better reinforcement to understanding than writing it once. – kosmos Jul 29 '20 at 6:14
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    I can see how turning in notes could be a bad thing. Consider someone who has their own shorthand (or know stenography) and can take notes faster and more reliably than someone who doesn't. The instructor/teacher/professor likely wouldn't know the code, so would negatively grade the notes, even though they are more useful to the student than in another format. Even if that only means losing extra credit, that's not rewarding the student for their useful (to them) notes. – computercarguy Jul 29 '20 at 18:23
  • While I don't remember any explicit credit for turning in notes, there usually was some sort of collaborative Google Doc (or, rarely, LaTeX pdf) on any challenging subject. Sometimes even maintained and worked on by many generation of the students (some of which were now in the position of teaching ;P). – Dan M. Jul 30 '20 at 13:01
  • FWIW, it is fairly rare (i.e., I can't think of a single example) for universities to claim copyright over scholarly work produced by faculty. Patents on stuff developed with university (or outside) funds, yes, but copyright would muck up a lot of academic publishing. – Matt Jul 30 '20 at 14:10
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Show the value of your proposal

Drop a mail on these lines (omitted salutations and format that is likely to be region specific).

Your notes were helpful for me but I did notice that they could be enriched by additional material and minor formatting improvements, for example as in the attachment. I felt these changes would benefit future students. I would be happy to make such changes and submit for your approval. If this proposal sounds fine, you may please suggest how to take it forward.

Showcase the value you plan to add in the attached document. This would :

  • Make your intention and the value clear.

  • Give the professor, the option to respond keeping his obligations with respect to ownership of notes or any other concerns.

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No, it's not common

The professor may think this notes as a finished product, as in it's not intended to be edited in an integrated process.

How not to be over-flattering

Show, not tell.

  1. Write a email thanking for the lectures and volunteer to help with the notes;

  2. Attach a small sample of your suggestions as notes placed over the PDF, or in the body of email, placing the original text and the suggested text in succession;

  3. Wait for the reply;

  4. With the OK from professor continue sending your text suggestions and inform you are a sufficient LaTeX user that could work directly in originals. Ask for a change a process or a change of pace;

  5. The professor may or may not want to change from a "revision only" to a "shared source" process. Keep sending your suggestions, either way.

This process will allow to you and professor to workout a good balance for both.

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Go ahead and ask.

It is extremely uncommon.
In many years of teaching I have never had a student ask this.
But I wish they would!

If by chance I see that a student has very nice notes, I sometimes ask if they have any interest in helping to produce improved class notes for the class. But so far, they have never been interested. Often, they simply refuse to believe that their notes are any good.

On the other side, I sometimes mention to the class that if people can help improve the notes, we would appreciate that, and sometimes someone does offer to help. But so far it has always turned out that their contributions are not very good, so their "help" is not useful, and the project does not get to the level of producing collaboratively generated documents.

Maybe I have just had bad luck with this mismatch between people's note-producing skills and their willingness to help -- my statistics on this are lousy, because the total number who ever offered to help is very low.

If a student is able to produce notes that are good enough that they would only need light editing by myself before being distributed to the class, this would be very valuable.

Provide a sample.

When you contact the professor, your first email should already include a sample of the improved material (your compiled PDF). That is the only way your professor can decide whether or not he is interested in your help. (Yes, this will require re-typing some stuff since you don't have the LaTeX sources yet, but typing time is just a tiny fraction of the time and effort required to produce good notes, so having his LaTeX source is much less important than you think.)

(The other answers are also good -- I just wanted to emphasize that (1) you should go ahead and ask, and (2) you should provide an example of what you are offering.)

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At least for another data point: at this time in my life, while I might be willing to give people the TeX source-code [sic] for documents, I would strongly hesitate to get embroiled in co-authorship with students, for several reasons.

It's not exactly that I'd "mistrust" students, but that I'd feel the necessity of ultra-scrupulously editing... and possibly to the point of changing entirely the "voice" of what the students wrote. Not to be hostile, but to be relatively sure that the "tone/voice" of my intention did come through...

Yes, there is the idea that everyone's a peer of everyone else. Yes, morally, that is possibly true. In terms of technical expertise, I don't think so, although I do not want to spend time arguing with people about it. E.g., to argue that 40 years' experience is no better than 1 year's experience seems implausible... but believing this seems to be important to a certain demographic. (Sure, otherwise it might be tooooo depressing to think that there's no real way to accelerate 40 years' experience...)

Actionably: you can ask, but do not be offended if faculty don't want to get embroiled in a situation where they'd need to endorse your revision of their notes.

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One concern I see in this is matters of impartiality and confidentiality. Assuming by "course I finished" you mean you already got graded for this course, then this isn't as much of an issue. However, if you haven't yet been graded, someone could reasonably claim that your interaction with the professor in this way was an attempt at influencing them into giving you better grades. In addition, there might be comments or other elements in the original notes which aren't included in the final document that could get the professor in trouble if they were to leak.

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