Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Purple prose

I've not laughed so hard in a long, long time as I did this afternoon at some of the passages the 365 folks came up with for incoherent instructions for the multiplication of two 2x2 matrices. I'm going to have to try to get permission from some of them to anonymously post their work. It's simply classic.

After a brief discussion of the criteria by which written work will be evaluated in the course, we went through with the "Write a Bad Paper" exercise, to which people took with gusto. It was quite clear from the get-go that clear and consistent terminology and notation play a major role in understandable mathematical writing, as their absence signaled without exception dense and opaque technical prose. Irene was happy enough to share her subteam's creation with the rest of the class: a nice long string of "multiply the first first element by the other first first element and add this to the product of the first second element by the second second element..." earned a round of applause. Niobe struggled to read through the work Hugo and Bethesda had created, in which, among other faults, the 'n' in "and" bore a tilde.

The students also had the opportunity to provide feedback to one another on their work, taking care to remain respect, helpful, and relevant.

I had a peek at a few of the rough drafts for project proposals, too: it seems there's a fairly high level of excitement about these. I'm very much looking forward to reading both the proposals and the students' journal entries, which I'll get my hands on on Monday.

During the last few days, I've also had a chance to talk to a number of the students individually. I've met some of those I didn't know before this course, I've learned more about those I did know, and I've found that all of the groups (with a few minor bumps and gurgles) appear to be working admirably well together. There were a few kinks to work out in one group in which communication had not been so grand, but things seemed to be running much more smoothly today than they had on Monday.

Another issue: a couple of students have expressed concern that every other member of their respective teams seems a bit quicker than they are. One of these students suggested having a team that convened only for the purpose of in-class exercises, one that would be made up of those more reflective souls who might not pick things up so quickly and would prefer the setting of a slower pace. As I indicated to this student, my only problem with this proposition would be that such a team would likely slide even further behind the others on in-class activities. I also assured this person that all individuals' contributions would become evident and invaluable as research gets underway: the more reflective, prone-to-pondering people are often liable to catch things the blitzing brainstormers overlook. I recall my first year of graduate school at Vanderbilt: there were four of us in that brutal Moore-method topology course, and though two of us came with considerably stronger backgrounds, our surety more than once turned into cocksureness and we glossed over important yet subtle details which one of the two "slower" students would catch, having to think each step through carefully and critically.

It'll all come out in the wash, you'll see!


Anonymous said...

I like your response to the student's suggestion of re-team-ing for in-class activities. And anyway, one should "aspire higher" and cling on to "quicker" students to improve his/her own status. A "slow" person will not benefit much from another "slow" person.

Meredith said...

Patrick, your blog is great; thanks for telling me about it at MathFest. Nice insight on Moore-method topology, too. So... you're posting activities and results so other math faculty can use some of them, right? :-) I'm thinking the bad writing exercise would be useful in both my classes this semester!

Anonymous said...

To the first post, I would just like to clear the air. I apire greatly--I'm good at math but I am a slow processor. I have to take the material and digest it. When group members move so fast that I have no idea of what just transpired in the blur or pencil on paper and several mathematic steps involved are not written down, I need a moment.

Second, I do not need a parasitic relationship of clinging to those in my team to improve myself; I, and they, all need to work together. I agree wholeheartedly that I can learn much from the others in my group (and I do!). My "status" is in my hands and I am more than capable of excelling in the world of linear algebra through teamwork and not by hanging on to my team for life support but rather working with them to acheive success for all involved. Just wanted to clarify; it seems my suggestion was misinterpreted by some.

Also, thank you Patrick. I like the blog; knowing your perception on how the class has went is insightful and a comfort. You make yourself available for assistance in many mediums and I know that the class will go well and end well, with my knowing how to do linear algebra. You're doing all you can for us to succeed, so how could it not work?

Angela V-C said...

Patrick! I love this bad writing idea. I'm trying to figure out a way to steal it for use in calculus.

Anonymous said...

As a slow student I feel compelled to respond with my two cents to the first post. I do "aspire- higher". Afterall, I am in Linear Algebra, let alone in college. In addition to being in college full time I volunteer and work. I am not slow because I do not work very hard, I am simply slow. I will assume that you (the person who posted the first comment) was a "fast" person. I don't have any intentions of attacking your comment, only asking you to be patient. I may bethe slow person in your group. My speed may be the result of many things that I might not be comfortable talking about. I might be nervous working in groups, uncomfortable with all the group members, or just slow. I am fortunate not to interpret speed as a sign of success and encourage you to do the same. If we all make it to the end and we are able to do it as a team, should our individual weaknesses be highlighted? I believe that if our strenghts were highlighted, and not our speed, we could encourage others who are "slow" to keep plugging away. Too often we are discouraged by what we cannot do, or do more slowly that others, and not encouraged by what we can. So, all I ask for is your patience and understanding that being slow does not mean that I am; unmotivated, lazy, or lacking inspiration. I am simply slow.

Anonymous said...

This feels like we're playing tag, but I'm the humble first "anonymous" here.

To the second anonymous: I did not literally mean "cling on to your team for life." I simply meant to say be involved in what they do, ask questions, make comments; be proud of your mathematical background and try to reach their level of speed one step at a time. That is how you benefit from human interactions.

And, finally, to both anonymous posters: I did not mean to offend you. I'm actually one of the slowest people out there, in everything I do. I'm smart, I think very well, but I just need time to do that. In other words, I'm one of the slow ones, blessed be all. I was only expressing my opinion. That is how I go about school, and I'll let you know that I'm also a very helpful person and not a parasite. In fact, I am very liked by all who have ever been in contact with me. All in all, I meant no harm in my first post.

DocTurtle said...

Howdy all, colleagues and students alike!

I'm happy to see such an open exchange of ideas on the blog, and I'm happy to see that everyone's remaining respectful and civil, even when tension might be running a little high.

I thank you all for expressing your thoughts on the course and on learning in general, and I hope you continue to feel free to express yourselves here and elsewhere. I feel as though I have a much deeper understanding for the "undercurrent" of the class from reading discussions like these, and this understanding will lead (I hope!) to better decisions on my part as the course progresses.

I'm sure that by this point in our educational careers, we've all learned that we all learn in different ways. For my part, I'm often a bit slow on the uptake in class: truly new ideas sometimes take me a loooooong time to process. But I make up for it by having a photographic memory and by putting ENORMOUS amounts of effort outside of class towards analyzing what went on in class. I know a number of folks in this very course (and this could apply to all of my anonymouses here!) make use of similar measures to learn effectively. We can't all be the fastest, right? (Although I've always admired such of my Ph.D. committee members was like that, and it was always impressive how quickly he picked things up!)

Again, thank you ALL for your civility and your willingness to express your ideas. I hope this continues throughout the coming semester!

Anonymous said...

To The First Poster:

I'm the second Poster. Thank you for your candor. I do not wish for you to feel attacked and I appreciate your vantage point. I wanted to reply and clear the air because, as with every situation, there are many perspectives and interpretations. Please feel free to comment on anything and be honest, because everyone is entitled to his or her own perspective to any situation. Individual perceptions help other people see a situation in new light. This provides a chance for growth and betterment, and it facillitates group work, a key component of our class.


Anonymous said...

To the second anonymous: Long live all the slow ones!