Friday, January 04, 2008

Write or wrong

Hey, hey, hey! It's a brand new year, folks!

So far this year I've done little related to my teaching, I've spent most of my time reading (gasp!) for pleasure. I've capped off seven books in the last two weeks...golly, it's nice to have free time. This morning, for instance, I finished Wangari Maathai's Unbowed: a memoir, a recounting of her life in Kenya and the founding of the Green Belt Movement, the organization primarily responsible for her receipt of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Before that it was a collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, Georges Bernanos's The diary of a country priest, John Griffin's classic Black like me, and a pair of books by Jonathan Kozol and Kurt Vonnegut, reviewer elsewhere in this blog. It's been great to be free to read again, something I'm sadly unable to do much of during the school year.

I've also been mulling over what I'd like to accomplish through my teaching during the coming year.

Last year could be characterized by consciousness: I believe that more than anything else I learned to become fully conscious of my pedagogical efforts, and cognizant of the effect my deliberate actions would have on my students. I made conscious efforts to structure my assignments developmentally, to engage students in meaningful, conscious discovery. I believe that my conscious focus paid off, I feel as though my 280 class benefitted enormously, for instance, and the effort that went into Newton v. Leibniz was repaid tenfold by the students' growth through the project. (By the way, I heard back from Prof. Bornstein, she was delighted to hear from me, and wrote me a wonderful letter on her own ideas on teaching. She looks forward, as do I, to continued correspondence. I need to write back to her...)

So what is it that will characterize my teaching in the coming year?

Discovery, perhaps? That will certainly be a central theme of my upcoming graph theory course, in which I'll be challenging students to rebuild the discipline from scratch.

Or maybe authority? Might I focus my energy on encouraging my students to take the reins in their own studies, to ask the questions that need to be asked, to take responsibility for their own futures?

The line between these broad territories is an unclear one. I look forward to seeing how my classes take shape in the coming weeks.

At present I'm ready for Day One (now a week and a half away, on Monday, January 14th), freshly printed syllabi, worksheets, problem sets, and project outlines covering my desk. All I've got to do now is get some Skittles for the candy machine, in order to be ready for the third installment of Calc II's Confectionary Conundrum, an exercise whose execution I've now got down to an artform.

Good news came yesterday in the form of an e-mail from Texas: both my individual presentation and the panel presentation I'm putting together with a couple of my UNCA colleagues (one from the Writing Center and a second from Sociology) were accepted by the organizers for May's 9th International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference at UT-Austin! This is exciting. It'll be the first time I'll have had a chance to speak at a non-math-related conference, about a subject that's quickly becoming my second specialty (writing in the mathematics curriculum). In my individual presentation I'll be talking about the use of the "homework committees" and other structured peer-review exercises to encourage student self- and peer-assessment and self-authorship. Our panel will discuss the ways in which discipline-specific writing is taught, nurtured, and evaluated in the liberal arts setting. My portion of that program will invite non-mathematicians into the world of mathematical writing, indicating the similarities between math writing and writing in other disciplines. By highlighting the grammatical structures, syntactical rules, stylistic conventions, and assessment criteria that characterize mathematical writing and by comparing these aspects with corresponding aspects of writing elsewhere, I hope to dispel the notion that math writing must be an alien enterprise to non-mathematicians.

This is going to be an exciting conference.

Meanwhile I'm only a couple of days away from departing for San Diego, site of my fifth Joint Mathematical Meetings. A lot going on there (judging an UG poster session, presenting in the expander graphs and Ramanujan graphs special session, glad-handing every mother-lovin' person I can find to drum up support for my REU), but I'm already looking beyond it to May, bringing not only the Writing conference but also my next graph theory conference, to which I hope to drag a few students. (One of my freshpeople is making great progress on graceful labelings over this break! I told her to expect me to try to get her to go to this conference in May. More on that as events warrant...)

1 comment:

Maughta said...

I think it's very important and useful that you'll be sharing with other educators, most of them in humanities, information on what writing in math looks like. I'm sure many of them have very little idea of how math can be writing-intensive, or really what math is besides filling in numbers for a and b and solving for x.

Thank you for being in the forefront of this important field.