Saturday, April 05, 2008

Pile-up on page 565

It rained all day in Asheville today, and I spent most of the afternoon lying on the couch reading Meyer Levin's The old bunch, a novel that started slow but has definitely grown on me now that I'm about 60% of the way through it. Levin's sense of character is rich and deep, and by the time I reached page 565 I realized just how well-developed the characters have become, how well I feel I know each one, how well I know their motivations, how I understand what makes them do what they do.

At the top of that page my mind drifted for a bit, back to the presentation on my REU that I gave yesterday afternoon to an odd assortment of colleagues, administrators, and community hangers-on. On one slide I summarized my colleague Ocarina's analysis of the REU students' survey data, an analysis she based upon William Glasser's choice theory. Once the students' comments had been coded as corresponding to various topics ("having fun," "faculty support," "making progress," and so forth), Ocarina was able to trace the students' development through the milestones of Glasser's social trajectory: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

For a few minutes I thought about the stages through which the various characters in Levin's novel were going, according to my naive (and likely highly inapt) analysis: though Sam's storm was over and he'd reached a period of normalcy, Joe was yet storming, trying to find a place in his world. Harry, meanwhile, was performing, as Sol had been since the end of the novel's first book. Mitch? Norming? Performing? Straddling a gap between the two?

"Back then, where was I?" I thought, thinking back to when I was as old as the kids in the book on page 565. Was I norming? Performing, yet? I was through storming, I think: by the time I was twenty-five, I think I'd nearly sorted myself out. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, at least, and that's more than many could say at that age. I had a pretty good idea about what it is I believe, about many things, though it would be inaccurate and presumptuous of me to say that my life was static, resolved, and fully meaningful. Nevertheless, the tempestuous growth spurts that made my twenty-year-old self alien to my eighteen-year-old self, and my twenty-two-year-old self as alien to me at twenty, had subsided, and one would have to thumb through the first 565 pages of my history in order to learn of them at all.

565 pages.

Who could say what makes me do what I do, without at least leafing through those pages?

This evening at a friend's potluck I met several people I'd never met before, and spent a dizzying two and a half hours trying to keep up with their newness, trying to take it in and learn about who these people were. Musicians, mostly, most of whom knew each other already, had written several chapters together. Between them all, they'd spent a century or two on Earth, learning this, doing that, dabbling, babbling, building friendships, making noise...We're all of us walking around with hundreds of pages of history, most of them forgotten, unreadable, unknowable.

It's amazing that people get along as well as they do, given that we're all walking about with unindexable, unabstractable users' manuals buried in our brains.

My students are still forming, still storming. Some (I have one particular student, from last semester, in mind as I write this) are so storm-tossed they can't make it to the classroom more than once in a while. Some are quick at finding their places and soon settle in for an expert performance. (Blackwell claims to have completed formulas for the remaining two cases of his graceful labeling I'd asked him to describe technically.)

These kids are at an awkward age: they're about half as old as they think they are, twice as old as they act. Yet they're often wiser than we give them credit, and though they often find critical thought difficult, their minds are quick to absorb new ideas and new information. They're malleable and manipulable, but can be taught skepticism. They are arch, and smartly shrewd. They're clever and conniving, and are capable of utterly unfair and solipsistic acts, yet among them are some of the most selfless people I know.

I love these people, I love my students. I feel honored to do what I do. Halfway through my second section of Calc II the other day I turned from the board and said, "if I won the lottery tonight, I'd still be back here tomorrow."

This morning's Super Saturday class was the last of the semester, and we finished up with "Bending Space and Time," the activity for which I always get my Calc students making poster board polygons. It went over as well as it typically does, and the kids were actually more or less on-task (thanks in a large part to Sieglinde's and Tallulah's ability to rein them in with stentorian teacherly commands). All but a couple of them dutifully pieced together the polyhedra they were asked to build: cubes, dodecahedra, tetrahedra, octahedra, and finally a bit of free-form spherical building before we finished with a small chunk of the hyperbolic plane.

This particular activity is one of four "solid" Super Saturday classes I've got now. Having run this thing for four semesters, I've finally found four activities (the others: "Games on Graphs," "Build Your Own Fractal," and "Math Treasure Hunt") that go over consistently well, leaving me with two slots yet to fill with dependably interesting and educative classes. "Codebreaking and Codemaking" is an exciting activity, but needs some tweaking: the current incarnation, involving binary arithmetic, is often above the heads of all but the brightest students in the class.

I'll do some brainstorming over the summer to think of a couple new activities to try. (Ideas? Send 'em in, I'd be delighted to know if you have thoughts on the matter.)

I don't know if I've mentioned yet that we've finalized our list for the coming summer's REU: it took about a week to fill the first seven of our eight slots (with only three or four "noes"), and another week past that to fill the eighth position (with another four or five "noes"). Now, we're set: four are men, four are women (the same as last year) seven students will come from liberal arts institutions, and one from a Ph.D.-granting school (again, the same); and three come from schools in the Southeast, as opposed to last year's four. (The Midwest gained one slot this year, three instead of two, while the Northeast remained stable with two students.)

I'm looking forward to this year's program, to be conducted more "intentionally" in many ways, and more freely in others. While I already have a topic or two in mind for specific students, we'll be letting them loose to find their own ways once we've given them a week or so of a head start.

Ah, for now bed beckons. I hope to return soon, when events warrant further commentary. Feel free to chime in if you've got something to say.

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