Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Run down

As I was rounding the south-bending curve of I-240 West on the way home this evening I caught a quick glimpse of a dead possum. He wasn't the first of his kind I've seen dead at the side of the road, and surely not the most brutally beaten. I sped by at fifty miles an hour and never came closer than fifteen feet from where he lay, so my view was only brief. Somehow, though, the sight of his body keenly and clearly connoted death: final, absolute, without ambiguity.

This past Monday I laughingly offered to shoot myself after bowling a disappointing 113 in league play. "Just shoot me," I said to one of my teammates, making a gun of my hand and aiming it at my right temple. A split-second later I thought of Elmer, and I felt like an ass.

Elmer was a student in my 365 course, the one for which I began writing this blog nearly two years ago. He was a fantastic student in all three classes I shared with him (Calc II, Calc III, and Linear Algebra), and I'd grant that he had stronger mathematical aptitude than any other non-math major I've yet taught at UNCA. He had a promising career as a research chemist, and was a favorite with all of his faculty here. He was on his way towards stardom at UC Berkeley.

This Monday afternoon I found out that Elmer had hung himself last week.

Death stalks, watching from the wings. It's never far away.

Reminders of mortality have been thick of late. Two of my best students have lost loved ones in the past two weeks: one a brother's father; the other a childhood friend. One to sickness, death coming unsurprisingly on steady-stepping feet; to the other death came with blinding rapidity, swift and startling.

We do what we can to cope, to go on living, to make do, and each of us makes do in our own way.

I realize after re-reading the last few (scattered and infrequent) posts I've made to this blog that I've said little lately that's purely pedagogical. All semester I've been preoccupied with matters one could only describe as "personal," even as they effect my teaching: "I feel" this, "I sense" that...

A funny thought occurs to me: yesterday I was charged with writing up an evaluation form to be used in our capstone course (MATH 480), which I'm coordinating this semester. (Context: we currently don't solicit from the students course evaluations for this class, though I've often wondered why this is. We're hoping to offer the students a chance to give us more feedback on the course, thus the eval form I wrote.) I resisted a colleague's suggestion to do away with the Likert-scaled items "How confident would you now feel in preparing a presentation on a mathematical topic?" and "How confident would you now feel in researching an unfamiliar mathematical topic?", indicating the need to assess not only cognitive learning goals, but also affective ones. In the items stayed.

Exercise #1: Complete the sentence: "I feel..." though this semester is best characterized by improved awareness of one's self in one's teaching. Last semester the lesson I best learned was one dealing with intentionality: if one hopes to improve students' ability to write mathematically, one must intentionally design one's course to address students' writing abilities. If one hopes to encourage students to work well as members of an academic team, one must intentionally design activities that bring students together as a team.

This semester I've learned (as a reading of my recent posts should suggest) that the "me" that I am outside the classroom is never very far from the "me" that I am in it.

My frustrations follow me when I walk through the classroom door. So do my annoyances, my pet peeves, my likes and dislikes, my (sometimes overly) generous and giving nature, my distractibility that leads to entertaining tangents. What you see is what you get: I prefer harmony to conflict, and the carrot to the stick. I'm bad at playing The Heavy, and when I play that part I do it clumsily, erringly.

Exercise #2: Complete the sentence: "I am confident that..."

...I've learned a lot from my students this semester, perhaps more than they've learned from me.

More than anything else, I've learned about perspective.

A Brief History of Perspective

Once the world was flat,
and folks were formless blobs.
Life was dull, to say the least.
We knew little of each other,
and cared even less.
We wandered around clumsily back then,
always bumping into one another.
"Excuse me," you might say.
"Harumph," I might reply: "Watch your step! I was here first."
"I didn't know..."
We'd argue, but it wouldn't matter anyway, for
there was no telling who stood where in relation to
or that
or another.
Then angles rose up, ministers of space,
connoting volume,
All at once I could be
behind you, or in front of you, or at your side,
and in any case it would be clear where I meant myself to be.
"She was barely seventeen," you tell me.
"Fresh as a lavender bud,
clean as April air."
Who was she?
She wasn't numbers derivatives integrals sequences series...
...She was, however, day lilies dalliances mischievous winks curfew-breaking cruises down
the highway at unimaginable speeds.
Angles did her in.
They gave her room to move about, they let her up from the page...

What do we mean to each other, in the end?

"Let's do it," I told Cassio at the end of this semester's Parson's lecture. Prof. Mary Lou Zeeman had just finished her talk on mathematical modeling in biology, and Cassio had asked her afterward about how modifications of her models might look in the context of global economics and politics.

"Let's look into it." He was excited.

Exercise #3: Complete the sentence: "I feel that..."

...I've done my best work this semester when the lines that mark the borders between my teaching self, my research self, and my self self have been most indistinct.

I feel good about the undergraduate research projects I've helped to get underway this semester. Several students have begun meaningful, original, authentic research projects as a consequence of being in the right place at the right time. They've been excited by the potential of mathematics to answer questions they themselves have asked, and I've been lucky enough to be there, in the right place at the right time, to steer them on a course towards their respective goals.

I feel good about the work I've done this semester with the Super Saturday program, particularly that done with the help of my student assistants. I'm proud of them, I'm proud of their dedication, their sense of purpose.

I feel good about the work I've done with the Writing Intensive Subcommittee, and with my colleagues on the Writing Assessment Pilot Project. I'm proud about our findings, and I enjoy our meetings immensely. (Am I sick for looking forward to them?)

I feel good knowing that more than once this semester I've touched students' lives in a positive way. I've excited them about mathematics, I've helped them to access hidden talents, and just by being myself I've managed to make a difference.

Is it ever enough?

Exercise #4: Complete the sentence: "I want..." work with my students and colleagues to create the perfect learning environment, an edenic haven in which the woes of the outside world can be forgotten long enough for us all to come together and put together some beautiful math.

Towards this end, I want to be a hero: I want to be able, singlehandedly, to fend off stalkers and suicides and seasonal affective disorder. I want to be a human restraining order. I want to walk tall and stand firm.

I want to be strong.

Exercise #5: Find meaning in your teaching.

How did I come to teach at a liberal arts college?

I'm not sure my decision to come here was a fully conscious one.

From my adviser, six years ago, after I'd just accepted my postdoc at Illinois: "it's not hard to get your first postdoc. Getting the second one is the trick."

From my wife: "I'm just not convinced you wouldn't be happier somewhere where you had graduate students!"

From my mother-in-law: "I think you should get a job at Princeton. Their campus is beautiful."

Why me, why here?

The past three years have taught me a boatload about who I am and what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

I'm here because I'm a people person. It's here only that I have a chance to know the students as well as I do, and to work with them so closely. I do what I do here because...

...well, because there's nothing in the world I'd rather do.

I. Fucking. Love. My. Job.

I am still amazed that I get to do what I do well and willingly, and that I get paid to do it.

I am still amazed at the satisfaction I get out of my work: the thrill of a new theorem, the wondrousness of a student's sudden epiphany, the warm fuzzies that come from a productive committee meeting.

I'm sick, I'm telling you.

I'm also making less and less sense as I near the end of this post.

And I am nearing the end.


And I've as yet said nothing about the talk I'm giving at Wake Forest tomorrow (on research of which I'm very proud) or the conference I'll be attending in West Virginia this weekend.

There. I said it.

Oh well.

Like other recent posts, this post has been not so much about my teaching as it has been about me. I hope you've made it this far without gouging out your eyes with a butter knife.

I'd like to end with a brief (assuredly incomplete and mostly anonymous) list of my heroes this semester. Maybe you'll recognize yourself.

Before I go, let me make an intensely personal exhortation: if you're reading this, please write to me. Write anonymously, write with your name in big, bold letters. Write comments, dialogues, diatribes. Write poems, stories, confessions. Write apologia, hagiographia. Write pompously, funnily, sarcastically, banally. Write in streams of consciousness, write in haiku. Write however you'd like to, just write. Write, write, write. Tell me I'm right on, tell me I'm full of crap. I'd like to know that you're out there, I'd like to know what you think. It's comforting, it gives me perspective: if I know where you are, I can better know where I am, and I hope that once we all know where we stand in relation to one another we can work together to make our ways meet up in the middle.

Heroes, Spring 2008 Edition
  • The Calc II student who, since he cleaned up his act about a third of the way through the semester, has fought his way from an almost certain failing grade to within striking distance of a B. His homework's often messy, but his exam grades have skyrocketed. I'm immensely proud of him.
  • The several first-year students who make up my Unofficial Freshman Graph Theory Research Group. Their passion for mathematics is evident and unassailable. They've already made several new discoveries, and I have no doubt that before they leave this school they'll make many more.
  • My wife, for putting up with my workaholism, for often being satisfied with seeing me only one hour here, another hour there. Without her help and support I would have gone insane years ago. Without her love I wouldn't be able to make it through the day.
  • My Super Saturday assistants, who labored week after week at the thankless task of corralling hyperactive ten-year-olds, convincing those kids that math is a worthwhile endeavor.
  • The student who was brave enough to acknowledge that this semester she's been a sub-par scholar, that she's had neither the time nor energy she'd like to devote to our class. I respect her and admire her perseverance, and I hope I'll get a chance to work with her in a future class, when she'll have more time to commit our common cause of learning.
  • My best friend, for inspiring me with new teaching ideas, entertaining me with stories of her own classroom, and letting me kvetch to her about whatever it is that's bugging me. Sometimes I think I work as hard as I do just to keep up with her.
  • My Graph Theory class, for standing by me through my first fully Moore-method course. My thanks go to them for all of their hard work, and for sticking with it and trusting me enough to put together a halfway decent discovery-centered course.
  • The dead possum I saw on the roadside on the way home this evening. He was more than a dozen pounds of bruised flesh and broken bones: he was fragility, humility, mortality. He was, in a sense, me. He brought me here, and here I am. I am now who I'll be tomorrow when I'm talking about my research in Winston-Salem, when I'm working with my students on Friday morning.
I'll be there. Will you be with me?


Anonymous said...


Miss Maggie said...

I would follow you anywhere for just that hour or two. I love you!

--Your wife.

Anonymous said...

I am again in awe of you. Who would have thought that my daughter's husband would make me so proud. You're way up on my pride o meter. Love, Beth

Anonymous said...

As a person certainly less versed in life I'd still like to offer this bit of advice when faced with depressing situations let yourself be depressed a bit it will make the rest of your life just that much better. And yes I'm with you.