Sunday, May 18, 2008

Déjà vu

It's raining outside, Maggie's asleep on one of our new couches, it's the perfect day for updating the blog.

I've just returned from the second of my three May conference-season journeys, this one to Nashville, and I'm spending the day recuperating before a new busy week-and-a-half that ends with me taking off to Austin, Texas for the 9th biennial International Conference on Writing Across the Curriculum. Most of the next week will be spent preparing for my presentations there, and in applying our team's newly-minted rubric to piles of papers from Management and French Literature courses taught by my colleagues participating in the study.

I could have it worse: my friends Cordelius and Lulabelle have to wade through a stack of my 280 students' papers as they try to apply the rubric to nearly a hundred pages of intermediate mathematics. I spent a few hours making up a "primer of mathematical writing" to help them begin to read math. Therein I indicated that most mathematical notation is little more than shorthand, that mathematical terminology, though daunting, has the advantage of being precise and unambiguous, and that the most unfamiliar genres of mathematical writing (namely, definition, proposition, and proof) are fairly straightforward and exhibit clear idiosyncratic qualities that make them quite accessible to someone patient enough to examine their stylistic elements.

I hope it helps.

Wednesday and Thursday of this past week were spent in faculty workshops on writing, led by me, Lulabelle, and a handful of our colleagues. Wednesday's focus was on writing for freshmen, particularly those in our "liberal studies introductory colloquium" courses in which new students are exposed to the liberal arts tradition through seminars on a variety of subjects spanning the school's academic spectrum. I felt Wednesday's session was a bit lackluster, I sensed only tepid commitment from a number of the participants, I myself was still getting over a cold that had knocked me flat the week before, and I was having a hard time granting myself the authority to speak as a "writing expert." It was the first workshop outside my discipline I've ever had to run, and I felt like something of a pretender or a charlatan, standing in front of a roomful of my colleagues and trying to convince them that I knew what in the hell I was talking about.

By Thursday I felt better, both physically and psychologically. What's more, the audience seemed a bit more receptive: I sensed much firmer conviction on the part of that day's participants than on that of their colleagues from the day before. Thursday's crew was there to talk about discipline-specific writing, the sort that (presumably) goes on in higher-level coursework. I felt good about Thursday's workshop.

Immediately after the workshop ended on Thursday I hit the road to Nashville, arriving at my hotel just before 9:00 Central Time. I called up Titania, my friend from grad school, and we met for coffee at Fido (greatest coffee shop on Earth), my home away from home much of the four years I'd lived in Nashville.

We talked for a few hours, sounding like we were a hundred years older than we were five years ago. We talked about students and committees and conferences and enrichment programs and research and course design and assessment...we talked like the real university faculty that we are.

She, like two or three others of my colleagues who graduated from Vanderbilt within a year or so of me, has just received tenure.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish I were in the same boat. I'm starting to feel anxious. It's not that I'm worried about dismissal; I passed this year's reappointment process with flying colors. I'm just looking forward to the symbolic stability that tenure confers. I'm looking forward to the sense of permanence that comes with it. Yet I lost three years on the tenure clock in moving from a research postdoc to a tenure-track gig at a liberal arts institution, so I've got at least another year to go (likely two). Don't get me wrong, I can understand the powers that be not wanting to credit me with three full years of time served, but I'm a little disappointed that I wasn't able to get at least a year or a year-and-a-half of credit for the teaching I did in grad school and afterward in Illinois. It would be one thing if I'd gained nothing through that experience, but in all immodesty my talents speak for themselves.

I'm sorry, I hope you'll grant me this brief bout of pridefulness.

As Fido was prepared to close, Titania and I took to the street and headed over to Vanderbilt's campus. We continued to talk as we walked, reminiscing on our time in grad school (which time both of us enjoyed immensely), updating one another on mutual friends' goings-on. After a while we found ourselves at the math building, Stevenson Center's Building #1, and happily the doors were unlocked.

Our first stop was the first subfloor, where still stand the math grad students' offices. I know three of the current grad students (one's an ex-mentee and coauthor, a second's research path has crossed my own, and I was the reviewer for a paper by the third), the rest were just a smiling sea of young mathematicians who happened currently to be squatting in the offices we'd once called our own. We wandered through the dimly-lit office suite, trying to remember who was in which office in our own time. We were able to place most of our colleagues, but one or two offices were hard to fill.

We inspected the classrooms farther down the hall. "I had semigroups in here, with Gould," I told Titania.

"I had topology," she replied.

"I defended in this room," I said in another.

"Why'd you defend down here? I was in one of the rooms upstairs."

"I don't know."

She told me about how she once broke the sliding blackboard in the larger lecture room at the end of the hall. "I grabbed it from one side only and pulled it off the track," she explained.

Not much had changed.

After a bit we went back down the hall and took the stairs to the third floor, the first one above the ground. We stopped for a moment to peruse the list of faculty, most of whom we recognized. I mused that the Fields Medalist had no office number assigned to him.

At the end of the hall on the left was the room in which I first taught a course of my own, about which I blogged back in September 2007. It's changed very little since the night on which I went to campus to prepare for class the following morning: the blackboards are the same, the desks are the same, there still superfluously hangs from the ceiling above the side board an ancient set of maps of the world. "I never figured out why those are there," Titania said.

Half of the countries depicted thereon no longer exist.

That classroom remains, though.

I don't believe I ever led a class in that room after Fall 1999, so it's been over eight years since I've taught there.


I shudder as I think back to the first writing assignment I made up for my Calc I kiddies back in 1999. Its prompt was little more than "Write a 5-10 page paper on a mathematical topic of your choosing. This is due on November eleventy-first." Granted, I gave my students hints on how to go about picking a topic, how to get started on their research, how to vet and cite their sources, which is more than many faculty would give. (Hell, most math faculty don't even think about assigning writing projects.) But I did next to nothing to structure or stage the assignment, to allow for rough drafts, to incorporate feedback, to provide writing instruction. The completed papers I returned to the students were line-edited, as much attention paid to misplaced commas as to thematic vacuums and ill-used evidence. Small wonder the products of my students' efforts were so hit-and-miss.


I've come a long way as a teacher in the past ten years. I wonder what experience the next decade will bring?

For now, I'm off to fold some clothes and rearrange our bookshelves. I'll be back soon, I hope.

In the meantime, if you've got something to say, please say it.

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