Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Tomorrow has me jetting off to Austin (from what I'm to understand just about the only livable place in Texas, and just about the only place in that state I've never been) to take part in the Ninth Biennial International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference.

That's a mouthful.

It's also mildly frightening, since it'll be the first time I've ever presented at a decidedly non-math conference before. Frightening but exhilarating at once. The feeling I've got going into this shindig is not unlike the one I had when I made my first research presentation at a non-group theory conference a little more than two years ago now. (As a group theorist by formal training, I felt a bit of a dilettante in dabbling with graph theory, so I felt it a pivotal moment when I started going to/presenting at graph theory conferences.) It's a jump.

It's fitting that I've started reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: the psychology of optimal experience (Harper: New York, 1991), the centerpiece for the summer Learning Circle in which I'm participating.

A relevant passage, read just last night (p. 61):

What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations. It is not possible to experience a feeling of control unless one is willing to give up the safety of protective routines. Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control.

This conference should be fun.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Just your run-of-the-mill first-day-of-class anxiety dream

It took most of the dream I had the other night (i.e., about 5 milliseconds in real time, most likely) to put my finger on why it was I felt underprepared for the dream-class in front of which I was standing: I'd not yet pulled up my students' photos on OnePort, so I was completely unable to put names with faces. While I usually get 80% to 90% of the names right on the first day, in this dream I was shooting blanks: everyone was a stranger.

Why is it that so many of my anxiety dreams involve classroom underpreparedness?

Yes, I'm always fully clothed in these dreams...usually I'm anxious I haven't planned the activity for that particular day of class.

Ah, but class is done for the year here, commencement's come and gone, and the late-spring conference season is winding down (one to go, in Austin at the end of next week...I'm nearly prepared, and I'm very much looking forward to it!). I've got a brief lull of about two and a half weeks right now, time in which I've got to get my REU ready to go for the summer. I've got a list of about 40 problems made up for the REU. I hope that by the end of the program's first week I can throw the list to the kiddies and let them spend the weekend looking up primary source material they can then mine for their own interesting problems.

Speaking of commencement (as I did, briefly, above), I'd like to send my heartiest congratulations out to all of my wonderful students who have now passed from these hallowed halls of academia and on to bigger things. You've done wonderful work here, and I'll miss you all.

Just a few days back Fiona sent me a picture her stepmother took of Fiona, Niobe, and me, all clad in regalia (ah, pomp and circumstance). Maggie's made it the desktop image on her computer. (She's entranced by the novelty of the photo, as I'm not often seen decked out like that.)

Since returning from Nashville the other day, my time's been focused on applying the writing rubric our research team's developed to the discipline-specific writing assignments gathered by me and my colleagues. I've had the honor of reading management research papers and reflections, and response essays and creative writing assignments from a course in French composition. These works include everything from taxonomies of corporate social responsibility through original poetry pitting Baudelaire against a red balloon.

I've found it very hard to apply our rubric to the French papers, in particular to the creative writing assignments whose brevity and informality make it difficult to assess a student's mastery of items such as "be able to contextualize a thesis within the body of existing knowledge." For both assignments from the French course, and for the brief reflection papers from the management course, I've noticed certain of the items on our eleven-item rubric blending together. I wonder if my experience is similar to that of my colleagues (some of whom have the misfortune of having to slog through my 280 students' homework papers!); if so, it may be that the rubric is more difficult than we had suspected to apply universally, or it could just need some subtle tweaking. I'll be interested to hear how our conversations go on Tuesday when we all meet to compare notes before Lulabelle and I take off for Austin with the assembled data.

And speaking of assembled data, this morning Lulabelle sent me a nice thick spreadsheet full of very nice numbers showing significant gains on a number of items from the pre/post-test administered in my 280 class last Fall. I wonder how my students' responses compare with those of my colleagues' students.


Yes, I'm a nerd.

Anyway, I'll leave it at that for now. Maggie's likely to be home from work in a half-hour or so, and I'd like to free up my evening schedule to spend some time with her.


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.