Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where am I?

I'm here.

Really, I am.

We've had six class days so far this semester, and three of them have been dictated by the Late Start schedule on account of "inclement" weather. (I've taught on three days, two of which have had late starts.)

As a consequence, no one feels grounded yet, and everyone feels rushed. I've been caught up in the madness that's ensued, and to top that off, my six-year-old wireless card decided to die two nights ago, so I've not been able to post as regularly as I would have liked.


More later! More meetings call me away...

Friday, January 16, 2009


My Calc I class is awesome. There's just no other word to describe it. I don't think I've ever had a room full of students less timid about getting up in front of 33 of their peers on the second day of class in order to say a few words about technical mathematics.

Two by two (or in one case, three) they came to the front of the room to expound briefly on everything from logs to linear functions, and to a one they did a smashing job. Even when minor mistakes were made, no one lost composure, no one lost face. I appreciate the audience as much as the speakers, for their kindness and consideration and overall supportiveness.

To the students: I'm sure you're aware that it's incredibly difficult to speak in front of others (most people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of snakes and spiders put together), especially about such erudite matters as calculus. I am immensely proud of the alacrity with which you all got up in front of one another and presented. Excellent work, all around.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

More face time

"I don't know if you knew this," said one of my Abstract II students to me just moments ago, "but I'm planning on being a teacher."


"Yeah, so...the more face time as we can get in front of class, the better."


"I know I griped a lot about the way graph theory was taught, but that was right around the time I was beginning to think about teaching."

I hope more students appreciate Moore's method!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Day One, vol. 2

Ach, what a long day it's been.

I'd fully intended (honest!) to check in in between each of my classes, but that proved impossible. The only chance I might have had came between Calc I and 280 around noonish, but even then I was swamped with various course-related nonesuches.

Here it is, though, near the day's end, and I've come through alive. More than that: I feel that almost all of my classes came off splendidly.

Calc I, a colossal class with 35 students now enrolled, went particularly swimmingly. After Quentin did his spiel on the precalc review test on the Educo software he helped put together, I took over and led the students through the syllabus. After this we had twenty minutes or so during which the students brainstormed terms, concepts, and ideas from algebra, trig, and other areas of precalc, taking turns writing their brainchildren on the board. By the class's end I think even the more timorous students were beginning to feel at ease.

Two hours passed before I had to run to my abbreviated 280 class. I love teaching this course, but the first day is a difficult one: even with the full complement of 50 minutes, I generally feel overly rushed. With only 40 minutes it was a hopeless battle to try to get through the first day's activities. While the students typically finish crafting rough proofs of "even + odd = odd" with mere minutes to spare, there was no way in heaven, hell, or Earth they'd finish at all today; I made it part of their homework for Friday (along with responding to the "history exam responses") to put together some rudimentary verifications of E + O = O.

Sadly, I also felt as though I had nowhere near enough time to give the necessary details on LaTeX and the committee system. Bleh.

An hour passed, and then it was off to Abstract II. "I feel great walking into this classroom," I told them on my arrival, "this is the first class I've had all day where I don't have any new names or faces to remember, where I don't have to introduce myself, and where I can just feel free to be who I am, since you all already know I'm crazy." These folks know the drill: committees, playing cards, presentations, the whole nine yards. It took no more than three minutes to make it through the syllabus, and that left us with the better part of an hour in which to help each other recall the highlights of Abstract I. Much as in Calc I, we spent a bit of time brainstorming the concepts that underlie that first semester of algebra. That done, the students took turns building a concept map of the first course on the board. Their homework asks each of them to investigate a topic from Abstract I in greater detail and be ready to present their findings to the class on Friday.

Finally, it was time for 480.

That class is huge! We've got 20 people enrolled as of this morning, making it far and away the largest crop of Senior Seminar students we've had since I came here almost four years ago. After the introductory song and dance, I had these folks too do a bit of brainstorming, creating a table with two columns, one filled with properties of a good talk, the other with properties of a bad talk. It's a fun activity, and the students easily filled a page with good advice for presenters. Loopy as a broken loom at this point, I had a fun time acting out some of the "bad advice."

The bell couldn't have rung too soon, and 5:30 found me done for the day and tired as hell.

A refreshing run and a little over two hours later, I'm home, my belly full of homemade split pea soup over rice, the next few hours stretched lazily before me.

What shall I do?

Day One, vol. 1

It's 9:28, and by all rights I should be halfway into my first class. But my 9:00 class won't start for another hour yet.

But because of a light dusting of snow we're on "late start" schedule, which means that most morning and early afternoon classes are abbreviated and pushed back by as much as an hour and a half. Implementing the late start schedule is a sure-fire way to confuse the hell out of the campus community, and the very idea of it should be banished: either cancel classes or don't, don't just futz around with the schedule.

I understand that there are folks living in the montane outskirts of town who have steep and icy drives and are therefore incapable of getting in before the morning sun melts the obstacles in their paths...but the fact remains that students simply do not understand the late start schedule. Even if they did, they're not informed when it's in effect, and they don't think to check for it on their own. The ordinary chaos that is the first day of class is now coupled with the added chaos of the late start schedule: today's going to suck.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow!

19 hours until my first class of the Spring 2009 semester begins.

At 9:00 it's 75 minutes of Calc I.

At 12:45 MATH 280 takes over.

At 2:45, Abstract Algebra II.

And at 4:10 we'll convene the semester's first meeting of MATH 480.

One of the myriad things I somehow managed to get done in Washington was arrange for the first guest speaker of the semester in MATH 480: my new colleague from Clemson, Nikos, offered to speak on the semester's third Wednesday, two weeks hence. Much appreciated, Nikos!

What else went on at this year's JMM?

Six of our sixteen REU students from the past two years were present, and all were presenting research in some form or another. Two of them, Nestor and Norton, won prizes for their contributions to the undergraduate poster session (Nestor's poster dealt with work he completed at his second REU this past summer). Most of us got together for a lovely dinner on Tuesday night of the conference.

The Fifth Annual Semi-Official Vanderbilt Mathematics Department Reunion Dinner had five attendees this year, the smallest it's been since its inception. Timing the dinner was a pain in the patoot: there were three other mathematicians and assorted hangers-on present at the meetings, but they were unable to reconcile their schedules with everyone else's. Bummer.

I managed to make a few new contacts in the math/poetry community, including a number of other readers in the Wednesday night poetry reading (good to meet you, Kaz, if you're reading this, and thank you for all of your organizational ability, Katarina!) and a fellow faculty member who, like me, is using poetry in her classrooms in order to instill confidence in struggling students (props, Lorena!). Incidentally, if you're at all intrigued (as a poet, as a mathematician, or as both) by math poetry, you should do yourself a favor and find a copy of Strange Attractors (available from A.K. Peters Press, edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney), from which a number of last week's readings came.

Tip and I and Klaus, our colleague from Chemistry (hereinafte known as "The Shepherd"), made it over the river to Virginia to hold a highly productive meeting with one of the nabobs of the NSF. We got a number of practical suggestions regarding our still-in-progress vertically-integrated U/K-12 community outreach program proposal. Progress! Ah, elusive thing...

...and somehow I managed to make it to twenty-odd talks ranging from combinatorics to mathematical biology. That's "twenty-odd" with a hyphen. Although it must be admitted that some of them were odd indeed.

Finally, I should say that shout-outs go to some of my best friends whom I don't see nearly often enough, including the Vandy folks and the stalwart sterling dots who still manage to make it to most of the JMMs no matter where they're held.


...tomorrow, huh?

I think I'm ready.

I'm starting MATH 280 off in the same manner I've started it off the last two times I've taught it: the first activities (both in-class and take-home) are highly intentional writing exercises designed to get students thinking about just what it means to write in mathematics, and it gets them doing peer review right away. Moreover, the exercises always prove immensely fun and popular.

Both Calc I and Abstract II get underway with review exercises. After doing a bit of brainstorming together on the first day of class, Friday will give the students a chance to strut their stuff as I'll be asking them to pair up between tomorrow and Friday and develop brief presentations on various topics from the relevant course material (Precalc and Abstract I, respectively).

And Senior Seminar? I'll figure that out when I get there. I think by 4:10 everyone (including me) is going to be so zombified that I'd be amazed if we get anything fruitful finished. I'll probably just make sure everyone's on board with the format, and maybe lead a discussion on what elements make up a good math talk. My hope is that in the first couple of weeks we can come up with a commonly-created rubric for oral presentations.

What else? Hmmmm...

...I'm going to go for now, and try to enjoy my last hours of relative boredom.

Tomorrow: class-by-class updates, as per custom.