Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's come to this, has it?

Three days of class remain.

A handful of homework sets, a few exams (most of them take-home), a couple dozen presentations.

There's not much left to do, not much left to say.

We're here now.

It seems like only now some of the lessons I've tried to teach all semester have begun to sink in.

"If you write what you know and what you need, you're halfway...if not further...to a full and valid proof."

I don't just say that to hear it be said. I say it because it's true.

And I think they're finally starting to believe me.

What else? Open my mouth, what other jewels fall out?

"You get out of a class more or less what you put into it."

"The folks who do well on the homework sets are the ones who get started on it right away."

Do I sound a million years old, or what? Who am I to speak?

Was there ever a time when I didn't know how to do a derivative, let alone compute a Galois group? And it's hard to remember that induction isn't a naturally occurring process, that we have to train our brains to mold themselves around its artificial angles and uncomfortable corners.

"...By inductive hypothesis we know that Γ(n+1)=n!..."

By now, nothing could be clearer.

I wonder if those same students who nodded casual assent as we plowed through today's inductive proof would recognize the confusion they themselves faced just two months back when first confronted with that arcane mathematical method. The way's been long and sinuous, and even knowing where it twists and turns it's easy to fall off to its side.

Who knows what takes us to where we are now in our lives?

I used to like to exercise my mind in what I called the "Causality Game": think about a major life event you've undergone, and trace it back, step by step, to its earliest observable genesis: n-1 begat n, n-2 begat n-1, n-3 begat n-2, and so forth and so on and so forth...at a certain point the exercise is absurd, a diagnosis of butterfly burps and other unanalyzable initial conditions.

In the middle of a panel discussion at the WAC/CAC Symposium at UNC Greensboro a week and a half ago I caught myself playing the Causality Game, if only for a minute or so. "What in the world has brought me here?" I asked myself. I was sitting in the center of a room filled mostly with rhetoricians and composition specialists, the people in front of me backed by a graceful arc of windows filled with bright blue sky and overlooking a lush and verdant campusscape. It was a gorgeous day outside.

I took mental stock.

"I'm 34 years old," I thought, "and I'm a mathematician. I feel strongly about more than math: writing matters, too. I care enough about writing to be here, to be in this room. In fact I'm surrounded by teachers of writing, and they're talking about writing. They're talking about assessing writing. Someone's just asked a question. What did she ask?"

It wasn't a question, it was a comment. It was a divisive comment, meant to be divisive. For an hour or more (before lunch, at which time the combatants no doubt held parley) it was Duke and Wake and Davidson versus all the rest of the room. Old habits die hard.

"What brought me here? What right have I?" I smiled to myself, I almost laughed out loud.

For a minute or so I clumsily fumbled with the knot that tied today to yesterday, trying to make sense of the tangled mess of words and numbers that sat upon my lap, and after a bit I said "ah fuck it" and let it drop.

Oughtn't I be happy enough knowing that I'm happy enough, and leave it at that? Who cares how I got here?

I watched the first episode of Carl Sagan's Cosmos yesterday on Hulu. It's been years since I've seen that, and seeing it again reminded me of just how strong an influence it had on me when I was a child. Sagan was a boyhood hero, and I can safely say that few individuals more strongly than he made me want to be a scientist of some kind. (My dad's about the only one that's got him beat.)

I just looked it up: Carl Sagan's been dead for over 12 years now. I'm glad that I had a chance to see him speak before he passed away.

Just that once.

He was as witty and wise as I knew he'd be.

And now he's gone. And now I'm here. And I've got now what I'd wanted then.

As I'm fond of saying, I'm blessed (there, I said it!) in that I get paid to do something I'm damned good at and that I love doing, so much so that I'd do it even if I didn't get paid. (This is good, because as of today I'm getting paid 0.5% less than last year to do what I do.)

What more could I want?

The wants are never-ending.

I want a roomful of peers and pupils who are in love with learning and who aren't afraid to share that love with each other.

I want unlimited time with which to elaborate every beautiful idea those folks can come up with.

I want unfettered, unfeigned, unrestricted, unlimited inquiry.

I want every who what when where why and how to be asked and answered.

I want to not be so goddamned tired when there's so much more to do, and I want the same for everyone around me.

I want...

...I want...

...I want this semester to be over.

Summer's nearly here, and as my wonderful friend Bedelia hinted on her Facebook page a few days back, next semester's already calling on us to atone for this term's teacherly sins with a drawn-out dunk in the salvific waters of early classroom preparation.


One and a half more weeks. It's been a hell of a ride, folks.

Take one last deep breath, we're almost there.

It's come to this, has it? Ever wonder what got you here?

Wonder away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what a great post. I think everything you said was inspiring and insightful. Wondering how we end up where we are is fun...and I must say that if a year an a half ago someone told me I would be taking Calculus and be on track for more math every semester until I graduate, I would have probably called that person a liar. As one of your students, I have to say that my success in mathematics in college is directly related to the time and energy that you devote to your students in and out of the classroom. Thanks for a great year of math Patrick!