Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The editors are in

I'm in the middle of the first "editorial meeting" with two of the students from the current 280 class as we go over the seven sections their classmates have provided for inclusion in the first "chapter" of our course "textbook." (I've never before so horribly abused quotation marks.)

It's going wonderfully: we've had great conversations about exposition and style, and about the appropriateness of various arguments and explanations. They're making wonderful and cogent points about various aspects of their peers' writing, and they're suggesting meaningful additions to the current draft, which will be taken up again this afternoon by two more of their peers.

I have to get back to it now, but I thought I'd check in. I'll report more later.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Things students say that generally don't impress me...

...particularly when they turn out not to be true (which happens at least 50% of the time):

1. "I already know how to [perform a straightforward, utterly formulaic and therefore not difficult, acontextual, and unintuitive computation] from taking this class in high school."

2. "I'm really good at writing papers, so I don't have to start them until the night before they're due."

3. "My high school teacher forced us to memorize all of these formulas."

(I hope not) to be continued...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pretrial discovery

You may recall that in addition to my dedicated service to the Writing Intensive subcommittee and my interest in writing and writing pedagogy, I also double as a math professor.

Today my Calc I classes spend their respective class periods meeting with one another in groups as they took part in the first-ever "pretrial discovery" I've organized for the Newton v. Leibniz project. The brainchild of one of the students who took this course last semester, this activity was meant to give the various parties a chance to meet with one another (Newton's team with Leibniz's, Leibniz's team with Leibniz's colleagues, both litigating parties with the historical/mathematical experts, and so forth) and coordinate arguments and defenses.

For the most part I think the hour or so was well-used. Certain parties dove into the project with gusto. Nora, Leibniz's lead attorney in the first section, was champing at the bit as she met with Newton's team. I'm eager to see how valiantly she defends her client next week. Meanwhile Nicolas (playing one of Newton's colleagues), though a bit more subdued than Nora, clearly had victory on his mind as he talked through various arguments Newton might use in order to win the case. With each jab I threw his was as devil's advocate, he feinted feistily and jabbed back. I think he'll make a good witness.

While I'm actually on the subject of math, I should say a little bit about a project in 280 that's threatening to come off the rails. Though for the most part the course is running along smoothly and the students are doing marvelously, the only new component to the course, the student-authored textbook, has stalled on the semester's roadside. It's partly my fault, as I've been lax in instituting deadlines and laxer still in spurring the students to work. This is in part because they've already got leviathan tasks facing them with Exam 1 due tomorrow, a new homework set to be handed out in class tomorrow and due next week, and various high-level handouts to digest and deliver in class.

I hope to spend a little bit of time tonight in helping the students get their shit together:

1. There are several sections of the first "chapter" already written in languishing on the "textbook forum" on Moodle. I'll collate them into a single document and ask one of the students to take a stab at editing over the weekend.

2. Though hesitant to do this at first, I'll bow to the suggestions of one of the commenters on this blog and one of the current students and put together a "checklist" of issues that should be addressed in the first chapter. I'll pen similar checklists for the second and third chapters and distribute those as needed. (We're in the middle of the third chapter, on sets, right now.)

3. I'll put off asking students to work on the second chapter until a bit later in the semester; it might make a good review topic at the semester's end, when we're likely to have at least a little free time.

4. I'll firm up a clear and coherent schedule for the writing of the third chapter, to commence at the end of next week.

So that's 280 these days, folks. It's really a joy of a class this semester. Last term's class was so large that it was overwhelming and unwieldy. Though I loved many of the students in the class, teaching the course was a tiring enterprise. This semester's class has rejuvenated me.

Before I go I should mention that I invited my new colleagues from the College of Charleston to collaborate with me on my assessment of REU students' technical writing. I'm excited to see what comes of this project, and delighted to get to work with my new friends.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Liveblogging CWPA 2009: Part 3

1:46: Heavy with lunch, we enter our afternoon session, a recap of this morning's small-group breakout sessions on various topics of concern to WPAs and other practitioners of writing (sustaining programs, organizing writing centers, organizing WAC/WI programs, and designing and directing sophomore writing courses).

1:48: Chris Warnick and Jessie Moore update everyone on sustainability and writing centers.

One issue is setting aside time for reflecting on objectives and successes.

Very poorly developed in many WPAs is the ability to say "no," and this attribute can effect program sustainability: if the precedent is set that a few people will do it all, then once those people are gone, the program may falter.

There is substantial dovetailing of both expertise and responsibility in working with other departments and programs on common writing-related goals.

1:52: The WI group (the one in which I played a part this morning) reports back. Much of our discussion focused on faculty development, achieving faculty buy-in, and managing WAC/WI programs with minimal mission, resources, and oversight. We also recognized that the bridge between first-year composition courses and more advanced disciplinary writing courses is built on the backs of writing centers and sophomore-level writing courses.

2:07: Will Banks (East Carolina University) directs his sophomore-writing group members to share their ideas.

Tony Atkins (UNC Wilmington) speaks on the idea of bringing in folks from other disciplines to teach more discipline-specific writing courses as sophomore-level offerings: not only does it help to stretch a tight budget, but it also helps to involve faculty from areas not typically involved with teaching lower-level general education courses. Moreover, it helps faculty to avoid the academic stagnation that can occur when a person teaches the same course year after year after year.

2:12: Jessie Moore returns to ask people to center themselves on some patches of common ground: (1) the issue of sustainability, (2) the encouragement of principled decision-making rather than purely logistical or fiduciary decision-making, (3) the need for physical space for meeting, planning, and reflecting, (4) the need for cross-program conversations, (5) the issue of expertise: who brings what to the conversation, and how can everyone feel and be needed?, and (6) the need for time for faculty to pursue other academic interests without feeling their lives are dedicated solely to oversight of unwieldy programs.

2:16: Our own Dee James discusses UNC Asheville's Lorena Russell's idea of instituting an "expertise barter" system by means of which area colleges and universities can effect short-term exchanges of faculty in order to more widely spread faculty expertise around the region. Jessie and Mary Alm (UNC Asheville) follow up by indicating other ways in which expertise can be exchanged.

2:24: Jessie Moore asks what CWPA can do to encourage this sort of cross-fertilization.

Observation du jour

The energy a student puts into the revision process is directly proportional to the sense of ownership and authorship the student feels she has regarding the content and structure of the piece of writing (or mathematics, for that matter) being revised.

Liveblogging CWPA 2009: Part 2

9:06: The folks from the College of Charleston are describing their adjustment of the first-year writing requirements. Chris Warnick begins...

The new program replaces a two-semester FYC sequence with a single semester course. Problems with this set-up? The second semester often saw too much focus on literature and de-emphasis of composition. Students often perceived it as redundant.

The new set up features a one-semester, four-hour course, streamlined for pedagogical and financial reasons. It is hoped that this one-semester course will see more intentional instruction of composition, and it's certainly helped financially: the college's dependence on adjuncts has been greatly reduced by the drastic reduction in the number of required instructors.

They've had to face and conquer various myths about writing instruction, including (1) the notion that writing skills "transfer" from one discipline to others (reality: this is nonsense) and (2) the notion that two semesters of writing instruction are better than one (reality: no number of first-year courses will adequately prepare students for disciplinary writing).

9:17: Amy Mecklenburg-Faenger continues, playing "Negative Nancy," addressing challenges faced with the changes they've made...

The appearance on the surface is that the department is very much on the same page with regards to writing instruction. However, there are always different perceptions of the nature and effectiveness of curricular change, and in reality there has been a good deal of resistance to the changes, and the WAC component concomitant their overhaul has yet to take hold.

There's a leadership vacuum, with no one there to oversee the program directly, resulting in inconsistent quality of instruction. In particular, one could not assume that students in the second-semester course had been taught particular skills in the first semester-course.

There's very little training and faculty development, and since the responsibility for maintaining the courses is shared throughout and governed by the entire English Department, when pivotal decisions are made regarding composition instruction, the votes of the "non-experts" get swamped by those of the "experts."

There's no centralized place (physically speaking), leading to a defocused existence in space and a lack of coherence program-wide.

There's the notion that writing about literature is superior in some way to basic composition, and the notion that students will "learn to write by reading."

There are antiquated grading systems still in place that punish students for almost arbitrary, acontextual compositional errors.

The nature and quality of thesis-driven research-based writing is highly inconsistent from section to section.

There's fear on the part of faculty that they're being micromanaged, being told what to teach. In reality, a well-designed, shared curriculum ensures that faculty don't have to start at zero, and can benefit from a well-developed and standardized curriculum. Students, too, can be assured that they will receive similar instruction, no matter who their instructor is.

9:35: Meg Scott-Copses continues...

They've amassed a goodly pile of materials in the process of redesigning the curriculum.

A list of student goals for the single-semester course helped reify the intentions of the course's faculty. A list of recommended readers help as well. Rather than mandating a particular reader, they've attempted to standardize an assignment sequence: (1) summary and response, (2) analysis, and (3) synthesis.

They've been partnering with the library in coordinating instruction of research and information literacy skills, and have developed a list of expectations regarding this instruction. These expectations focus on instruction on critical evaluation of sources.

Now, what to do with the fourth hour of the course? Conference with students? If so, in class, in small groups, or individually? This fourth hour gives instructors extra time to fit in instruction they would ordinarily have had to do "on their own time."

But how is it all working? Hard to say. To say something about it,

9:53: Jennifer Burgess continues, on assessment...She's built an assessment program from the ground up. It's a hefty program!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Common ground

I noticed a long time ago that I tend to have better conversations about pedagogy and academic theory in general with people outside of my own discipline than I have with people in it.

It was only tonight as I was talking with a couple of newly-met colleagues in rhetoric and composition that I finally figured out why this likely is: when I'm talking shop with folks from wildly different disciplines, I'm forced to seek out common ground with them, and that ground is usually centered upon academic fundamentals like classroom practices, curricular development, pedagogical theory, and the like.

With the aforementioned colleagues (one of whom teaches at the College of Charleston, and the other at Montreat College) I shared a wide-ranging discussion on college pedagogy, especially as regards writing, and we had what I felt were some excellent insights on college students and their education.

Among them: that first-year college students are delightful people with whom to interact because they're liminal beings in so many ways. They're positively brilliant one minute and downright stupid the next. They're jaded, arrogant, and self-assured in some ways, but naïve, immature, and credulous in others. They're truly passionate about learning, but they don't want to take the time to take it on, and while they've got enough energy and enthusiasm to change the world, their piss-poor time-management skills can barely get them from breakfast to lunch on any given day.

They're awesome people.

And as my new friend Nicola said tonight, whenever you're interacting with them, you've got the power to truly change their lives and offer them an eye-opening, life-changing experience. As lovely as they are, our upper-level majors, as a rule, have drunk the flavor of Kool-Aid we've offered them over and over, and they don't need their hands held any longer. They'll come to class willingly, and they'll often interact passionately once they've done so...but there's something about the wild-eyed eagerness with which freshmen feast on the ideas and concepts of a course which has first inflamed their passions.

"It's always exciting to be the first to spark that flame," Nicola said.


On that note, I'm going to hit the hay. It's a long day tomorrow (on the agenda: a presentation by my new friends from the College of Charleston, and break-out groups on various areas of concern to writing program administrators...and socializing...plenty of socializing...), and an even longer one on Wednesday.

Liveblogging CWPA 2009: Part 1

7:34: I'm sitting in the basement of the North Lodge at the Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, NC, at my second Carolina Writing Program Administrators workshop. As energized as I was by last year's conference, I'm more than eager to see how this year's program shapes up. You may recall that in the wake of last year's workshop I had planned a twelve-part series dedicated to writing-related issues...the realities of the semester set in and only five (?) parts materialized.

If I write as I go, maybe more magic will happen!

So here we go...

7:37: Jessie Moore (Elon University) is introducing "The WPA Game" to help direct us toward our objectives. Who are our allies? What are our resources? "The game is collaborative; everybody is on a single team, working together to achieve an objective." Sounds like fun!

7:46: The party has been momentarily distracted by the presence of a gigantic spider.

8:00: After an introduction to the Retreat, we return to "The WPA Game"...self-introductions now commence.

8:02: Objectives, going around the room: "keep everyone employed," "firm up WAC plans," "developing a writing fellows program," "successfully implement a new WI program," "get tenure for the current writing program co-director," "revise second semester of composition (by introducing interdisciplinary features, for instance)," "retain the second semester of a writing sequence in the face of budgetary cuts and administrative opposition," "keep a writing program afloat," "pass comprehensive exams," "get other programs/schools at the institution to buy into WAC," "pass the torch to the next WPA," "assessment, assessment, assessment," "bringing pedagogy into the 20th century," "implement the new one-semester composition curriculum," create the groundwork for a future writing program," "managing a CAC program without resources or direction," "make IWIn work institutionally," "create a sustainable life, personally, professionally, and in all other dimensions."

8:20: Random observation: it's a young bunch this year compared to last year! The torch is being passed.

8:24: We're about to play the game! More later...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"You can call me 'Patrick...'

But if you're uncomfortable with this, 'Dr. Bahls' is fine."

These are the words with which I begin most classes on the first day of any given semester. They're uttered shortly after I rock on in wearing vividly patterned shorts, Chaco sandals, and a plain uncollared T-shirt.

To my more dressed-up and buttoned-down friends in management or accountancy departments, or to my colleagues from cognate math departments in more conservative universities, I look a caricature of liberal academic hippiedom, a stereotype of the left-leaning professor. My dress is casual, my manner with my students more casual still. I'm unconcerned with formal titles, encouraging my students to think of me more as an equal than as an expert. I'm laid-back, easy-going, and down-to-earth.

And I can get away with this because...

...is it because I'm a straight white male?

I talked about this with new friends I met during a visit to Clemson University yesterday (shout-out, Nanette!): I've known for a long time now that a number of my equally-if-not-more-well-qualified female colleagues have a hard time dropping the word "doctor" from the phrase by which they ask their students to address them: the word is an extra layer of armor plate that protects them from charges of academic inadequacy. ("Of course she's qualified to teach this course, she's a doctor!") I've only recently begun to think about the privileges bestowed upon me by other markers of my sociological makeup.

In the "plus" column: male, straight, white, non-disabled, holder of an advanced (terminal) degree.

In the "minus" column: atheist, untenured, left-handed.

If it were a matter of toting up points to determine my net level of privilege and power, I'd probably come out ahead: my pluses are more numerous than my minuses, and generally exert more force. I'll never have to worry about going through my career being defined as a "white male mathematician," while some of my finest colleagues have had to put up with appellations like "one of the best female research mathematicians in the game." (Allan G. Johnson, in Privilege, power, and difference, p. 33: "People are tagged with other labels that point to the lowest-status group they belong to, as in "woman doctor" or "black writer," but never "white lawyer" or "male senator.")

What assumptions, fair or unfair, intended or unintended, privileging or oppressing, am I taking with me into the classroom?

For instance: having a septuagenarian student in one section of my calculus classes reminds me that I can't make generational assumptions, and even the laid-back level of discourse with which I often interact with students of more typical college age in an attempt to convey tricky technical ideas in a down-to-earth fashion might confer unearned advantages to them to the disadvantage of someone less familiar with today's slang and pop cultural references. This same highly fluid "code-switching" that I do in my classroom, which puts many (most?) students at ease, may also put up unintended obstacles for students whose first language is not English.

What about race? At a school like UNC Asheville (which is woefully undiverse from a racial point of view), it's easy to fall into normative assumptions about the ways in which people of various racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds perceive and receive new ideas and new information, even ideas and information as abstract and "objective" as those found in mathematics. Am I unwittingly privileging the vast majority of my calculus students, who are white, to the disadvantage of the meager few (no more than five or six out of sixty-five this semester) who are of color? Obviously I'd like to think that I'm not, but privileging assumptions are often subtle. What would such assumptions look like in the mathematics classroom?

More to come, certainly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Making space

It's incredible how much the physical configuration of a classroom (or other gathering setting) can influence the dynamics of the gathering that therein takes place.

As I settled into the seat I'd chosen for myself at the outset of a committee meeting I would be chairing this morning, I noticed that I'd unconsciously chosen to position myself across the table from the others who had already arrived, going so far as to reposition a small classroom table to that it angled up against those already occupied by my colleagues, forming a small triangle with theirs.

I told myself at the time that by rearranging the seats into more or less a circular formation I was just trying to create a physical environment that would facilitate greater inclusion, but soon after a few others arrived and seated themselves at the tables across from me, I realized that unwittingly placed myself in a position of physical "dominance" relative to them.

This sort of physical domination goes on in our classrooms every day, even in those classes which are most intentionally designed to avoid such domination. Permanent classroom configurations often reinforce this domination: even if the classroom's desks are not bolted into the floor, quite often the classroom's communal writing surfaces (whiteboards, blackboards, et cetera) are placed in such a fashion to privilege one side of the classroom over the others, and it is at this side that anyone (instructor or student) hoping to take lead of the class for any length of time must stand, distinguishing that person for a time as "the authority."

How might this be avoided, short of eliminating all manner of written communication during class? (While this may be possible in some courses, it's well-nigh impossible in mathematics for any sustained length of time.) Install communal writing surfaces on every wall of a classroom? Provide resources for fully electronic communication in the classroom setting?

To be continued, I'm sure...

Monday, September 14, 2009

But wait!, there's more...

Already this semester I've had two 280 students ask me about the use of the word "but" in mathematical proofs. This is remarkable if only because none of the roughly 80 students I've had in this class in the past few years have ever asked about that word choice.

"I don't get it," one of the class's sharpshooters said this morning. " 'But' seems to have negative connotations. Why would you use that word?" She'd been puzzled by my writing something along the lines of "The lefthand side gives us blah blah blah...but this value is nothing other than..."

I had a hard time explaining it, and I hemmed and hawed. "It's like you're leading the reader to a surprise ending...or..."

"It sounds like an infomercial," one of the other students broke in, "You know, like 'but wait! There's more!' "

"Exactly!" I said. "That's exactly it! You're injecting a little bit of theater into the proof, indicating that you shouldn't be satisfied with what's already come, you're about to raise the stakes a bit and up the ante."

Only after a handful of jokes about Billy Mays doing mathematics were we able to continue.

I'm impressed with this group's acuity and attention to subtle details. The semester just keeps getting better and better.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

On maturity

I'll likely be putting up a rather lengthy post later today concerning thoughts I had during the first meeting of my latest faculty Learning Circle (on Allan G. Johnson's Privilege, power, and difference, 2nd ed., 2005), which took place yesterday.

For the time being, I just wanted to share a simple observation I made last night as I worked my way through this week's Calc I homework: almost unfailingly, seniors in any major (no matter how closely related to math, no matter how great their raw math talent) will do well (B or better) in a Calc I class. Nowhere is this more true than on the homework, on which seniors typically outscore first-year students by a substantial margin.

Why is this?

I believe it's because to do well in a relatively low-level course like Calc I, one need do little more than pay attention in class, take good notes, and complete homework cleanly and correctly and punctually. These things done, quizzes and exams will generally take care of themselves. Seniors excel at these things because they're mature, they're well organized, they're adept at managing their time. (In fact, I would say that the number one difference between first-year students and seniors is their ability to budget their time effectively.)

I've got two seniors in my Calc I classes right now (one an Economics major, the other a Health and Wellness major), and despite their relative inexperience in calculus, they're both riding roughshod over most of the classes' first-years. Why? Their homework is gorgeous; it's clear that they both take the time to do it right, and I know at least one of them does it in multiple drafts. In doing the homework well, they're solidifying their understanding of every last concept we discuss in class, and thus they're able to do pretty well on the quizzes, too.

They're no exception: in classes past I've noticed that most seniors exhibit similar success.

A tip for the young 'uns: start the homework right away. Seriously. I don't say that over and over and over for the fun of it. Take time to do it neatly, legibly, correctly. The homework really is where you do much of your learning, as you puzzle through problems and sort the ideas out from one another. (This is especially the case in classes less like our Calc I classes, wherein you wouldn't see as much hands-on activity as we do.)

For now, farewell. Next up: "The privilege to call myself Patrick."

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Throwin' the book at 'em

So we've taken the first few tentative steps toward writing a "textbook" for our 280 course, as described in an earlier post. To get the ball rolling, I've asked students to share, on Moodle, the on-line course management software to which we've all got access, a topic on from the first "section" of the course on which they'd like to write a paragraph or two, and for which they feel they could construct an example or an exercise.

So far only 1/4 of the class has responded to my call for topics, so I'm going to have to ride them a little harder.

Once they've all made their suggestions, they'll each choose a topic and submit their work (done in LaTeX) on Moodle, and one or two students will volunteer as editors to sort it out and piece it together into a single narrative to which the others will be able to respond.

I'm a little concerned about how long this process is going to take: I have a feeling we'll be done with the course's second "section" (proof methods; we're halfway through it now, about to begin induction on Wednesday after the Labor Day weekend ends) before we have a chance to finalize the first chapter of the textbook, and so the concepts therein contained may not be as fresh in their minds by the time they're asked to write about them.

On the hand, constructing the textbook material could be a good review.

We'll see how it goes.

For the time being, I'm just going to wait for a few more entries to come in via Moodle.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Signs of student learning, or, twenty-five minutes of time well-used

I've got a reputation for moving a bit more slowly than my colleagues through the same course material, and this semester's proving to be no exception. While one of my fellow Calc I instructor's classes is already pounding away at trig derivatives (judging from the terminals bits of his lecture I was able to catch before following his act with my own in the classroom we hold in common), students in my class are just now starting to get a feel for limits and an understanding of how they might be useful.

Why the slow pace? While student-centered learning makes for meaningful learning opportunities, it's certainly lacking in celerity.

Sure, I could have lectured our way through the multistep radioactive decay problem in five minutes, but I'm pretty darned sure my students got more out of it by working through the difficulties themselves, one small but crucial point at a time...even if it took twenty-five minutes to work through the same example that could have been done in 20% of the time in a "traditional" fashion. Evidence for the exercise's success was immediate and evident, and right away I took note and pointed it out to the students in my first section.

"You know what I just noticed, three minutes ago?" I asked them, as we drew near to the exercise's end. "I saw thirty-two pencils scribbling away, without pause, on thirty-two sheets of paper, not a single one in sight at a standstill. Every one of you was busily working away at a solution, because as far as I could tell, every one of you understood what you needed to do to calculate the half-life we're now looking for.

"Compare this with the situation at the outset of the exercise, at which time most of you were staring blankly at your papers, wondering timorously what first step to take. Something happened between then and now: you gained confidence, you gained understanding. Something happened."

I was very happy with the exercise. There'll be more like it tomorrow.