Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shame! Shame!

I've spent 15 of the last 32 hours or so printing, sorting, collating, filing, annotating, ranking the applications submitted by this year's REU aspirants.

We ended up receiving materials from 261 different students, and 190 of those were complete enough to consider (missing at most one rec letter). I've begun the painstaking process of identifying those students I'd most like to invite to this year's installment of "Groups, Graphs, and Geometry," to begin in early June.

I'd like to share a few things that irked me about the materials submitted by the various parties to this process, both the student applicants and their faculty recommenders.

To the students: should you ever apply to an REU or to a similar program and have need to call on your professors to write a letter on your behalf, please have the courtesy to actually submit your application. If sometimes world-famous math professors have taken the time to tailor-make a two-page letter describing your talents, you can take the time to follow through on your plans to apply to the program for which you needed that two-page letter in the first place.

To the faculty: should one of your students call on your to write a letter on her behalf, please take the time to ensure that you actually know that student's name, and know how to spell it right. (Faculty from R-1 research-intensive institutions are often guilty of this oversight.) It also wouldn't hurt to bother to write more than two or three lines elegizing your student, particularly if she's a good one. (I'm making the assumption that should you have agreed to write a letter in the first place, the student likely merits the support you're offering.) There's only so much one can read into a letter whose entirety is "Cassandra was a strong student. I've had her in three classes, and she's done well in all of them. She's usually good about getting her assignments in on time. I think she'll be great in your program."

Common courtesy, folks: I'm only asking for common courtesy.

To be continued, I'm sure.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Not much to say at the moment (or, more accurately, not much time in which to say it), but I wanted to take a moment to welcome to UNCA our recent hire, a talented young scholar who will here be known as Kelli. She'll be joining us in Fall 2010.

Welcome, Kelli!

Kelli comes to us with experience in directing REU students, using writing-intensive methods in her courses, and designing student-centered learning activities.

Needless to say, I'm excited about her joining our department.

Now I'm off to campus. Avanti!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Best...working weekend...ever.

I'm three hours into my work on the rhetoric of mathematical writing with Bella, Damian, and Nicola.

This is awesome. I am having a blast. I am learning so much about so many things I thought I knew already.

I need to hang out with rhetoricians more often!

About last night...

Having a few spare minutes before I have to get underway with this long working weekend, and feeling guilty as hell about my long internet absence in this space, I thought I'd take a few moments to follow up on one or two of the brief comments I made in my peremptory post last night before leaving for Charleston.

Indeed, I am in Charleston. I'll be here for a couple of days, during which time I'll be working away with the three folks from The College of Charleston whom I met at the CWPA conference back in September 2009. (Nicola's already got an alias; I'll call the other two Damian and Bella.) I'm not sure how much I've said about this project: we'll be digging into the weekly written reports penned by the REU students during the 2008 and 2009 programs, analyzing them from a rhetorical point of view, using them as mileposts to help us chart the development of the students as professional writers of mathematics as the program progressed. In order to help perceive this development I've refined the list of rough criteria I developed a while back on this blog. We'll see how that goes.

I'm tremendously excited about all of this; I feel like I'm taking my scholarship of academic writing to a new level.

Speaking of which, I finished up and sent off the book proposal I've been planning for several months now, flinging it across the country on diaphanous electronic wings. Its working title is "More than numbers: writing-to-learn and writing in the disciplines in the mathematical sciences," and I've submitted the proposal to Jossey-Bass via an editor I was directed to by my wonderfully supportive grad school colleague, Erdrick (thanks, man!), who himself has a text published through Wiley (Jossey-Bass's parent company). I'll let folks know how things progress on that front.

About the allusion I made last night to advancements in IBL: I've reached that point in the term at which I'm leading the students in the tedious work of integrating rational functions via the method of partial fractions, and, just as I've done for the past few years when teaching this topic, I'm using the step-by-step worksheets I've developed to help the students guide themselves through the algebraically intense process of partial fractions.

I always enjoy myself at this point, since I'm doing next to nothing as far as lecturing goes, and it's up to the students to chart their own courses. And more than ever before, the students are having a blast.

"Are we going to be doing more work in groups today?" one of my favorite students in the class asked eagerly at the start of class on Wednesday.

"Yup," I said.

"Awesome!" They couldn't wait to get into sets of three or four and dive right in.

Yesterday I hit the pause button and said, "so let me ask this: these worksheets, this step-by-step deal, with me saying a few words before letting you all take the reins, whaddaya'll think? Are you all getting a lot out of this? Is this something that's helping you learn?" The response I got was a more eager "YES!" than I've yet gotten from them this semester. It was tremendously encouraging.

I developed these IBL guides a few years back as a means of guiding students through what I've always thought is one of the least exciting topics in Calc II, but I've never taken the time to put together similar sheets for most other topics in the term. Given the students' obvious receptivity to this method this term, I'm going to continue with this set-up for a few more sections and see how things go.

I know I've indicated somewhere in a previous post (I don't have time to find which one precisely) that I've always had an inexplicable resistance to upping the students' centrality in the first-year math courses, and I've only very slowly inched towards the edge of the cliff from which I must take that leap of faith. I'm delighted that, now that I'm standing by the canyon's rim, my students are ready to push me over.

Yes, I realize that I just wrote that my students are ready to push me over a cliff, and moreover that I'm happy about it. I made no mention of the bungee cord tied around my ankles.

I'll leave with the following bon mots from a student of mine: yesterday one of my Calc II students compared my lecturing style to the kid's show Blue's Clues. "The way you pause when you want us to respond is totally like on that show. There'll be silence, and then someone will mumble something in response." Never having seen the show, I had to check it out on YouTube. Sure enough, two minutes into a ten-minute clip in which the title character and her human companion Chris join another cartoon dog ("Magenta") in a scavenger hunt, I was treated to an example of what my student had described, almost verbatim:

"I don't know what shape this is, kids. What shape is this?"

"It's a triangle!"

I LOLed.

Though she was kind enough not to mention it, I also noticed how my classroom manner is not unlike Chris's: we both overact the hell out of almost every line we're given.

"Okay, girls and boys, today we're going to work on integrating powers of sine and cosine!"

Great. My Calc II class is like a children's show.

On that note, I'll bid adieu. My working day's about to begin.

Friday, February 19, 2010

No excuses

I have no good excuse for not posting on this blog in a long, long time.

Besides being busy as hell.

Lots of exciting stuff going on (book proposals, projects in rhetorical analysis, advances in inquiry-based learning, hiring committee hijinx, REU applications up the wazoo, more speaking invitations, etc.), but I'm off to Charleston for a working weekend with the good folks in the College of Charleston Department of English.

I'll check in again soon!

Sunday, February 07, 2010


The semester began with a truncated week, half of the department gone to the Joint Math Meetings in San Francisco. Two weeks later I scrubbed a Friday class to make way for a writing workshop that would never be, and since then (just in the past week and a half) we've had two late starts and a full-out cancellation, the latter making academic my decision to cancel my Friday class for the second time for the non-existent workshop.

The upshot? We've yet to hit our stride.

Calculus II seems to be chugging along nicely, but I feel like Topology's full of fits and starts. Half of the students enrolled in the course are each going through one or another personal crisis, and various tricky concepts are tripping up all but the strongest among them. For instance, the definition most central to the course, namely that of topology, involves a set whose elements are sets; the same is true of basis, and the relationships between these two sets of sets are subtle and anything but clear. What's helped them most so far is to emphasize and re-emphasize that

1. nothing will help one more than knowing the definitions inside and out, and the relationships between them;

2. one is not really thinking about a problem if one is not writing about it, drawing pictures to help oneself understand it, or experimenting with various methods with which one might solve it: one must write to learn; and

3. the most important things to record in performing any proof are what you know and what you need: having written these down explicitly will often take one halfway to the end of the proof.

I've not yet heard much from the students regarding how they feel about the homework presentations, but they've been stepping up to the plate: for Homework 3 all five problems were covered.

We'll find a groove.

Meanwhile both the weather and overly complicated scheduling issues have wreaked havoc on committee schedules, and our faculty search has eaten up hour after hour in places scattered throughout my calendar. (Incidentally, the candidates who've visited us so far have given me a good deal of food for thought regarding teaching and learning, but at this time, with a week or two left in the search, I don't feel it would be right to say much about it.)

What's the next week hold in store? Two more candidate interviews, more preparations for the upcoming MAA conference at Elon University and next fall's conference on math and poetry, and work on several writing-related projects. So much going on, so little time to finish it all...let me know if you want in on the action.