Saturday, March 27, 2010

Trust me

Elon's over.

At last.

And after several months of planning, it came off all right. And the planning was worth it, as annoying as it often was: the students (particularly the younger ones!) got a lot out of it.

The drive out was a pleasant one (with only a light spray of rain), and the three-hour trip to the conference site gave the students (several of whom didn't yet know each other well) open up a bit and build bridges. As I told them then, for the first of several times during the next 48 hours or so, "you don't really know someone until you've got to a conference with them."

Obligatory alcohol-induced first-night revelry out of the way, the conference began on a high note. After an hour at the Project NExT session, I headed over to the first round of Math Jeopardy! in which our school has ever fielded a team. The Asheville team faced off against three others, and though our folks stumbled a bit at first (with a score at one point dipping into negative numbers), they quickly rebounded. Georgia Southern's team ran through the differential equations category, but with those questions depleted the UNCA team blazed through the category on "trans" words, pulling ahead, the ten or so of us in the audience exultantly pumping our fists with each right answer. A brief slump put them in second place going into Final Jeopardy, and it was only because of conservative wagering that our team came in second in the round...and ultimately ninth out of thirty-four teams. I was floored, and beaming with pride.

The conference itself began with a plenary talk on female mathematicians in the time of Euler. One of the central figures in the talk was the Italian mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi (of "Witch" fame), a topic I knew would be of interest to Ino, a student I've come to know as something of an Italophile. Sitting behind her, I tried to judge her level of enthusiasm during the talk. My suspicions were confirmed when I talked to her after the lecture was over, noting the excitement in her eyes. I've since suggested she might look into the possibility of translating the work of some other classical Italian mathematician as a research project straddling math and her beloved language.

The REU panel my colleague Lancelot and I put together was well-received, with nearly 100 people attending the panels and talks. I most enjoyed the student panel, on which three UNCA students, each of whom had taken part in a very different summer research experience, and one of the participants in my 2009 REU led a discussion regarding the aspects of a successful REU program. The discussion was open and frank, touching on negative aspects of summer programs as well as positive ones. As Lancelot said, our panels (both the faculty-led one and the student-led one) each could have been an hour long, and the conversations would have remained as rich at the end as at the beginning.

My new department-mate Kelli and I had a chance to catch up for a bit after the REU session ended, and after she and I and Lancelot hung out for a bit shooting the breeze I headed back to the hotel to lead our entire UNCA contingent to a Thai restaurant I happened to spy on the hotel's dining list: most of us trekked halfway across town to enjoy a surprisingly lovely dinner together in the company of twenty or so of our closest friends.

I spent most of last night putting the finishing touches on my talk for this morning, a fifteen-minute piece titled "The role of trust in teaching and learning." Here I had a few words to say about the ways in which the affective effects our learning environments as strongly as does the cognitive. More engaging to me than my talk were the conversations with my students that led up to it, in which I asked them to offer me their own views on trust in teaching. In every one of these conversations (ones similar to which I would recommend my fellow teachers to have with their own students) the students were lively and animated. I suspect that students may be so animated because they're not often asked questions like "how do you feel about the work you're doing in class?" or "how might your professors most easily earn your respect and trust?"

I think my talk was somewhat well-received, judging from comments people made to me afterward. I was a little worried that its rather unorthodox topic and methodology (highly qualitative, empirical, and anecdotal) would rub some of the more traditionalists the wrong way, but I'm not overly concerned. I feel strongly about what it is I had to say, and I can live with whatever discomfiture it may have caused a few of the gray-beards.

During the next couple of hours I had a chance to catch up with previous years' REU students (Dione from 2008 and Daria from 2009, who'd already spoken and served on a panel in the REU session the day before) and take in a couple of talks given by a few of my Asheville students: Siegfried's discussion of logarithmic concavity was breezy and easygoing, and Uriah and Ulrich's overview of last semester's textbook assignment in 280 was fantastic. Not only did they offer a full and accurate picture of the assignment's structure; they also highlighted the ways in which the assignment served as an extremal example of a writing-to-learn project and the ways in which bridges to other aspects of mathematics could be built from the abutments it offered. (Ulrich mentioned his discovery of the software package Geogebra, inspired by his need to create attractive graphics for the textbook. Reminder: the latest version of the textbook can be found by following this this link.)

The conference over, we hit the road again. I wish I'd had the van miked on the way home: Uriah, Iris, and Ino and I spent much of the drive back to Asheville talking about various things, including AP exams, life plans, Southern accents, and, yet again, trust in teaching. By the time we'd returned to the parking lot we'd left a little over two days before, several of the students were zombified from over-stimulation and lack of sleep, but everyone seemed happy and all professed to have been stimulated by the past days' goings-on. The younger students in particular, including those who may still have been on the fence regarding the pursuit of a math degree, were sold. Several are already ready for their next conference.

I'm tired. But happy. And proud. They're wonderful people.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wha...? A new post!? (Complete with interrobang...)

Yeah, yeah. I know it's been a while.

It's been a crazy semester.

I've lost track of the number of snow days (three?) and late starts (four? or five?) we've had...there was one point at which I met with each of my classes precisely once in the span of 14 days: in the week prior to Spring Break I'd canceled Monday's Calc II classes for some reason I've since forgotten, and Tuesday and Wednesday ended up both being snow days, so I met with my Topology class and one of the Calc II sections only on Thursday, and with the other Calc II section only on Friday...and then Spring Break came.

Needless to say, this threw everyone's trains of thought off the rails, and in the subsequent weeks (the last couple) we've all been running around like mad trying to pick up the pieces.

I've made a number of mid-course adjustments in order to try to compensate for the craziness. I've scrapped several "less critical" sections from the Calc II calendar, and I've changed up the syllabus for Topology: having found from several of the most dedicated students in that class that the textbook assignments were not proving to be an effective means of learning the material, I ditched those. Many of the concepts were proving very difficult for the students to paraphrase, so that only a handful of the students were producing textbook submissions which were anything more than reiterations of my own course notes. Moreover, the homework assignments have been difficult enough to demand substantial amounts of the students' attention. In return for scrubbing the textbook project, I've asked the students to redouble their efforts at revising their homework, and so far they've kept up their end of the bargain.

I feel strongly that flexibility, both on the part of the teacher and on the part of the students, is critical in designing an effective learning environment. I've never been able to fathom faculty members who use the same rigid note sets semester after semester, or who plan precisely which exercises they'll assign to their classes for the duration of the term on the term's very first day.

Yeah, Topology could be moving a bit more smoothly, but as this is the first time I've taught the course, a few fits and starts are inevitable, I suppose. I appreciate my students' patience as I figure out what works and what doesn't.

Calc II, on the other hand, is cruising over smooth seas.

What else is new?


...I'm still waiting to hear back from Jossey-Bass regarding my book proposal. I'm hopeful that the proposal will get picked up...although I'm not sure where I'm going to find the time to finish the two chapters I'd promised by May. I've got an outline for the first chapter worked up, but little more than that right now.

There's been little movement on the rhetorical analysis of REU students' writing I began several weeks ago with the Charleston folks. Last I knew, Bella was planning on making some revisions to the initial version I posted on our Google site a few weeks back. Nothin' new there, though.

The Writing Intensive Subcommittee's knocking off new proposals left and right...moving to the Google Docs platform has made our work dramatically simpler and more streamlined. And right now ILSOC's workload has been relatively light as we've all hunkered down in our respective subcommittees to put together faculty development workshops (WI's planning one on writing instruction for ESL students, based on a workshop run at this year's Meeting in the Middle, the Carolina Writing Program Administrators' spring conference) and hammer out assessment plans. WI's assessment plan's been in the works for over a year now, and many of the materials have been collected's just a matter of sitting down, establishing inter-rater reliability for the rubric (say that three times really quickly), and making our way through the students' writing samples.

What else?

Tomorrow I'm truckin' over to the 2010 MAA Southeast Sectional Meetings at Elon University with a boatload (well, a vanload, anyway) of our students. We've got 23 students attending, several of whom are giving talks or posters or serving on panels. Several first-year students are going (props, Iris, Ino! What's up, Ulysses?), and they're particularly stoked. I'm glad I put forth a strong recruiting effort...I don't mind saying that it's been a ridiculous amount of work to organize transportation, housing, special events, et cetera, but I think it'll be worth it. I'm particularly proud of my most recent research students, Siegfried and Tonio, who'll both be presenting their work in the undergraduate talk sessions; and Ulrich, Uriah, and LaDonna, whose presentation late on Saturday morning will showcase their views on the 280 textbook project.

Oh...oh...oh...OHHHHH! And after two weeks or so of intense paring and picking, my colleague Tip and I plowed through the 268 REU applications we received and came up with a list of participants for this year's program. Only three students to whom we offered positions turned us down, so we got most of our top choices. I'm excited to have them all on board. I've got a good feeling about this year.

What else?

The Tenth International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference is quickly coming closer...and plans are moving ahead for the celebration of Oulipo's 50th birthday I'm helping to put together in November. We've now got a tentative list of invited speakers, informal promises of financial support, and a rough schedule of activities. Once we've confirmed our speakers list we can begin to advertise to the campus and other communities.

I've got a few more trips coming up (two in April and two in May), but once those are over I'll be looking forward to settling in for the summer.

And I'm still waiting to find out the decision on my tenure application. Should come any day now. Fingers crossed.

That's about it, pedagogically speaking. I'll be sure to check in if anything noteworthy happens, maybe from Elon.

Fare thee well!