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.

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