Sunday, May 16, 2010


Though not all of them are directly pedagogical, I've done a few things today about which a few words might be here said. They're definitely uncleaned jewels, diamonds in the rough. Extracting these dusty gems from the cracked earth in which they still lie, polishing them, cutting them, and showing them off will give me something to do for the next few months.

Let's see...

...I hurriedly hit "publish" after blogging just an hour or so ago, elliptically, about dinner this evening with a candidate for the University Writing Center Director's position. Obviously it would be inappropriate for me to say more than I already have about the candidate or even our conversations, but suffice it to say the conversations I had with the candidate and with my own colleagues on the search committee taught me much about the university's functions.

This afternoon I spent a few hours in researching the history of the writing across the curriculum movement and the writing-to-learn movement, and in the process put together a few ideas for first-day low-stakes writing activities I might try out in my Calc I course this coming fall. I hope to do a few focused freewrites, the first of which will be designed to let the students write a little bit of a mathematical autobiography, while the subsequent ones will ask them to bring forth from the cobwebbed corners of their brains whatever it is they remember from the last math course they took, whatever and wherever and whenever it was. These latter freewrites can then funnel into a class-wide discussion.

I also spent a couple of hours reading the several remaining LANG 120 essays I've been assigned as a first-round judge in this year's First Year Writing Contest. Not long after telling Maggie that I'd been disappointed that none of them had "popped" for me (there had been several fairly good ones, but none that were clear front-runners), I read three papers, back-to-back, which were strong in every way: compositionally, grammatically, citationally. Their authors had rich vocabularies, a knack for imagery and inventive, challenging sentence structure, and a strong compositional thread along which the reader could pull her/himself from beginning to end. I was happy to find these!

This morning's run gave me the perfect chance to do a bit of self-analysis and self-assessment. I found myself asking, at this point at which the close of the academic year offers the closest thing I'll ever get to the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one, what it is I like about myself, and what it is I don't like so much: the former, ideally, I can play up and the latter, play down and try to work away...or at least admit and accept with greater awareness.

I don't know what this says about the way in which my brain makes sense of the world around me, but I found that when I wrote them down at the end of my run most of the likes and don't likes fell into dialectical pairs, nestled together like fraternal twins in some sort of psychic womb. I'm not sure, as open as I am, that I'm up for sharing every one of these pairs, but here's one which deals more directly with my role as an educator:

"I like that I'm a good problem-solver. I don't like that I often slip too quickly into problem-solving mode."

I've dealt recently with this issue in my personal life, in incidents in which I've started trying to puzzle out often inchoate and inappropriate solutions to problems about which whatever friend with whom I'm speaking really just wants to bitch. The mathematical, and, some might point out, stereotypically masculine, part of me wants to simply get at the problem and root it from the ground. This isn't always the appropriate course of action: sometimes all my interlocutor wants is for me to shut up and commiserate or empathize. (Another one of my "like/don't like" pairs, closely related to the first: "I like that I'm a good listener. I don't like that I seem to think that gives me license to respond, when often all my partner in conversation wants is someone to listen.")

Pedagogically, I see the effects of premature problem-solving first-hand in many of the interactions I and my colleagues share with our students on a daily basis. (I thought of the following at dinner this evening while we were all discussing the ideal meeting between a writing consultant and a writing center client.)

Imagine that a calculus student has a problem with a run-of-the-mill textbook problem, and he comes to his teacher for help in solving it. He's bravely stepped into his teacher's office, interrupted his teacher's work, and sat himself down heavily in the chair across from the teacher's desk.

At this point the weakest teacher (often eager simply to get back to her work) will simply work the problem out for the student. (Novice teachers are often prone to this.)

The stronger teacher will take the time to ask the student what work he's done so far in trying to solve the problem on his own and try to build on what's already there. (This is where I am most of the time.)

The strongest teacher will ask the student what problem it is that the student's trying to solve in the first place. "Is there a problem at all? What, really, are you being asked to do? Can you articulate it for me, maybe in your own words?"

For a confident student with reasonably strong mathematical skills, a student who's generally on target most of the time and who only occasionally really just needs a little nudge in the right direction, the second teacher's action will have served the intended purpose admirably: after an initial survey of the student's own work, it might take little more than one more step worked out jointly for the student to see where to go next on his own.

Yet the second teacher has instantly leaped into problem-solving mode, presupposing there is a problem in the first place, presupposing that the student knows what in the hell he's being asked to do. Does he? Should the student be a weaker one, a less confident one than his peers, perhaps he's not even sure what's being demanded of him. In jumping at once into problem-solving mode the teacher has missed an opportunity to help the student to develop a perhaps-yet-more-important skill than problem-solving: problem-posing. One cannot hope to become an effective learner if one is adept only at answering questions; one needs also to know how to ask them in the first place.

I'm sorry if this train of thought appears to be riding on rails laid out by a track layer on LSD. I'm really just writing this out in order to better understand it myself; I'm actively (even as I make this next keystroke) engaging in writing-to-learn. (Kids, let this be a lesson to you!)

I'm afraid that's about all I've got right now. It's been a busy Sunday, and it's late. I've got more meetings with our University Writing Center candidate tomorrow, and an early meeting with one of my undergraduate research students, so I've got to hit the hay. Perhaps I'll soon say more about other relevant "like/don't like" pairs. We'll see.

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