Friday, May 14, 2010

Rocks and gravel

I've just finished reading Jonathan Kozol's Ordinary resurrections, begun just a few days back, and I feel, as I usually do on reaching the end of one of his books, an overwhelming sense of tiredness bound together with a bright and unbreakable thread of hope and strength.

It's a good book on which to end this academic year, surely the most tiring yet of my career (although, as I've noted on this blog before, not the busiest). Reading it at the close of the year gives me at once a sense of closure (which I've sorely needed) and a feeling of renewed energy. The book ends on the same note, as Kozol describes a gift of art Pineapple, one of the children of whom he speaks about most often in the book, gave to him: "an imitation stained-glass window that she made from tissue paper, brightly colored with green paint and with a wash of light-blue ink...When I asked her recently if it was supposed to be a rising sun or a setting sun, she seemed at first to not remember what I meant...'You decide,' she told me the risk of being sentimental about somebody whose sunny disposition brings a lot of joy into a world that has too many cloudy afternoons, I like to think it's rising" (p. 339).

Is it?

Kozol often admits in this book and others he's written since that he's getting older and feeling weaker. Although not yet as frail as he is physically (he's over seventy now, if I'm not wrong, and was sixty-four when he wrote the book I've just finished), I feel, on certain days at least, that I can empathize: each passing year steals away a little bit more of my relevance, my credibility, and my coolness.

"You may have them eating out of your hand now," my department's chair sometimes warns me, a hint of glee in his voice, "since you're not all that much older than they are. But just wait until you're my age." I'm warned that I won't be seen so much as the cool older brother but rather the stern-but-caring father. Just this past semester I encountered a student out of whom my most earnest attempts at cool cajolery could coax nothing. Magda, scarred, I suspect, by recent unpleasant experiences with mathematics, was timid in her dealing with me, reluctant to take part in any activities in class, and unresponsive to personal offerings of assistance I sent to her by e-mail. "I have to be honest that I've gotten a sense of 'defeat' from you for much of this semester," I wrote her. "I know you'd mentioned earlier this semester that you'd considered math as a major, and I hope that that's not an idea you've abandoned entirely."

I urged her to reply, but I never heard back from her.

This incident can't help but make me think of a noontime meeting several of my colleagues in the department and I shared with a pair of textbook company representatives. While my colleagues and I pored through elaborate boxed lunches bought from an off-campus catering company, the two textbook reps gushed for several minutes over the features of their company's latest Stewart-clone calculus textbook.

They tried to make their case, I'll give them that. I'd indicated that I honestly don't use whatever calculus textbook I've been assigned as much more than a source of examples and exercises (generally the exposition in such textbooks is godawful, and the organization is unmotivated, at best), supplementing the textbook substantially with descriptions, worksheets, activities, and projects of my own devising, including a number of nontraditional writing assignments. "We're very proud that [their text] contains [some unsubstantiated and moderately large number of] pre-written group projects." I nodded, unimpressed. (So does every Stewart-clone; generally these projects are as unmotivated as the integument of the text itself.)

About fifteen minutes into their demonstration, and after about ten minutes of fiddling with recalcitrant teleconferencing software, the reps got the lead textbook author himself on the line. He sounded tired, as though he'd made these dogs and ponies to dance two or three times already earlier that morning (or at least that week). He showed us a number of the features of the on-line text, most excited about the numerous Mathematica-driven animations he and his colleagues had developed for the textbook. (Such animations are not in themselves bad things; however I fear that without empowering the students to learn how to create their own animations, the animations alone do little more than provide an alternative visualization tool.)

After trotting the poor schlub of an author around the rink for a few more laps, the reps resumed their own presentation, and reached the part of their sell about which I was reminded above. "The beauty of the on-line scoring capabilities," one of them said proudly, "is that once a student has submitted her homework and the homework is graded, the computer can generate a personalized letter indicating to the student what sorts of problems she got wrong, telling her where she needs to focus her study. This can be done automatically, for a class of two hundred students. They'll think that you cared enough to write a personalized note to every one of them about their work."

I don't want to give the impression that this past year was all about weariness and defeat. To the contrary, I feel I've had some tremendous successes in the classroom.

While the textbook exercise fell on its face this past semester in Topology, it went over fantastically with the MATH 280 folks in the fall, and I can't think of many moments in my career at which I was prouder than I was when Ulrich and Uriah spoke on the project at the Elon conference (including in their presentation the phrase "writing-to-learn," and defining the phrase correctly!).

While I feel I lost the "faith" of some of my favorite students, like Magda, above, and like Tish, who became openly disillusioned about topology by the semester's end, I feel like that loss was only temporary, and that through open communication and understanding I've won that faith back.

While I feel my attempt at crafting a more meaningful system of feedback met with mixed success, the success I've earned is great enough to encourage me to recraft the system and try it again next term, rather than simply to abandon it.

While I've had my share of dealings with troubled and troubling students this past year, I've also had my share of dealings with marvelous ones. Jacobina's transformation from a hesitant and nearly math-phobic student at the outset of Calc I to one of the most outspoken, confident, and competent scholars in the stronger of my two sections of Calc II was nothing short of astounding. Words cannot describe the pride I have of her. Equally exciting is the undergraduate research Tonio and Siegfried have done, and the potential Ino and Iris have to do similar research this summer.

These small (and not-so-small) victories and many more like them are the rocks and gravel out of which, as the old blues standard goes, a solid road is built. Where's the road headed?

I've got back-to-back conferences coming up in less than a week (the International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference in Indiana and the AMS Eastern Sectional Meeting in New Jersey), then a half-week of Integrative Liberal Studies workshops in which I'm playing some role or another. A week after those come to and end the REU students start arriving. I have high hopes for this year's program; they're clearly a bright bunch with a lot of strengths. I've got a book proposal in at a good publisher, on which I'm still waiting to hear a decision. I've got great ideas for my courses next fall. It's going to be a good year.

The road is a long one, but the sun's shining yet.

I think, indeed, it is rising.

No comments: