Friday, May 28, 2010


During the past week I've attended, presented at, participated in, or facilitated two conferences and three faculty development workshops, on topics ranging from pure mathematics (group theory and graph theory) to the pedagogy of writing and advising first-year students who are brand new to a liberal arts university. I've written dozens of pages of notes, collected several handouts, worksheets, resource lists, and sets of slides. I've talked with, listened to, or sent e-mails to dozens of colleagues. In between doing all of the above I've been spending most of my time reading up on the history and philosophy of science and its teaching and on the role played by gender in mathematics achievement.

Below I've collected a number of quotes, factoids, observations, and questions dealing with all that I've been doing for the past week or so. Every one of these items deserves further follow-up; maybe I'll get around to addressing some of them over the summer, maybe not. I just want to get them out there for now.

1. Contextualization (and resocialization) of science. First, more from Thomas S. Kuhn's The structure of scientific revolutions (pp. 136-137), on the apparent linearity and cumulative nature of science and the related transmission of scientific knowledge:

Textbooks thus begin by truncating the scientist's sense of his [sic, here and following] discipline's history and then proceed to supply a substitute for what they have eliminated. Characteristically, textbooks of science contain just a bit of history, either in an introductory chapter or, more often, in scattered references to the great heroes of an earlier age. From such references both students and professionals come to feel like participants in a long-standing historical tradition. Yet the textbook-derived tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is on that, in fact, never existed. For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks (and too many of the older histories of science) refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement solution of the texts' paradigm problems. Partly by selection and partly by distortion, the scientists of earlier ages are implicitly represented as having worked upon the same set of fixed problems and in accordance with the same set of fixed canons that the most recent revolution in scientific theory and method has made seem scientific. No wonder that textbooks and the historical tradition they imply have to be rewritten after each scientific revolution. And no wonder that, as they are rewritten, science once again comes to seem largely cumulative.

My question: does it have to be this way?

My answer: no. But an elaboration of that answer will have to wait for now. I have a good deal more to say in reflecting on the social constructivist point of view of science, first (or at least first explicitly) elaborated in Kuhn's work, as in the following passage (p. 42):
Though there are obviously rules to which all practitioners of a scientific specialty adhere at a given time, those rules may not by themselves specify all that the practice of those specialists has in common. Normal science is a highly determined activity, but it need not be entirely determined by rules. That is why, at the start of this essay, I introduced shared paradigms rather than shared rules, assumptions, and points of view as the source of coherence for normal research traditions.

The nature of the rules to which specialists adhere is fluid and dynamic, susceptible to the exigencies of the day-to-day applications of those rules. Rules, as applied, evolve, and they evolve in accordance with their usefulness as judged by practitioners of the specialized discipline concerned with those rules. More than anything else reading Kuhn makes me aware of the need to be more intentional about including opportunities for my students to explore, discover, interpret, investigate, and describe the concepts we consider in any given class; they must be made, to the greatest extent possible, to feel like they as much authors of scientific discovery as I am. (Particular attention to the role of youth and neophycy in scientific "advancement" is critical as well.)

2. Invention versus discovery. I've often asked my Calc I students to think about the difference (if there is one) between invention and discovery when they take part in the Newton v. Leibniz project. Kuhn will serve as an excellent source for those students interested in learning more about the distinction between the two notions: pp. 51-53 contain a discussion of this distinction, highlighting invention as the adjustment that goes on in a paradigm's conception of science in the wake of a discovery: one may be the first to objectively observe a physical phenomenon, say, but until the significance of that phenomenon is understood and elaborated, and the discovery's relevance is described, one cannot be said to have invented a thing. In a sense invention is the recognition of the importance and relevance of a discovery via its incorporation into the normal scientific tradition that operates within a given scientific paradigm.

What might students have to say about this?

3. Revision (in writing) as revolution. The parallels between Kuhn's portrayal of scientific revolution (especially as it compares to political revolution) and revision of one's writing as a process are too great to be ignored: revision occurs concomitantly with the recognition of the inadequacy of what one's written to account fully for one's perception of the subject of the writing. That is, revision is undertaken in response to a perceived discrepancy between the author's intent and the author's ideas as communicated expressly on the page. Compare (p. 91): "In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way."

To continue the parallel between these "revolutions" would force us ultimately to recognize what students of writing are often loath to admit (and what teachers of writing already know very well): writing is a social process, as much, if not more so, than is scientific discovery.

I should note that in the following pages in Kuhn's text (pp. 92 ff.) he most clearly articulates the role of social forces in shaping scientific revolutions. When competing paradigms come up against one another, adherents to one or the other must be prepared to argue in favor of their particular paradigm.

4. Portfolios (again). Enough about Kuhn (for now, at least). Let's get to some observations on the International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference, the first two days of which I was able to attend at the end of last week.

In talking with my colleague Nero (currently at the University of Hawai'i, Hilo) I found myself suddenly able to articulate, far more clearly than I've ever been able to before, what exactly a portfolio means of assessment might look like in a mathematics course. One or two communication outcomes would join one or two affective or metacognitive outcomes, and these would join two or three content-centered outcomes as a basis for the course's assessment. (I already generate such outcomes for all of my courses.)

Throughout the semester the students would be given a variety of assignments, successful completion of each of which would demonstrate achievement at one or more of the outcomes on the list described above. These assignments could include more traditional problem sets (though likely not sets of problems pulled from a textbook), written components of projects I already assign (like Newton v. Leibniz, Confectionary Conundrum, etc.), reflection or response papers in which students explore their personal and emotional engagement with mathematics, and so forth.

Students will have a chance to perform unlimited revision on many of these assignments, so that if a student isn't happy with a given iteration of a given assignment, she can revise her work to improve upon it. (As regular readers know, I'm still working on adjusting my revision policies.)

In the last week or so of the semester the students will be asked to select four or five assignments from among those completed during the semester to represent their mastery of as many of the course learning outcomes as possible. They will then write a brief (no more than five or six pages) paper in which they articulate explicitly the role served by each of the assignments they have chosen to include in the portfolio: why include this piece? Mastery of which outcome does it purport to demonstrate?

I'd like to recruit one or more of my colleagues to help me assess completed portfolios the first time around; there ought to be some sort of validation process.


5. Intentionalize, intentionalize, intentionalize! This coming summer's REU students will receive yet more intentional instruction in writing than any previous year has received. At least two of my College of Charleston colleagues will be coming up to help impart their wisdom on rhetoric and composition. I'll be giving the students more models of professional writing than they've been exposed to in the past. And, most notably, I will obey the exhortation of the four presenters from Virginia Commonwealth University and place more emphasis on the "middle" stage of student research writing.

What do I mean by this? Much like the faculty at VCU (as described by the four presenters mentioned above), I find I've been very intentional about helping my REU students find sources at the outset of their research program, and I've been very intentional about helping them through draft after draft of their week-to-week research reports once those reports have assumed a certain level of coherence. But, like the aforementioned faculty, I've been somewhat remiss in offering the students explicit instruction in the middle stages of the process: how does one evaluate sources? How does one compare them? How does one decide on the relevance of a particular source to one's own researches?

I've decided that I'm going to require the REU students to follow their initial literature searches (which most of them do) with the construction of an annotated bibliography in which they highlight the important contributions of each source, summarize the relevance of each source to their own work, and prioritize the source, ranking it alongside the other sources they've found in terms of its strength of contribution, its clarity, and its relevance to their particular research project.

Will this make more work for the students? You bet it will. But since I'm only going to be asking the students to produce a draft of their report every other (rather than every) week, I feel it's a fair amount of work to ask of them.

It occurred to me this morning, in sitting in on a faculty development workshop focused on our LSIC courses, that the same sort of exercise should be required of students in our MATH 480 course in order that that course warrant its Information Literacy Intensive designation. Just two years ago I suggested that the department begin requiring students in MATH 480 to produce an expository paper; this suggestion met with almost no resistance. I hope this new suggestion will go over equally well.

6. Other thoughts for the REU. What else will I be asking this year's students to do? Nothing excessive, I believe. It seems to me that I should require the following of the program's participants:

History and context. Every draft (not just the last) of every student paper this summer will be required to have a section describing the history and context of the topic the student is investigating. This section, like the rest of the paper, may be rather sparse and tentative at first, but like the rest of the paper it will become more full and flourishing as the summer goes on. I believe it's important, though, that from the very onset of the program the students become accustomed to contextualizing their work and establishing its place in the field.

Visuals. One of the VCU folks mentioned above presented a metaphorical means of constructing an annotated bibliography and literature review, comparing the process of finding, evaluating, prioritizing, and applying sources to planning a conference, at which participants must be placed at various tables, grouped in various sessions, and so forth, according to interests, purposes, and points of view. The most striking aspect of this presentation to me was the insistence on a visual representation: the presenter required her students to come up with a visual means of portraying their evidence. I am going to start requiring each REU student to include at least one visual representation of her or his work in the bi-weekly presentations they'll be delivering. That visual may be the same from week to week, but if the visual remains unchanged I will ask the student to justify her or his reason for retaining the same visual. This, I hope, will encourage students to reflect upon the way in which they are representing their work through nonverbal means; this reflection could lead to further discovery and, of course, refinement of the visual rhetoric the students use in describing their work.

Elevator talks. Even the strongest undergraduate research students have trouble articulating their work clearly and concisely. I'm going to begin asking every student to open her or his presentation with a no-more-than-one-minute "elevator" version of the presentation. What is the main focus or question of your research? What method or methods are you using to try to study that focus or answer that question? How does your work fit in with others' work on the same topic? I hope this additional intentionality will help students develop the ability to communicate their work in the hurly-burly world of conferences and cocktail parties.

7. QEP. As many of my colleagues in the Southeast part of the country know, QEP stands for "Quality Enhancement Plan," and is the means by which the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS, the accreditation agency for an enormous number of institutions of higher learning in the Southeast) asks the colleges and universities it oversees to plan and implement institution-wide changes to enhance student learning.

I'll have a lot more to say about this in the coming weeks, months, and, if all goes well, years, but I'll simply say now that I am more committed than ever before to making writing the focus of UNC Asheville's QEP. I will do all that I can to lobby for this position.

8. Inkshedding. Perhaps the most delightful thing I took away from this past Wednesday's workshop on writing instruction of ESL students (ably facilitated by my colleagues Hannah and Tabitha of UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University, respectively...thank you both so much for coming out!) is a new form of low-stakes writing to which I'd not before been exposed. "Inkshedding" is much like a collaborative form of freewriting. As they would be in a freewrite, participants (in groups of three or four) are asked to write on a given topic for a set amount of time (three minutes, say) or until they have written all they would like to on the topic at hand. When finished, each participant places his writing in the center of the circle and waits for someone else to do the same. The papers are then exchanged, and each person reads what the other has written and then responds in writing on the first writer's paper. Once done responding, the second person places the paper in the center again and takes another. And so on. In theory, the process could continue endlessly, readers writing in response to others' responses to their own responses, and so forth.

Beyond its obvious pedagogical usefulness, I think this would be a fantastic way to construct collaborative poems, or at least generate ideas and images for rich poems or other pieces of fiction. I'm eager to find a few folks who are willing to try this out. If you're game, let me know!

9. Gender matters. I'm currently reading a book that I picked up (in the simply marvelous bookstore Caveat Emptor) in Bloomington, the site of the IWAC conference last week, Mathematics and gender, edited by Elizabeth Fennema and Gilah C. Leder (1990, New York: Teachers College Press). This collection purports to analyze the different ways in which gender influences math performance, success in math coursework, and affective responses to mathematics and its study. Unsurprisingly, men and women differ with regard to their experience with math, and factors such as confidence, perception of utility, sex-role congruency (the "math is for men" stereotype), fear of success, and attribution of performance to one or another cause (effort, ability, or outside forces such as sheer luck) all strongly, and differently by gender, affect an individual's mathematical understanding and performance.

I've yet to read much in this book that's given me reason to adjust the way in which I teach math, aside, perhaps, from Lindsay A. Tartre's study (Chapter 3, "Spatial skills, gender, and mathematics") suggesting that in women there is a far stronger correlation between spatial skills and mathematical performance. Might I do well to place particular emphasis on visual representations of problems when working one-on-one with a female student? I already attempt to adapt my explanations to whatever mode it is in which I know a given student most clearly understands mathematical ideas.

It's something to think about. I may have more to say about this book as I get into the later chapters, which deal with the role of the teacher and the classroom dynamic in assisting or impeding students' mathematical understanding.

That's enough for now. I realize that this is one of the longest posts I've written in a long time. Believe me, I've tried to keep it short! I hope to be able to elaborate on one or more of the above issues in later posts, especially as I begin to implement some of the proposed changes to my REU and to my regular courses.

To be, as ever, continued!

1 comment:

Derek said...

I've found it helpful to write blogs posts but schedule them to post in the future. This way, I can crank out a bunch of blog posts all at once (when I have time to write) and have them show up on the blog over the next week or two.

I don't know if Blogger has this ability, but if it does, you might give it a try the next time you have a lot of ideas for one post. I like to schedule posts over time because (a) I think many blog readers like some consistency in posting and (b) I think shorter posts are often read more than longer posts.