Saturday, June 26, 2010

Weather's great, wish you were here.

I haven't had much time to write, but I thought I'd send a postcard from this edge.

We've just finished three weeks of the 2010 REU, and things are chugging along smoothly.

Incredibly smoothly.


The students' first presentations (yesterday) were masterful, already conference-worthy: their talk mechanics were spot-on, they displayed superb mastery of the concepts and computations they presented, and their slide designs were eminently professional. In every way their presentations were superior than many of those I've seen given at major conferences by seasoned mathematicians.

They're ready for the "minisymposium" we're playing host to next week, to which we've invited the faculty and students from two other area REUs.

I hope that I can take some of the credit for the students' success to this point: I've been yet more intentional in my design of the program's activities than I've ever been in the past, providing even more and more timely instruction on writing, presenting, use of scholarly sources, reading of math papers, etc. than in past iterations of the program.

And I've had help in this, too, that I've not had before: Bella and Damian, two of my Charleston-based partners in composition-theoretic crime, came up the mountain a little over a week ago to talk to the kids about writing and math. The visit was twofold...perhaps even threefold: (1) to give the students the rhetorician's point of view on mathematical writing, (2) to interview (though this term was never used) about their past experiences with academic writing in general and mathematical academic writing in particular, and (3) to get our shit together and make some progress on the paper we began back in February when I joined them for a working weekend down in South Carolina. (To this last point, briefly: I was tasked with coauthoring sections on the students' mastery of visual rhetoric, specifically with regard to the visual effects on the reader of white space and mathematical formulas; and on the students' use of sources. My analysis of the latter was very enlightening to me, and helped me quantify the fact that this year's students are well ahead of their predecessors when it comes to making effective use of the literature they find in the course of their investigations.)

The two-hour-long "interview" with the students was wonderful. In the discussions that arose the students revealed rich and robust histories with writing, including a good deal of relevant and highly intentional instruction I might not have expected. These students are very well-prepared (which helps to explain the success they've had so far in this summer's program!). The interview also gave us a great deal of data we can use as a foundation for our next article, in which we hope (already!) to trace the development of students as communicators of mathematics through the course of a summer research program one of whose foci is on writing in the discipline. Bella's already kicking around the idea of coming back toward the end of the program to interview the students again and see if anything's moved.

Mathematically, the students are fantastic. They're very self-directed and intrinsically motivated. They're displaying superlative creativity and originality of thought, to a greater extent than did many students in previous years of the program. They're making terrific use of the sources they find, plying them effectively to serve multiple purposes: to find other sources, to support their own propositions and theorems, and to situate their work in the context of what's come before. And every one of them has a clear sense of purpose in his or her project: no one of them is "stuck," as I've seen happen in the past.

More important, perhaps: they're getting along exceedingly well with each other. From Day One they've bonded remarkably well. They do almost everything together, not because they feel like they have to or because they're afraid to do thing alone (both of these have been moving forces in previous iterations of the program), but because they want to. They clearly like each other. A lot. It's good to see.

It comes across in simple things, too: yesterday, during the students' first round of talks, this year's group proved themselves to be the most attentive and responsive audience members we've yet had in the program. They listened with clear and unfeigned interest, they gave encouraging nonverbal feedback (nods and smiles) at appropriate moments, and they asked a number of good questions of their peers at the end of every talk. Midway through the talks Tip (my sole faculty partner in running the program this year) and I marveled at the fluency of the students' presentation skills and remarked at how though the students had all chosen to work on individual projects (something we initially bemoaned) it was evident that to a greater extent than in previous years the students are collaborating with one another behind the scenes, sharing ideas, talking about LaTeX and Beamer, and helping each other through rough spots.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have established an effective learning community.

What else is up?

I've only been to one meeting of the Learning Circle (having missed last week's to work the run-off election) I chose to take part in this summer, but I have a good feeling about the direction it seems to be taking.

I've received good feedback on the proposal I sent to Jossey-Bass for a text on writing in mathematics.

I've finally submitted a reasonable draft of an assessment plan for the university's Writing Intensive student learning outcomes to the powers that be. I doubt that's the last I'll hear of that, though.

It's been a busy summer, but a good one. I'm excited to see what the coming week will bring.

For now, I'm going to kick back and watch Ghana get the better of the U.S. soccer team.

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