Saturday, August 21, 2010

On your marks, get set...

It's been a while, huh?

As you might suspect, I've had a lot going on, keeping me from posting here for the past, oh...two months? Ouch.

What's going on?

The REU's over, but the work has really just begun: the students this year were fantastic. They were smart, fun, and funny, and they worked tremendously hard, producing a ton of interesting mathematics. (We should get at least five papers out of it in the next couple of months, and maybe more beyond that in the follow-up.) And this year it was "buy eight weeks, get one free": six of the eight students ended up traveling to MathFest in Pittsburgh, PA to present on their summer research.

The REU took up much of my time, but I've had a number of other things going on, as well, among them: (1) working on student learning outcomes for both the Mathematics Department and the Writing Intensive program, (2) putting together the ILS Oversight Committee's report to the Academic Policy Committee (still not submitted, but finally almost finished), (3) planning my contribution to the short course I was helping run at MathFest, (4) working with my College of Charleston peeps on our paper on the rhetoric of mathematical writing, (5) looking ahead to my round table discussion of program assessment for this year's CWPA (coming up in a few weeks), (6) laying the groundwork for the book I'm now slated to write for Jossey-Bass (w00t), and (7) trying to get ready for my Fall classes, which start on Monday.

(1) Student learning outcomes: although I see the purpose, ultimately, of programmatic assessment, too highly institutionalized assessment tends to become bureaucratic and corporate. I don't want to say more about my role in this university-wide process this past summer other than that it was frustrating at times, had its minor joys, and though it was ultimately fulfilling in that I feel like some good will come of it, I worry about the intentions some people in administration may have for codifying the university's student learning outcomes as rigidly as is being done. 'Nuff said.

(2) The ILSOC report to the APC: this is more of the same. I see the purpose, and the writing of this document is a worthwhile activity, but one which runs the risk of being overly parliamentary and pro se. 'Nuff said.

(3) MathFest short course on Sage (an open-source computer algebra system): I actually wrote to my colleague Oscar (one of the co-organizers of the short course) in mid-July, a few weeks before the course was to take place, expressing my insecurities about putting together an hour or two of meaningful material.

"Nonsense," was the substance of his reply; "you'll do fine. Write about what you know." So I threw together several worksheets full of Sage code purporting to implement a number of higher-level graph theoretical algorithms and called it good. The worksheets actually went over really well in the short course and filled a rather comfy niche in the program. I felt good about what I'd done.

The moral of the story: just do it.

(MathFest, by the way, was a blast. Pittsburgh's a nice city with lots of pretty runs and nice architecture, the REU students were fun to hang out with, as always, and the MathFest program was replete with fun stuff to see and do. A good time had by all.)

(4) Math rhetoric: as I mentioned in my last post, oh so long ago, Bella and Damian came up from the coast to spend a couple of days with me, hammering out a plan to finish the paper we'd begun (with Nicola, who couldn't make it) on the rhetoric of the writing my REU students had produced in 2008 and 2009. They had a lovely time while here, visiting with and interviewing the REU students from this past year, working on our draft at the time, and just hanging out. I'm happy to say that as of last night we have a draft that's nearly ready to submit to the comp/rhet journal Across the Disciplines. It's the first of what we hope will least more than one article on the rhetoric of mathematics and its learning, and the role writing plays in inducting students into the scholarly mathematical community.

(5) CWPA: I'm already looking forward to the Wildacres retreat! It's going to a be a full house this year, several dozen of us crowding into the nooks and niches of the Wildacres North Lodge to join in round table discussions of assessment with various forms and functions. I plan on presenting a brief "natural history" of the assessment that's gone on in our WI program during the past three years, exposing to public view the layers of rock comprising the "pilot" assessment Lulabelle headed up in AY 2007-8, the refinement she and I performed in the following year, the plans for assessment she and I laid out in the lead-up to the university's reaffirmation of accreditation (notice I haven't mentioned SACS yet in this post...), and the modifications those plans underwent as I limned the WI program's assessment of student learning outcomes this past summer.

It's sure to be riveting.

Actually, I'm more looking forward to hanging out with Damian and Bella, and with them planning the next phase of our study of the REU students' writing.

(6) Book: Oh yeah...I'm now under contract to write a text (working title: More Than Numbers) on the role of writing (specifically, writing to learn and writing in the disciplines) in mathematics and the mathematical sciences. Jossey-Bass received well the proposal I pitched to them several months back (in March, I think?), and after some fine-tuning of the project, I was brought on board. I'm excited, but at the same time terrified. I'm confident it'll all work out well, though. I've already done a ton of enlightening reading (if you get a chance, check out Scott L. Montgomery's The scientific's a fascinating read that, along with several other sources, has helped me put together a theory of the schizophrenic nature of undergraduate mathematical writing), and I have some great ideas. Furthermore, my consulting editor for the project is someone a few of whose books I've read and whom I respect very much; I'm sure she'll be very helpful to me.

I will say this, however: if between now and next March I start randomly babbling to you about reader response theory or the role of writing in the mathematical finance classroom, just smile and nod your head.

(7) Fall 2010: yup, we get underway in two days. Yikes. I'm actually really excited: I've got the first week mapped out in all three of my courses, and I've plotted out what I think are clear and navigable problem-centered paths for both of the lower-level courses (Calc I and Linear Algebra I) to follow.

Calc I is going to begin with a brief review, and then the students will work toward developing the skills needed to solve an optimization problem from economics. They'll need to "invent" the method of secants and tangents, the definition of a limit, and the definition of the derivative; and they'll need to learn how to compute some simple derivatives in order to solve this problem. Once all of that groundwork is laid, we'll spend some time working with the textbook and picking up some useful formulas for limits and derivatives, but everything we do is going to be application-driven and learner-centered. I hope to not have to lecture for more than 10 minutes at a time for the whole damned semester.

Linear's going to be the same: Day One features a variation on the "Markov Dance" that started the semester off the last time I taught this course, in the semi-mythical beginnings of this blog. The limiting behavior of this system is going to be the motivating problem for everything we do in the first half of the course, as we work our way through everything we'll need to do to get to the fun and useful stuff (eigenvalues, diagonalization, and Markov processes): solving linear systems, inversion of matrices, solvability criteria, and finally eigenvalues. I'm going to downplay theory and upplay (what a cool word!) functionality. I hope to get to the fun stuff by the sixth or seventh week, at which time we can spend almost all of our time on applications. It's going to be fun.

I should mention that I've modified my grading schemata somewhat, but not substantially, from last semester: students in both of the above courses will still have an opportunity to perform potentially unlimited revision on most things they hand in, but I'm tempering the grading scale so that it's no longer possible to earn full points back with each revision. I think the system I've set up is a generous and reasonable one, though, and I believe it'll still serve to motivate students to learn rather than to grub for a good grade.

Meanwhile, the Senior Seminar's speaker schedule is chocked full, with four visitors (all versed in speaking to undergraduate audiences) coming to share their knowledge and spend a little time with the students. It's going to be a good semester in that course.

Okay, that's all for now...I'm going to try to post more regularly during the coming semester, although I can't promise it'll be more than anxiety-tinged stream-of-consciousness rambling about this or that idea for the book.

Fare thee well!


Meredith said...

This book sounds AMAZING. Need anyone to read chapters as you write? ;-) These topics come up all the time, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what you say about them. Maybe I'll bring them around to all the writing folks here who have heard we do some writing in math, but who keep thinking that since it's math, it must always be about numbers/data. (Love your title, by the way.) Lots of good luck and fun times to you!

Derek said...

Very excited about the book! I'm teaching a first year writing seminar (on the history and math of cryptography) this fall for the first time. I expect to learn a lot about teaching writing!