Saturday, January 29, 2011

Times is hard

As I hinted a couple of posts back, things could look a bit rosier for our campus, budget-wise.

Word around the campfire is that the state legislature's looking at cutting us back 5% for this fiscal year, rather than the 3.5% we'd anticipated and planned for. This is on top of substantial cutbacks during the past couple of years, the last round of which left our entire campus pretty must adjunctless, jeopardizing even year-to-year (and not-so-year-to-year) lecturers. Tenure tracks are safe, but even seasoned teachers who've been with the school for many, many years may find themselves cut loose if they've not got such security.

Meanwhile, despite tuition hikes, enrollment is high (I'm sure in no small part because our public-school price tag is drawing some students who might otherwise go to our private competitors), resource availability is low, and everything is tight, from copier paper and computers to classroom space. It's not simply cliché to say that last dollar counts.

So what's next for our school?

The Integrative Liberal Studies program (ILS) is the crown of UNCA's curriculum, a rich array of courses including a four-year Humanities sequence (the jewel in the crown, if you ask some...tarnished silver and dusty stones if you ask others), topically clustered courses, four intensives, first-year and transfer "welcome to a liberal arts college" colloquia, and various other supporting cast members. (For the past year and a half I've been the faculty chair of the committee charged with overseeing several of these components; I've felt honored to work with a half-dozen or so wonderful people on this body.) Several of the sorts of courses ILS comprises, including the last-mentioned colloquia and the Humanities course, are taught by faculty from across the campus. In times of plenty the departments these faculty call home can spare the folks who traipse off to teach ILS courses, for adjuncts are available to carry the load of the "service" (I hate that word: it's condescending and debasing) courses in the meantime.

No more. Right now it's all-on-hands-on-deck time, and every department on campus is drawing up plans to make sure they can cover their own course offerings before sparing people to teach ILS courses. It's looking more and more like the ILS program may have to be trimmed back, though it's unclear where exactly the cuts might come.

Clusters? The faculty perceptions survey put out a couple of years ago showed that the ILS Topical Clusters program is the most poorly understood and most unappreciated aspect of ILS. Though there is rhyme and reason to its arrangement, many faculty (even many of those who are on board with the rest of ILS) perceive its restrictions as arbitrary and its organization as byzantine. To many faculty and many more students it's a labyrinth of requirements and checkboxes standing between convocation and commencement. In these persons' defense, several of the clusters are exquisitely mismanaged, and several others, though put together with good intentions, fall short of their lofty goal of giving students an interdisciplinary analysis of a single topic.

Intensives? This segment of the ILS program is pretty well-thought-of by faculty, and even if students grumble about having to take one more QI course than they'd like to, at least they understand the theory behind the requirement. Besides, the requirements are easy to understand, at least in comparison with those for the ILS Clusters. Moreover, for most departments, most of the intensive requirements (diversity, information literacy, quantitative, and writing) are met through required major courses. The most vulnerable of the intensives from this point of view are the Diversity Intensives, but the political implications of cutting those back are liable to keep them off the chopping block.

The ILS Colloquia? Many (myself included) consider these the most vulnerable ILS courses overall, especially the transfer colloquia, the LSIC 379s. Some of my colleagues have argued that much of what these courses do can be done in a one-hour "welcome to UNCA" seminar which would meet once every other week in a lecture hall full of 100 or more students. The LSIC 179s (for first-year students) have more, and more critical functions, not the least of which is providing a first-year writing-intensive experience to supplement LANG 120, our one-semester first-year composition course. Historically we had a full-year composition sequence, but like many schools we cut this back to a single semester, meanwhile asking 179 instructors to provide a rich writing experience to replace that once offered by the second semester of composition. Were the 179s eliminated, students would have to seek out another writing-intensive course elsewhere, since the Language and Literature Department is in no position to offer once again a full year of composition to every student. (They're barely able to cover enough sections of their single semester comp course.)

There are complicating factors beyond those I've mentioned above. Some of the smaller departments would likely cease to exist were the ILS courses their faculty teach to disappear. Some have few (if any) majors, weak upper-level offerings, and what offerings they have often don't make enrollment. Faculty in some of these departments make a living (literally) off of teaching Humanities courses, and without such courses they'd have a hard time, from a financial standpoint, justifying their positions. The argument has been made aloud (not by me, I should say) that these programs, and not ILS, should be the first to go should the budget force some out into the streets.

I ask again: what's next?

I have no idea. I hesitate to speculate further than I already have here. We're sure to get news soon. Meanwhile, I intend to keep doing what I do well, and what I love doing: writing my book, working away at my research, and above all else, enjoying the company of my students. Yesterday (Friday) afternoon as I stood at the door of the Math Lab and watched a dozen or so of my Calc II and 280 students hammering away at their homework, it hit me how much I love my job. Despite the relatively low pay and the laughably long hours, I've got the best gig on Earth.

Colleagues, how's your school being hit? Students, are you feeling it, too? I'm curious to know you stories. Please take a few minutes to check in in the comments, even anonymously, and let me know where you are right now. Please let me know I'm not alone.

Status report

Almost daily now I find myself explaining just what it is I'm working on, to Facebook friends and students who've caught an oblique comment or passing mention of my book, making me realize I've not been nearly so forthcoming as I ought to be. Regular readers of this blog will likely know, but newbies may as likely not, that I'm under contract with Jossey-Bass to complete a text on teaching writing and using writing as a learning tool in math-based fields. The working title is More than number: writing in the disciplines and writing-to-learn in the quantitative sciences.

As of this moment I've written somewhere on the order of 42,000 or 43,000 words of the book, comprising nearly four finished chapters, a halfway-decent outline for a fifth, and the very beginnings of a sixth. (My original outline called for seven chapters, but I suspect the first two will be folded into one.) As it becomes more and more fully formed, I'm becoming increasingly aware of the things that it will do well, and the things it will not do so well. Fortunately, I believe that the things it won't do well are things that are done well elsewhere, and which I never intended to do well in the first place.

Namely, it will not offer extensive treatment of more "traditional" discipline-specific genres like research papers, technical reports, and literature reviews. Those forms of writing are addressed at length by authors who have come before, and who are most definitely more qualified than I am to speak on those forms. It will not offer a ready-made blueprint for making writing work in this course or the other: the reader cannot expect to be able to read the book and become an expert overnight, capable of guiding her students through numerous complex writing activities on the first day of the new semester. As important as knowledge is practice, and this I cannot offer.

It will (and, in fact, does) give a great deal of direction in teaching writing in the quantitative classroom, offering advice on sequencing and structuring writing activities, assessing student writing, delivering feedback on writing, and helping students use writing to help them think, learn, and explore, rather than simply to communicate. It will (and does) involve new contributions to writing instruction from me, my colleagues, and my students. I'm particularly proud of the exemplary samples of student writing I'll be able to include.

I'm quite happy with the book so far, despite occasional nighttime anxiety that drives me out of bed to work on the damned thing at two in the morning. I'm sure it'll only get better as I get more and more feedback from my friends and editors.

I've got two more months before the first draft is due in completed form, at which time it'll get shipped off to various reviewers. Between now and then if I look sleepless and haggard, if I stumble past you in the hall or mumble something to myself before scribbling something frantically on the back of a campus mail envelope, forgive me: I'm likely lost in a literary world hovering somewhere several feet off of the ground.

Tired? Yeah. Nervous? Hell, yeah. But excited.

Friday, January 28, 2011

So far

So far, though it took a little while to build up steam, this semester's been great.

After three straight days of canceled classes and (and a couple more late starts thrown in the next couple of weeks), we got enough ground to get some traction, and I'm starting to feel like I'm in the groove.

Both my Calc II and 280 classes are large...I'd even call the 280 class huge: 33 in Calc II and 36 in 280. Yes: three, six. I'm always anxious about classes this large (I seem to attract them), but the students in both have set my mind at ease: they're all very engaged, outgoing, and willing to both ask and answer questions, in both classes. I've got fantastic students in both, and they're making the classrooms' atmosphere lively, spirited, safe, and fun.

I think I've done a good job in encouraging a healthy learning environment so far this term, downplaying grades, up-playing collaboration, throwing in a good number of writing-to-learn opportunities...the students are receiving this well. I sense a greater-than average willingness to learn on these students' parts. It's going to work out well.

I was particularly excited about today's 280 class. This morning we had our "LaTeX seminar," in preparation for which I asked everyone to install a compiler and a text editor on their computers and bring them, if possible, to class. Roughly three quarters of the students had laptops with them, and most of these (after a few fits and starts and glitches involving flavors of Texmaker and odd configuration settings) were able to get LaTeX up and running within five or six minutes. And they liked it. Comments like "This is so cool!" were fairly frequent. It's the best reception LaTeX has ever gotten in a 280 course.

Meanwhile Ethnomathematics is steaming along, picking out a course through the Marshall Islands. Literally, actually. We've spend the last week talking about the mathematical aspects of the mattang, the stick charts used by traditional Marshall Islander navigators in order to plot their path from one atoll to another in the sprawling and sparse archipelago. The students have even been working on building their own mattang out of various materials, including everything from pipe cleaners to pretzel sticks.

Late last week I tried to get the students to cast aside their "Western" assumptions about the make-up of maps by asking them to create maps from our classroom to various important offices and organizations on campus, maps which could not make reference to human-made objects, could not use any sort of reference to fixed units of distance (feet, miles, paces, etc.), and would be followable by someone who had not had a hand in creating the map in the first place. I realized after the fact that I should have included additional stipulations: no text, and mandatory use of "nontraditional" materials: the vast majority of the texts included copious textual commentary and were drawn on paper. (I admit that I'd hoped to see more "tactile" map-like objects like the mattang.)

Nevertheless, the students are doing well in what I think is a highly nontraditional course. I'm eager to see what they come up with for the brochures I'm asking them to make, one for each of several important campus services (like the Math Lab and the Student Health Center).

That's all I'll say for now. I'm sorry this is a bit of a banal post, but I've had nothing heinous happen so far this term. I could say something about the book (coming along, in bits and pieces) or the state's budget situation (in a word, bleak...think "how in the hell can we keep providing the quality of education we pretend to provide?"), or even about my upcoming visits to various writing programs around the state, but I'll leave those for other posts to come soon.

Friday, January 21, 2011


At the end of class yesterday I asked each of my Calc II students to write down two things: the single topic (of all those we've addressed so far) about which she feels most confused, and the single topic about which she feels most confident.

The results?


What are you confused about?

  1. Antiderivatives: 3
  2. Riemann sums and finding area: 6
  3. Basics from Calc I: 7
  4. Trigonometry: 7
  5. u-substitution: 10
What do you feel good about?
  1. Setting up problems: 1
  2. Riemann sums: 1
  3. Derivatives: 2
  4. Antiderivatives: 8
  5. Finding area: 10
  6. u-substitution: 10
I find it funny that equally many people find u-substitution confusing as find it fine. More people are okay with both antidifferentiation and area-finding than aren't, and there seems to be more uncertainty about carry-over from Calc I than there is about anything else.

Bottom line? I don't think any adjustments are necessary at this point. I'll just keep in mind that people are going to want reminders about tricksy twists in trig and algebra as those twists appear (as they did today in the form of 30-60-90 right triangles).

Having identified several students in this class who are accomplished writers, I'm including in this course a greater-than-even-I-generally-include number of writing-to-learn exercises. Today we ended class with a two-minute reflection on the process of finding volumes using integrals; I hope it helped.

In other news, I've now finished three of the tentatively-six chapters of my book. This weekend I hope to make a dent in Chapter 4, which deals with assessing and responding to student writing. The current draft's largely complete but is still rather ellipsis-ridden...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Update on the update, or, The Squeaky Wheel

Well, I squeaked, and I got greased. Beginning on Wednesday, the Monday-Wednesday-Friday meetings of my Calc II course will take place in a room in my own building, and with

  1. ten more desks,
  2. much more boardspace, and
  3. a much more open, workable configuration.

The only question remaining is...why didn't they give me this classroom in the first place?

Okay, y'all...this s**t is weak.

I am apoplectic, and my students aren't far behind.

My section of Calc II currently has 33 students enrolled in it, just one over the cap. I think it's going to stabilize at that number.

The room they've stuck us in had only 25 desks when I got to the classroom this afternoon; every one of them was taken. We fashioned two more seats out of a spare table and some stray chairs, but they had to be placed off to the side, in this small "alcove" formed by the wall that separates a roughly 10-by-10-foot section of the room from the entryway (don't get me started on the floorplan). From this place, the two students sitting at the table couldn't see the whiteboard because of the acuteness of the angle their lines of sight formed to it. The whiteboard's not all that big to begin with (maybe 12 feet long?), and though there's a blackboard of about the same length, it's placed off at the back of the "alcove" I described above, so that only half of the class would be able to see it at all.

This is ridiculous. I refuse to believe that this is the only room available to me at that time, especially when there are classrooms on campus which are simply going unused. Yeah, there's a "classroom," a spacious one at that, in a portion of the science building next door which is allocated to the Chemistry Department, which is currently being used to store desks, from what I can tell. There are no classes scheduled in it this semester. I don't know if there's even a writing surface in it, but this begs the question:

Why on Earth is there a large department scrounging to find rooms to accommodate its courses, when there are much smaller departments wasting the (much larger) space they've been given?

I'm going to try to snag that unused classroom, if it's at all usable.

To be continued...

Day One...finally

Well, yesterday was our first day of classes. I knew we'd get there eventually, but Snowpocalypse 2011 gave us three days of canceled classes before we finally got things underway with a two-hour delay.

My "first class" therefore turned out to be the first meeting of my first-ever first-year seminar, on ethnomathematics. Although we were a bit rushed (trying to take care of two days' worth of business in a single day), I think things went well. At 14 students, the class is the smallest I've taught in years (not counting, perhaps, one or two sessions of the senior seminar); this is going to offer me a welcome relief. It'll also make my student-centered teaching techniques more effective.

After introductions and bureaucratic whatnot, we got started with a "Think/Three/Share" on campus services, offices, et cetera. (One of the purposes of the course is to introduce students to the university and to academic life, and to help students understand the purpose of a liberal arts institution.) Unprompted, the students came up with a substantial list of university offerings, including everything from the Health and Wellness Center to the many offices lining the student union. In a few weeks I'll be asking them to go around to each of these points of interest, interviewing employees there, and designing brochures to advertise those offices' services to prospective students.

After this exercise, we got the mathematical ball rolling with an activity I thought might help the students to identify certain mathematical "conceits" we hold. I showed a clip from the movie Contact (1997), in which Jodie Foster (as Carl Sagan's Eleanor Arroway) and friends are first contacted by an alien intelligence. The alien transmits a series of radio pulses their way, consisting of 2 bursts, then a pause; 3 bursts, then a pause; 5 bursts, then a pause...the first few dozen primes are pulsed out, and from this nonrandom behavior the scientists infer that whatever's sending the message must be a smart cookie.

Of course, there are several assumptions here that are arrogant and "humanocentric." Ranging from the most specific to the most broad:

  1. The pulses are sent assuming knowledge about (and concern for) divisibility, the conceptual underpinning of prime numbers),
  2. the pulses are meant to be interpreted in base-10 arithmetic, and
  3. the pulses are broadcast with the assumption that we use a discrete number system in the first place.
The students didn't catch the first of these, but they caught the second two. I was impressed! We didn't have a whole lot of time to follow up on this exercise before we had to go. I only had a small bit of time to explain their first writing assignment, an "ethnomathematical autobiography," which, besides having the most Greek I've ever fit into a single assignment title, will challenge them to speculate on the ways in which one's upbringing might affect one's perception of mathematics, in the context of their own lives. We'll do some writing exercises on Tuesday (peer review and metacognitive writing), and Thursday will see us begin talking about math in other cultures.

My second class was the first meeting of my Calc II kiddoes. This class is packed! The room's designed to max out around 30 students; I've got 34 in the class now, and one or two more who'd like to get in. It was almost standing-room-only: once the desks ran out we had just enough chairs (and a single stool) to accommodate every last tush in the room. Moreover, the room itself is rather small and cramped. Fortunately we meet in a different room on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; I hope this other room is larger.

However, this begs a pedagogical point: what effect does it have on learning, moving the class from room to room on different days of the week? It can't help but have a noticeable impact, I would think. I've got to be open about this: I'm becoming increasingly ticked about the lack of respect the administration has shown the Mathematics Department here, in the form of allocation of space and resources. Every single semester we teach with too few rooms and too few seats. Despite serving more students (as measured by face-time equivalents) than any other department except perhaps Literature and Language, we always get the short end of the stick when it comes to classroom space.

It's verging on the absurd now. I teach in four different buildings this semester. Four. There's one day of the week (Wednesday) on which I'll teach in three different buildings in one day. I understand if occasionally one might need to be sent out into some far-flung corner of campus for one class or another, but considering most departments teach courses which meet almost exclusively in that department's faculty's home building, I can't help but feel we're being slighted. (I just did a quick survey of our course offerings; at a glance most departments teach either one or no sections outside of their home buildings.)

At the risk of sounding crass, that shit ain't right. Can you imagine the holy hell that would be raised if the chemists were asked to teach their small upper-level courses in the basement of New Hall, where all of the foreign language people dwell?


Aside from being cramped, the first day of Calc II came off rather well. No major kinks. We spent much of the class time building a rough concept map of Calc I, which I hope to include in my book.

Speaking of which: I finished off about 26,000 words over break, and am now about 80% done with a first draft. Draft versions of Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 are nearly done, and 7's coming along as well. Chapters 1 and 2 might end up getting merged into one, and I'll likely get a start on those/that this weekend.

For now, I'm twenty minutes I've got the first meeting of this semester's 280 course. 34 students! The last time I taught it (Fall 2009), I had 15. Crikey.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The votes are in...

The results of the Fall 2010 course evaluations (performed on-line for the first time at our school...that a whole 'nother can o' worms I don't want to open right now, but, time permitting, about which I may soon blog) have just been released to faculty.

I'm not surprised by most of what I see in the numbers; my averages on most of the items are where they've been historically...translating the old items roughly into their new equivalents. I'm also not surprised by most of the qualitative responses to the very open-ended "strengths/weaknesses of the instructor/course" questions: very little that I've not seen before. I'm used, by now, to getting negative comments like "he goes very fast through some things..." I find this one particularly risible, since I know that I am the slowest and most methodical teacher in my department: I'd love to see what these students would have to say about some of my colleagues!

Though I take a handful (generally 3 or 4 out of some 80 or so students who responded, all told) of these in stride, and though there was a similar handful of critical but very helpful comments that will help me re-craft my classes in the future, there was one comment that troubled me. A student in one of my classes mentioned that s/he felt I "give different grades for people in different majors."

This, my friends, is out-and-out nonsense. I'm a little taken aback by this insinuation of favoritism. I do all that I can to avoid inconsistency in my grading. I do all that I can to ensure fairness, regardless of major, class rank, age, color, marital status, gender identity, religion...

Although I'm certain that an occasional inconsistency pops up on one item or another on a problem set or an exam (Bob got a 3 out of 5 while Alice got a 4, for essentially the same response), I don't hesitate a second to correct my own error if it's brought to my attention.

During one semester while I was a postdoc at Illinois, I taught a Mathematica-based probability course with about 75 students in it. (Many fun stories there, I can tell you...) Very close to the end of the semester, a student came up to me in the hall after class and said something along the lines of "just so you know, you've been really inconsistent in your grading all semester. My friend and I always give exactly the same answers and you always give him a higher score than me."

I was as taken aback then as I am just now, and said "this is troubling. I definitely don't intend for this to happen. It's hard to grade 75 papers consistently, and mistakes might pop up now and then. Can you bring me your work and show me where I've done this? I'll correct it right away."

He looked at me really sheepishly (or, rather, didn't look at me and looked away, at the wall) and replied: "well, I don't really have any examples on me, but I know it's happened."

My interpretation (especially given the fact that it was on the last day of class that this perception was brought to my attention): "I'm doing really shittily in this class, and rather than owning up to my own lack of effort during the past four months, I'm going to make a vague accusation of favoritism on the part of the professor at the last minute, hoping he'll cave."

Is this the case here? I don't know.

Listen: if this ever, ever, happens to you in one of my classes, let me know. Immediately. I will tend to it. Immediately. I'm a pretty approachable guy, I think, and I'm pretty easy to talk to and receptive of constructive criticism. I can't do a damned thing if you don't let me know how you're perceiving things, though.

I hope I've made myself clear.

Not to be continued, I hope.