Friday, January 14, 2011

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.


Bret Benesh said...

It has been a while since I saw this movie, and I am having a tough time understanding how the pulses are in base 10. I am assuming that you are contrasting pulses in, say, base 6. However, I cannot see how these would be different.

I probably just haven't seen the movie recently enough; I am too busy (read "lazy") to watch a clip online.

Scarlett said...

Luck! P.S. since the math department is by far the quirkiest, smartest bunch of creative people I guarantee that we could successfully employ a hostile take over of the bottom floor of Zeis... it's not like the science people are using it! I know, I looked at taking different science classes this year, the majority of which are not in the spaces that the math department deserves! Have fun with your crazy full classes, let me know if you need assistance for activities and stuff!

DocTurtle said...

@Bret: ah! I think I misspoke...the assumption is more that we don't rely on enumerating in a different ring, wherein divisibility relations would be different and primes would therefore look very different. One of the "auxiliary" conceits the students recognized themselves was an an assumption about base-10 arithmetic, which will play a role in some of our discussions early in the class.

Thanks for the note!

Bret Benesh said...

@DocTurtle Thanks! This clears everything up, and I am impressed that your students thought of it.

PS---This semester will be an even larger step toward portfolio grading. In fact, I think that I might even feel good about calling it "portfolio grading" once I have it all planned. Thanks for helping me think through this grading stuff.