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:
- The pulses are sent assuming knowledge about (and concern for) divisibility, the conceptual underpinning of prime numbers),
- the pulses are meant to be interpreted in base-10 arithmetic, and
- the pulses are broadcast with the assumption that we use a discrete number system in the first place.
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 off...in 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.