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.

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