Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Job satisfaction

Every now and then you have one of those moments that makes you realize why it is you do what you do. I've had a couple of them in the past 15 hours or so.

Last night I managed to prove that the path P5 on five vertices is Ramsey unsaturated. (Oddly, there were no ticker-tape parades this morning.) I'm pretty certain this fact has been proven before (I know it's conjectured), but it was satisfying to prove it for myself.

Just now one of the five stalwart students taking both Calc II and MATH 280 with me this term (poor souls) asked a fantastic question based on one of their take-home exam questions. "Is it possible for the center of mass of an object to lie outside the object?" Indeed it is possible, though it turns out not to be the case on the exam problem in question, and this was an astute question to ask!

We then spent about ten minutes generalizing the problem I'd asked on the exam. It turns out that by modifying the endpoints of the interval on which our object is based (and leaving alone the function giving its upper boundary, namely sec(x)), we can in fact obtain an object with center of mass lying outside of the object.

Good times.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The end is near

I sure hope so, anyway. An already-short semester made nearly a week shorter by three snow days to start it off has meant that nearly every faculty member on campus has been piling on the work, making up for lost time. Everyone, faculty and students alike, is overworked this semester. The stress level is extraordinary.

This is one reason I felt bad effectively asking many of my 280 students to redo their last homework set even as they bear into the next one...and get ready for the next take home exam, to be handed out tomorrow. They took it well, though, and judging from the revisions I've seen since yesterday morning, they've made good on the opportunity: the revisions look great! I think it was the right move.

I hope this coming weekend's conference will be a welcome relief to the handful of faculty and ten or so students who are going. (Danielle, who was in my Linear class last term, jumped at the chance to go and get away from her dreaded CSCI 273 course for a little while.) This year's MAA Southeastern Sectional meeting, in Tuscaloosa, will be the second for several of the students and the first for a few others. My student Tonio is presenting on the work he did with me a year ago, we're fielding a Jeopardy! team for the second year running, and our department's faculty are presenting on everything from low-stakes writing activities (guess who?) to peer mentoring programs for Calc I courses. I'm just looking forward to the drive and a night or two to sort out some of the last revisions on the book before submitting it.

I've got one more conference coming up, at the end of next week. The annual Conference on College Composition and Communication ("Cs," as the comp/rhet people call it) takes place next week in Atlanta. It's my first. I'm looking forward to hammering out the next step on the research on REU writing Bella, Damian, and Nicola and I will be taking again this summer, and to meeting a few more folks in the composition community. (Moreover, from what I've heard, the publishers' receptions are pretty much the bomb...I've already been told about Bedford/St. Martin's shindig at Turner Field.)

Almost there...almost there...hang in there, my friends; we're almost there.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Change of plans

Around four or five this afternoon I got back from a trip to Belmont University this past Friday (great trip, fun talk, good friends, etc.), and went right up to my office to pick up the MATH 280 homework that was to have been shoved under my door. 23 out of 36 students had submitted their work "on time," and two more slyly slid their work under my door while I sat there grading Calc II quizzes.

I held off on grading the 280 homework (a set dealing with set equality and properties of set operations, like commutativity and associativity of union and intersection, and so forth) until I got home. Dinner made, I then settled into my chair to start.

The first problem was rough (the proof I'd requested has a more subtle structure than do the others in the set), and I'd expected that. The second, though, was rougher, and this I'd not expected. Several people did fantastically. Several others had the right idea but their exposition was ragged and raw. Several more still, though, had only a very loose grip on the problem.

I stopped grading there, knowing that were I to keep going, I'd see more of the same. After all, these kinds of proofs (of set equality) are tricky at first, but they're also very formulaic, and once you've got one of its kind, you've got 'em all. I'm almost certain that whatever mistakes a student made on Problem 2, she'd repeat on Problem 3, and again on Problem 4, and so forth. I doubt it would make much difference were I to keep commenting.

Rather than finish off this problem set, I'm going to return the ungraded homework sets tomorrow, giving students the option of revising their work after we've had a chance to go through a variety of approaches to Problem 2 together at the outset of class.

We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Aleas being jactaed all over the place

I've cast two dies in the past 24 hours.

Last night I sent my editor the first draft of the last chapter that I'd yet to finish. As of 2:18 EDT this morning, I have completed a full first draft of my book.


...yesterday before leaving campus I sent an email to the Chair of our Faculty Senate indicating my willingness to serve as the "point person" for the Curricular Sustainability Subcommittee of CRTF.

We'll see if they take me up on the offer.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


For the past two years I've served as Chair both of our university's Writing Intensive (WI) Subcommittee and of its Integrative Liberal Studies Oversight Committee (ILSOC; the body of which WI is a component). I was on WI for two years before chairing it, and during that time did a good deal of assessment and faculty development work for the body before coming to its head.

I've enjoyed all of this work: as anyone who reads this blog even casually (or anyone who's talked to me for more than a few minutes about my teaching) knows, I'm passionate about writing across the curriculum in all of its manifestations, and I consider myself duty-bound to evangelize and elegize.

I've enjoyed the work, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm tired of it. I'd estimate (if I had to pull a number or two out of a hat) that I've put an average of 5-7 hours a week towards WI during the past four years, and probably 3-5 hours a week towards ILSOC during the past two. This includes the summer months, for much of the assessment, faculty development, and reporting I've had to do for both bodies has taken place over the summer. In all this adds up to well over 1000 hours of work...and this is likely a conservative estimate.

I'll be rotating off of WI (my term is up) at the end of this academic year, and thus off of ILSOC, for it's my chairing of the former body that places me on the latter one in the first place. I've had a few good innings, and, to further that metaphor, I might say I've bowled several centuries. It's been fun.

What'll I be doing with my free time come next Fall, or even sooner? Lest you think I'll be languishing in a non-administrative lull, I might let you know that I've been placed on the "Curricular Sustainability" subcommittee of the latest chimerical beast dreamed up by our Provost and Faculty Senate Chair, the Curricular Review Task Force, or CRTF, for short.

To be clear: I volunteered to be on CRTF when the call went out a few weeks back. I even asked specifically to be placed on the subcommittee I've been placed on. (I'm delighted to find that several colleagues whom I respect deeply will be on the same subcommittee...many of whom have roughly my tenure, and many of whom I've worked with before.) I'm actually not complaining about this new assignment, as I believe it'll prove interesting, challenging, fulfilling, and (yes, I'm going to say it) fun.


...there's something wrong here.

The Curricular Sustainability Subcommittee (CSS..."cascading style sheet"?) will be tasked with mapping out a proposal to make our school's curriculum deliverable by the current faculty (read: "without the adjuncts we cannot at this time afford") without driving them insane or further abrading their already red, rubbed, and raw morale. Sounds simple enough, right? During the CRTF's organizational meeting this past Friday, I began jotting down a list of related issues as they came to me. One after another they came, a few here, a few there, all interlocking and interacting, one popping up as another is squeezed down, like the flesh of a bulbous balloon.

What's involved?

  • Class size
  • Number of classes
  • Frequency of class meetings
  • Physical space available for class meetings
  • Student enrollment
  • Funding supplied by students' tuition
  • "Down time" (release time and sabbatical...the latter now euphemistically called "professional development leave," and before that "off-campus scholarly assignment"; heaven forbid we call it "sabbatical": that would make us sound lazy!)
  • Comparability with other institutions' policies
  • Accounting of courses (cross-listing, "double-dipping," other accounting tricks)
  • Meaningful co-teaching and related pedagogical practices
  • Relation of our mission and goals to those of the UNC system as a whole
  • Time to perform research
  • Time to perform service to the department, university, and community
  • Use of technology (especially regarding distance learning and hybrid course designs)
  • Faculty development (cost of, and targets of)
  • Support for curricular development efforts, for faculty development in general
  • Reassessment of the roles of graders, UG teaching assistants, and other opportunities for student engagement in pedagogy
  • The university's identity and mission as a liberal arts institution
  • Et cetera
As some sample interpenetrations, working off of the unwritten (but widely stated, including over and over at this past Friday's meeting) aim of ensuring a 3-3 load:

Moving to a 3-3 load without the help of several dozen more faculty will lead to...larger class sizes, creating...greater demands for more (and more frequently unavailable) physical space, requiring...further renovations to existing physical structures, or perhaps extending hours during which regular courses are offered...unless...

...enrollment is forced downward, leading to...a decrease in the tuition monies available to fund the university's efforts across the board, raising...the school's dependence on other sources of funding...or, unless...

...a move is made to offer more and more online and hybrid online/face-to-face courses, for which...faculty will need more professional development (to better acquaint themselves with this pedagogical paradigm) and preparation time (you can teach an old dog new tricks, but not overnight), assuming we can all get over...the damage this move might do to the university's identity as a liberal arts institution, in which meaningful student-instructor engagement and student-led learning (undoubtedly harder to orchestrate from afar) are highly prized.

The astute reader will noticed that I've not yet followed up on the "something's wrong here" I threw out above.

In asking faculty to take on the job of resolving this and other equally immense issues involved with overhauling our curriculum, the administration is adding yet another duty to the already vertiginous tower of tasks it's performing (like QEP design and delivery, assessment for SACS, day-to-day operations of the Humanities, Arts and Ideas, Intensives, Clusters, and ILS Colloquia, and various and sundry other sickeningly corporatized bureaucratic functions). Faculty, most of whom are already teaching three or four increasingly large sections every semester, many of whom are facing increasingly great expectations for service and scholarship, are more and more frequently being asked to take on administrative roles.

Like it or not, we're being turned into quasi-administrators, all of us.

Halfway through Friday's CRTF meeting the question was raised: "well, once we've put all of our recommendations together, then what?" Clearly, as it stands, no single body will have the authority to make all of the changes we're likely to suggest; whatever the faculty can't do on an informal basis will have at least to go through Faculty Senate (or at least its subcommittee, the Academic Policy Committee), if not General Administration (GA) itself, far away in a semi-mythical place called Raleigh (a place where the public liberal arts university is not well-, if ever at all, understood). I imagined the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the ark is trundled off into the bowels of an immense warehouse, presumably never to be seen it would be with our report, no doubt: how many months would be wasted in trying to coordinate the several separate bodies whose work it would be to try to implement whatever suggestions we could come up with?

In a delightful moment of daydream, I thought: "Rebel. Revolt. Take over. Throw the Senate out, screw GA, and rewrite the rulebook, starting with page 1. If we've got the backing of the faculty as a whole [there are some 50 or 60 of us on CRTF, by the way], who's to stop us?" It was a childish thought, to be sure, but it was nice while it lasted.

Just minutes before the meeting on Friday I'd been sitting in the Math Lab working with Didi and Belle, two of my favorite new students this semester. They were working at trying to make their submission for the Calc II Integral Insanity miniproject more fiendish (the goal is to make as difficult an integral as possible, while still making it doable). We were trying to figure out how to build a reasonably challenging integration-by-parts problem backwards, through reverse engineering. I don't think any of the three of us had had much sleep this past week, and we were all slap-happy and silly as hell. Progress was slow, but I think we eventually got there.

It's moments like these that make me remember why I do what I do. I'm a teacher (and scholar) first, and an administrator second...distantly second. As important as WI, ILSOC, CRTF, and all of the other academic acronymic entities are in the abstract, there's nothing more important in concrete terms than making sure that a future mathematician understands induction, or that a future engineer or public health official knows how to analyze a simple mathematical model, or that I keep playing an active role in the generation of new knowledge, for my own sake and for my students'.

I can't lose sight of this.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Girls and boys

I know at least two web media outlets (Slate and Inside Higher Ed) commented today on a study on gender issues in STEM ("Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," for those not in the know) fields recently done at the University of Massachusetts, and my Facebook posts on the article have led to great conversations with my (mostly female) friends. The study's results are unsurprising to those of us in STEM fields: female instructors in STEM courses lead to improved levels of engagement and confidence in female students.

At the risk of sounding dismissive, I offer a one-word response to this study: "duh."

I honestly don't mean to be dismissive. I highly value this study and others like it for reifying and drawing attention to the glaring disparities between the achievement of men and the achievement of women in math and math-related disciplines, at all levels. We need to get serious about addressing these disparities, from preschools to postdocs, and beyond.

Addressing the inequities in math education takes more than responding the Barbie's "math is hard" with "Barbie's full of shit," but telling Barbie off is a good start. Early on young women need to be told that they're as capable of doing math as their male counterparts, and that in doing so they do not sacrifice their femininity. They need to be given the same encouragement and opportunities young men are given.

I could write for hours on this topic, but I know how I feel (and I'm sure my regular readers, my colleagues, and my students both past and present know how I feel, too!)...I'm more interested in learning how those of you reading this feel. I know many of my readers are current and former students of both sexes. I'd really like to know what sort of experience you've had, and what you think your sex has had to do with it.

Has your sex made you feel at home or out of place? Have you been encouraged because of your sex, or discouraged because of it? Have you noticed your instructors treating you differently than classmates of the other sex? In what way? Let me know what you think, anonymously, of course, if you'd like.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

How tweet it is

My Calc II students were all atwitter again today. I knew today's tweet would treat them to a challenge: I asked them to (in 140 characters or fewer) summarize the method of partial fractions for integrating rational functions. Anyone who has more than a passing memory of Calc II likely remembers that the process is not particularly hard...but it's long as hell and therefore difficult to summarize succinctly.

Those I felt were some of the students' strongest tweets are below, complete with intentional spelling errors and sparse spacing. I think they did very well (only a couple of them seemed to miss the method altogether...if you're one of those people, please don't hesitate to come on by my office; we can go over another example or two together).


"1)long divide 2)factor 3)look for decomposition 4)anti-differentiate 5)find constants"

"1.long division if degree_top>degree_bottom.2.factor denominator.3.A/linear&Bx+C/irreducable quads. cross-mult.denomxnumerators.4.solve A,B,C"

"to integrate fractions, 1st long divide, then factor separate the integral and solve if not solvable separate out each term bottom and the" [ran out of room!]

"1poly long division 2factor3decompose w/each factor in the denominator4integrate5cross multiply and solve for each constant."


They're definitely growing more accustomed to writing in this highly constrained genre, one which encourages concision and carefulness, and the ability to get right to the heart of the matter.