Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fun Times

I'm smack-dab in the middle of the freest time of year for me, that three- our four-week-long end of May, during which time I'm generally "relaxing" after a successful semester, working like mad to take care of the various reports due from me in the next few weeks, and busily prepping for the REU that starts two weeks from tomorrow.

This year my wife and I were able to get away for our first "real vacation" (defined as "a trip involving neither work nor family visits") in several years, a five-day cruise to the Bahamas. Of course, being who I am I managed to make the most of it by bringing along some highly inappropriate pleasure reading, the thirtieth anniversary edition of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the oppressed, the central text for the summer Learning Circle I'm taking part in in June and July. (The only reading material I saw which may have vied with it for the "Most Ironical Reading on a Cruise Ship" award was one woman's copy of Orwell's 1984; I think if she'd have been reading Huxley instead, she might have had me beat.)

I'll likely have more to say in the coming weeks about Freire's philosophy as it applies to math education at the university level, but I wanted to put forward in this post an idea for a new ongoing writing project I hope to implement in at least one of the two classes I'm organizing in the fall (Precalculus and Abstract Algrebra I).

Oddly enough, I got the idea from the cruise company. Every evening around dinner time we were treated to a delightful turn-down service, featuring complimentary mints, expertly folded towel animals, viz.:

and a copy of the Fun Times, the cruise ship's guide to all of organized activities that would be going on on the ship the next day. It was little more than a newsletter, three or four pages in length, just the sort of periodical I think a class (or two) full of students, working together, could crank out at least once a week, if properly prepared to do so.

So here's the idea: ask students to put together an ongoing "newsletter" for their class, The Algebra Times, or The Precalc Picayune, if you will. Its content would be flexible, and what went into it from week to week would be left to the discretion of the students (I'd want to have as little to do with its creation as possible). Perhaps, for example, the precalculus newsletter could include

  • study tips,
  • hints for tricky homework problems,
  • advertising for study groups,
  • applications of course material to areas outside of class,
  • games and puzzles,
  • "letters to the editor,"
  • recommendations for class activities,
  • recaps of recent class activities,
  • personal reflections on math in general,
  • etc.
Whatever. It'd be up to them. I'd stay out of the day-to-day operations. Maybe I'm being overly sanguine, but I can imagine a handful of particularly eager students taking on editorial and managerial responsibilities (there are a few in every class). To ensure participation by the class as a whole I'd require every student to contribute to the newsletter at least once, twice, thrice, something like that, during the course of the semester. (Jointly-written contributions would count.) It would be difficult to "grade" contributions (I might shy away from this entirely, keeping it a low-stakes exercise), although I'd provide feedback to authors confidentially.

How's this sound? Colleagues: have you tried something like this before? Students: would this be something you'd be all upon?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Lessons learned

I've just finished reading through my MATH 179 students' final exams. There I'd asked them each to write in response to three different questions; briefly: (1) how has our course challenged your assumptions about mathematics?, (2) How does UNC Asheville, as a liberal arts university, differ from traditional state schools?, and (3) how would you describe your own "writing process" as you completed one of the writing assignments required of you in our class this semester?

The students' responses to the first question were rather erratic and varied wildly in quality, ranging from unelaborated lists of concepts like meddos, abaci, or alternative bases of arithmetic to carefully crafted descriptions of personal change. Sadly, there were far more of the former than of the latter, and as often as not I suspected the students of writing what they thought I wanted to hear rather than what they truly felt. The responses to the second question were predictable, focusing on small class size, the potential for one-on-one interaction with faculty, and a curriculum emphasizing development of the student thinker as a whole.

The students' responses to the third question were the most eye-opening to me, and gave me a good deal of direction as I develop as an instructor of first-year (rather than disciplinary) writing. For instance, it's clear that in the future I'll have to be more explicit in discussing the purpose for various stages of the writing process. Several students pooh-poohed the need for revision, saying, essentially, "I don't like to write in drafts, because I'm pretty happy with how it sounds after the first draft." Others bemoaned being asked to write outlines or rough drafts; one student said, more or less, "they just get in the way of what I know I need to write about...I just want to get to the point." One of the stronger student writers explicitly questioned the validity of the writing process, indicating he felt it was a waste of time and served only to objectify what is ultimately a very subjective and personal activity. Although one could argue that this student is really a budding post-process theorist, I think it's more likely that he's simply not yet learned why we do all of the things we do when we sit down to write a piece.

I noted too that students have a very hard time viewing writing as anything but linear. Perhaps because reading (traditionally, anyway...let's not speak about the way one reads on the web) has always been seen as a linear process, something done from start to finish, from the first word to the last, students have come to think of writing as a similarly linear activity. For example, no fewer than three (out of 18) students complained about how hard it was to write the introduction to a paper. "Once I get the introduction out of the way," they seemed to be saying, "the rest of the paper comes really easily." The upshot? "You can't write anything else until you've written the first paragraph, because that's where you lay out what you're going to say." It hasn't occurred to these students (and, admittedly, I did a pretty poor job this term in helping them to see) that perhaps they're better off saying what they want to say first, even elaborating it a bit, fitting together all of the important pieces of evidence, and maybe even wrapping it up by discussing their own conclusions based on that evidence, before even thinking about writing an introduction. Most of us who write academically know well that the introduction (or abstract) to a paper is often the very last thing we write: it's so much easier to lead the reader into what you wanted to say after you've already said it.

These ideas are ones I'm not used to having to make explicit in teaching writing, as I'm not used to working with novice academic writers. I've got to keep these ideas in mind for the next time I have a chance to teach first-year students general academic writing skills.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Post 500: A note of gratitude

A natural topic for my 500th post on this blog presents itself. I feel deeply humbled and honored to have been named this year's recipient of the Award for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences at UNC Asheville. Honors like are not won by the recipient alone; I have many to thank.

My thanks go to my friends and family, for their ongoing love and support (and willingness to go without seeing me for long periods of time as I indulge my workaholia).

My thanks go to my colleagues, for their boundless energy and creativity, and eagerness to engage with me in scholarly programs and activities spanning several disciplines.

My thanks go to my students, nearly every one of them tireless and talented, and many of them as passionate about teaching and learning as I am; the future is bright.

Where to go from Post 500? I've not received much feedback on what folks would like to see more of, though a couple of students have asked for more anecdotes about the early days of my teaching. Certainly those are preferable to endless rants about UNCA's QEP (a topic about which I might soon have a few more words to say).

I suppose I'll do what I always do, and let it take shape from day to day.

Thank you all.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

MATH 280 exams, revisited

A couple of posts back, I reprinted the final question on my MATH 280 students' final exam. In asking them to reflect on the course and find something worth their whiles in all that we've done together this semester, I had hoped that the students would fulfill several beneficial purposes:

1. They would notice connections and correspondences between disparate ideas we've studied, which they didn't notice before.

2. They would take the time to generate some questions of their own about the course ideas more intriguing to them.

3. They would get a bit more experience in communicating mathematical ideas in relatively informal (and non-technical) terminology. (After all, I wasn't asking them for proofs, just conversation.)

4. They would gain a sense of accomplishment in recognizing just how much we've studied this semester.

5. They would give me guidance for designing future iterations of this course by indicating to me which topics they found most interesting, most challenging, and most relevant.

The students did all of those things, and in composing a page or two in response to each of their responses to this question, I've been able to extend our conversation about ideas mathematical well beyond the time frame of the course. The semester's now over for this class, but I have a hunch that a good number of the students will spend some time over the summer following up on some of the ideas they found most interesting about the course.

I am definitely going to include this kind of exercise on every final exam from now on.

We'll see in a couple of days how my Calc II students' final portfolios come together: will it see a similar success, or a more meager one? Stay tuned...

...incidentally, my next post on this blog will be my 500th. After nearly five years of blogging on my teaching, it's come to this. If you're a regular reader (or even just a casual one), please let me know in the comments: what would you like to see me blog about in #500? And what would you like me to make of this space in the next 500 posts? Do tell!