Sunday, September 25, 2011

What have we learned?

At some time in my youth I learned that I loved mathematics. Its precision and exactitude suited my budding rational empiricism (though I couldn't have thought to say this at the time). I decided that I'd be a math teacher, because what else could one do with math?

As an undergraduate math major, I learned that I'd most likely teach math at a university, and not at a high school. "Don't waste your talent," my adviser told me. In those words he said it (albeit sotto voce); being a mathematician himself, he likely lacked the social grace to say it less bluntly. I was led by him to believe the dictum that "those who can do; those who can't teach." Though I've learned that it's often the case that our future teachers struggle more mightily with advanced mathematical concepts than do some of their more pure-math-minded colleagues, that struggle is often a fruitful and maturing one, and I no longer keep stock in this saying. Besides, knowing college faculty the way I know college faculty now, and recognizing the importance of a rock-solid middle school and high school education, I'd trade a dozen run-of-the-mill university faculty for one fantastic high school math teacher.

As a grad student, I learned that I loved both teaching and other words, I was born to live a life in the traditional academy. I loved the energy in my classrooms, the excitement of my students. I loved helping them to their personal epiphanies and "aha!" moments that make discovery so fulfilling. (I remember some of my experiences there with remarkable clarity, as in this old post.) As much as this, I loved holing up in my office or in the library and plugging away at the pure mathematical puzzles presented me by Coxeter groups, braid groups, and Artin groups. I loved confronting the unknown, clad only in the armor of socially-constructed axiomatic systems (though I couldn't have thought to call them this at the time), armed only with a few blunt theorems. My doctoral adviser urged me to get a postdoc, to prepare myself for a career at a top-notch research institution, where I'd surely be happiest.

As a postdoctoral scholar, I learned that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life at a research-intensive university. As much as I loved (and still love) research, I could not see myself doing it to the exclusion of almost all else. I had hearty colleagues; they were wise, intelligent, and in their own way fun. But they sacrificed virtually all for the sake of their research careers, publishing so that they might not perish and openly disdaining teaching, for it took time away from their scholarly pursuits. As I grew to be a better and better teacher and came to learn the fulfillment it gave me, and as I came to recognize how much more of an impact an exceptional teacher can have than even the best researcher in pure mathematics, my personal future in academia came more clearly into focus.

As an untenured faculty member, I learned that yes, indeed, teaching is where my passion lies. My research was (and is) fruitful and fun, but had (and has), for me, less meaning than the moments I get to spend working with my students, talking about teaching, and living as fully immersed in an authentic community of learners as I can. I learned that math wasn't all there was, and that my longstanding love of writing could play as big a part in my working life as it did in my personal one. I opened the door to poetry, composition, and rhetoric, and discovered rich new worlds I'm only just beginning to explore. (Much more about that in a forthcoming post on my personal "community of scholars.") Math was moved aside to make room.

As a tenured faculty member, I'm learning more and more each day that I can do what I want to with my career, and that I can follow my ever-changing passions. I'm learning that my most meaningful collaborations are most rarely found among people in my own discipline. I'm learning to adopt and adapt ever more reflective and integrative practices into my classes. Some of these practices are decentering and unsettling, both for the students I work with and for me...but ultimately such practices are the most rewarding. I'm learning that I stand to learn the most from those who are "supposed" to learn from me, and that only at a liberal arts institution like UNC Asheville would I have the chance that I have to engage in that learning.

I've learned enough to know that I don't know much at all, but that that's okay, because no one really does, and I know as much as anyone I'm likely to run into. We all know different things, though, and when we meet at the crossroads and shelter at the inn there for the night, we'll have wonderful stories to share with one another before we move on to make our way in the world once more. Sharing travelers' tales: that's how we learn best.

Here's a tale. This semester I'm working on an outside project with two of my favorite students, Ino and Ned, with whom I've shared several courses in the past. They've signed on as "undergraduate research" students because initially we expected that the project would involve a good deal of digging into linear programming and other linear algebraic methods of optimization, requiring us to perform original research at some point. (It's an offshoot of a miniproject Ino and Ned worked on with a couple of other students in my linear algebra course last fall, in which they performed a feasibility study of several different diets from both a nutritional and a budgetary standpoint. Wonderful stuff!)

The deeper down the rabbit hole we go, the more it becomes evident that we're unlikely to break any theoretical ground, but the more we realize the transformative potential of the work we're doing in the larger sphere. The work these bright kids (and they are among the brightest our school is privileged to serve) are doing will positively impact our region by helping community outreach organizations assist low-income families in planning healthy and affordable meals. Our off-campus partners are excited about the budding collaboration my students are forging, and I predict great things coming of our engagement with one another.

You might still call this "undergraduate research," writ large...more accurately still, you might call it "service learning." Whatever it's called, it's learning of some sort. Moreover, it's authentic, it's transformational, and it's real. It represents the sort of learning I hope to do more of as I move forward from here. It's the sort I hope to help my students and colleagues do more of as well.

Let's wait until morning and then move on, and make up more travelers' tales to tell at the next crossroads we meet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon your blog looking for a definition for "change of basis" as I study for the Series 7. I, too, have many passions- mostly in the black and white or two in the gray thanks to my mother who's an artist. I love the black and white world where there is no in between, but also love the gray world as it intrigues me to go outside of myself. Math teachers are fundamental. I love math because it is a challenge and difficult for me. I had a horrible math teacher in the formidable years and the decision to stay in the class haunts me to this day, even with an MBA in Advanced Accounting, working as a tax accountant and now working towards becoming a Financial Advisor. Thank you for your blog, it lifted my spirits, today in knowing the dedication teachers have. I have had the ah-ha moment and owe it all to my teacher!