Thursday, December 06, 2012

Picture this...

In my most recent post I mentioned that I'd try to get permission to post my HON 179 students' illustrations of their writing processes. Well, permission granted! Below I've included those I've been cleared to share. I'm particularly fond of the sand castle builder and Cheez-It girl, but all of them have their own charm. What delightful diversity in the approaches these bright students take on a task we all do every day!

In other news, I've just come back from the last meeting of the Honors senior capstone course (HON 470: Cultivating Global Citizenship). You might recall that though I was not teaching this course this past term, I'll be expected to do so in the near future, so I spent the semester "interning" by coming to class as often as I could and by reading the texts my colleague Sigmund assigned to the students. The conversations these kids had surrounding Bob Moses, Anthony Kwame Appiah, bell hooks, and others were fantastic, and I learned a lot. As I told the students, I especially appreciated their willingness and ability to treat me as a peer, a colearner, and not a faculty member. That attitude helped me to play a more meaningful part in the class discussions. I dug it. I'm looking forward to teaching the course on my own.

What's left to do? I've got the HON 179 students' reflection portfolios (due this coming Monday) and about 2/3 of the Complex Variables students' exams (also due Monday) to grade. Then I'll be looking forward to a nice "break" filled with assessment, research, conference prep, grant-writing, course-planning, poetry-penning, and more!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Wrapping up

The Fall 2012 semester's nearly at its end. Today is "reading day," so things are a bit quiet over here in the Honors Program offices. So far I've spent the morning reading over my HON 179 students' latest daybook writings, including their illustrations of their personal writing processes (more on those in a minute), their lists of characteristics of a liberal arts education, their reflections on the lasts couple of chapters of Ong's Orality and literacy, and their "final thoughts" for the term.

These final thoughts are surprising ones. Quiet as many of the students are (it's one of those classes where I've had to say, not infrequently, "anyone not named 'X,' 'Y,' or 'Z,' please chime in!"), it's been hard for me to judge just how they've felt about our readings, our conversations, our world cafés (more about those in a moment, too). Overwhelmingly, though, the final thoughts suggest solid engagement, satisfaction with the way the course has gone, and great strides in learning and self-awareness. I'm gratified!

About those process drawings: Libby, one of my awesome colleagues at East Carolina University, introduced me to this activity a couple of years ago when I went to ECU to take part in the "WACademy" faculty development series she's been running down there for a few years. Respondents are asked to draw their writing processes in pictures: what is it they do when they set themselves up for a major writing project? What's the next step, the next, the next, and the last (if a last step really exists)? (Incidentally, Libby's also the one who first turned me onto daybooks. Many thanks, Libby!)

I loved my students' responses to this in-class activity! Of course, they are Honors students, so they're bright and inventive and yadda yadda yadda, but wow! were these process drawings incredible. Some were little more than sketches with sparsely-drawn stick figures, heavily annotated with explanatory text (including "Cheez Its," "brain," and "blank document"). Others were highly elaborated cartoons of world-making wordsmithery. Some students offered strongly constrained step-by-step processes, and others were more amorphous, one "step" blending into another seamlessly. The variety was fantastic. I hope to gain some of the students' permission to repost their work here.

About those world cafés: I've been involved in a few of these events in the past and have always gotten a lot out of them (enlightenment, amusement, and new friendships), but until this term I'd yet to use them in class. However, I ran two in HON 179 this term (the first on truth and proof, the second on the nature of a liberal arts education), and both seemed to go well. In particular, the conversations the two generated were more open and robust than those occurring in any other class meeting. The world café format got the students' juices flowing. I'm definitely going to use the method in all future classes (math classes included!).

For now, I'm going to get a start on reading the final drafts of the HON 179 students' research papers. Writing on the roots of Ebonics, the benefits of restorative justice, the parallels between epic heroes and comic book superheroes, and many more topics, these papers have proven fascinating.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In absentia

It's been a long, long day, and I'm in a particularly honest mood.

I'd like to I apologize for being somewhat gone from this space; I've got no excuse, only explanation. Namely, there's a lot going on, both in my personal life and in my professional life. One or the other I can handle, singly; when the two come together...well, there you have it...

I've much, much more to say about a great many things, including the Honors Program (going well; it's a lot of fun), my two classes (also both going well, I feel, with some ups and downs), the curriculum review (grrrr...), several trips I've made since my last post (lots of fun, and lots learned, on all of them)...but given my mood at present I don't think it would be wise to say much more.

In brief...

Honors Program: I'm learning as I'm going, but having a blast. The students are great. I'm growing into the job, but I hope it can't be said that I'm afraid of making a few changes where changes are called for. The tone I'm trying to strike is one of anti-elitism.

My two classes: my HON 179 is quiet. I'm working on that. My Complex Variables class is fun, a mix of math majors, physics majors, and a few odd engineers and chemists. We're making our way through Churchill and Ward, slowly but surely. It's not the smoothest run I've ever made, but it's the first time I've taught the course (ever!), so I'm willing to make a few mistakes here and there.

The curriculum review: in the words of the late, great Rodney King: can't we all just get along? Into this program (over the past 19 months or so) I've put several hundreds (if not thousands) of hours; I've written hundreds of pages of proposals, meeting minutes, and position papers; I've attended god knows how many meetings...and I fear the entire process may amount to nothing because a few folks seems unwilling to compromise. Color me disappointed right now. We'll see what happens next...

Trips: since posting last, I've been to Laredo, Wildacres, Charlotte, Roanoke, and DC (am I missing anything), doing faculty development for high school math teachers and university faculty, speaking on 3x30, and trying to convince the American Mathematical Society's Committee on Education that yes, we should be trying to get our students to write more. Et cetera. I'm tired of traveling. It's time I stayed home.

More later. Much more. For now, I'd best be off to bed.

Thank you all for reading.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Feeling pretty pooped upon

Only a few folks have had a chance to comment on the final draft of the CRTF Summer Working Group proposal for which I was the chief author (but by no means the sole contributor; "scribe" might be a better term). So far the feedback has been resoundingly negative...and highly selective.

So far my prediction is being borne out: 100% of the people on campus will be okay with 90% of the proposal...but the objectionable 10% will differ from person to person, with little perfect overlap.

A question to my friends at other institutions who have been involved in very large-scale curricular reforms: do you still have friends after it's all said and done? I'm glad that I'm generally well-trusted and well-liked on campus, because I think I'm going to be trading in some of that political capital in the coming weeks.

Incidentally, I chose the title for this post intentionally, to include the word "pooped": as one of my HON 179 students pointed out in her reflection on language change, it's a tremendously fun word to say...and fun words stick around longer than their less-fun compatriots.

So I say in closing: poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Well, they're in, folks: my HON 179 students have all submitted at least one meme apiece, in response to the assignment I gave them on Monday. Some were funny, and others were really funny. Below I've listed some of those that were cleverest, often so clever owing to their connection to what we've talked about in class (including a couple riffing on Tutu).

"One Does Not Simply" is a big one right now, as you can see from my students' submissions. The first laments English's resistance to being broken:

The next two poke gentle fun at Desmond Tutu:

I couldn't resist making another of my own, referencing a seminal point in English evolution which Crystal highlights in his book:

One student had Condescending Wonka expound on non-standard English's confusing conventions:

Fortunately, Good Guy Greg's around to play Dr. Johnson:

On more general collegey themes, the ever-popular Philosoraptor made an appearance, as in this query about our campus's odd geography:

Other vexations about campus life?

One student wondered at the relevance of her music theory course:

And meme mash-ups? You've got 'em! Bad Advice Cat meets The Most Interesting Man in the World:

And Joseph Ducreux treads with trepidation into Mordor:

I should mention that I received a few that I wasn't able to save as nice images; here are links to a couple of other clever ones, involving Dwight Schrute (speaking to an issue that came up in class on Monday) and "All the" Allie (speaking to the influence French has historically had on English).

Finally, with a mash-up of HON 179 and HON 479, I'll let Anthony Kwame Appiah have the last word:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An interesting observation

A few days back in HON 179 we finished our reading of Desmond Tutu's No future without forgiveness and moved on the David Crystal's The fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left. I'm currently reading the first set of students' reflections on this new reading, and I've made an interesting qualitative observation I'd like to try to make more precise when I have a chance to reflect more deeply on it.

The theme of Crystal's book is the English language, generally speaking, with special attention paid to its uses, misuses, and abuses, to the ways in which we shape the language through our use of it, and to the evolution it's undergone as a consequence. The book is wittily written, a style one might expect of a linguist, and is full of clever wordplay.

This theme contrasts sharply with the theme of our last book, an account of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The language Tutu uses to tell that sad story is often (fittingly) dark and somber, rising to elegaic, even hagiographic, when the time comes to speak of the indomitable human spirit. The language is almost never intentionally witty or playful.

So what am I finding in my students' writing? For the first time all semester they seem to feel comfortable trotting out their own toys to engage in some wordplay of their own. These first reflections on Crystal are cram-packed with metaphors, synecdoche and metonymy, and lively ripostes. Their writing is more personal, but by and large more cohesive; it's as though they each have very coherent personal tales to tell, tales that are much more well-formed than their thoughts on the TRC.

I'm enjoying reading these reflections. I'm getting a better sense, in a single reflection, of their individual writing styles than I did from four on Tutu.

Onward, I must read more.

Incidentally, I've only received a single meme as yet, from a student using Joseph Ducreux. I've gotten requests to post some of the students' work here, and I plan to do that, once I get proper permissions.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The most interesting class in the world

What's my HON 179 class up to this week?

'Nuff said. They've gotta be ready to defend the assumptions they made and the conventions they followed in crafting their memes. I'm excited (read: "terrified") to see what they come up with.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

A little WTL

It's Labor Day weekend, and I'm getting a good start on it by responding to my HON 179 students' latest reflections. The prompt for these reflections (ostensibly in response to Chapters 7-9 of Tutu's No Future Without Forgiveness) asked the students to "think about an incident in your past in which actual, literal verbalization of some kind (monologue, dialogue, or multilogue) helped you achieve resolution. What was it about the act of verbalization itself that proved therapeutic? Can you describe how it made you feel, and why it made you feel that way?" I made sure they knew I wasn't trying to pry; I let them know they need not describe the precipitating incident itself, but only the means by which it was resolved.

I'm only halfway through reading these reflections, and already I've made two crucial observations.

1. The students inherently understand the idea behind writing-to-learn (or at least communicating-to-learn), whether or not they're able to put it in those terms. "I actually have to stop and think to figure out exactly what is making me so mad so that I can explain it" says one student about talking things out, "I was able to organize my thoughts on the matter better" says another, and "making your complaints or confessions intelligible allows a more efficient and complete resolution" says a third. Though they've all phrased it in different ways, they've all hit on the fundamental basis of writing-to-learn. As I wrote back to these students, when writing we have to be able to put our thoughts into words and sort those words into meaningful sentences and paragraphs. This very act helps us to explore our thoughts. You don’t just use writing as a means of communication; you use it also as a means of exploration and discovery.

2. The students' writing is dramatically better when they're writing about something deeply personal and not simply academic. Without exception so far, every student's paper has been equal or superior to her or his previous reflections. This observation is nothing new: no doubt the personal stake the students feel in this piece motivates them to perform more ably. It's clearer than at any earlier point this term that I've got some great writers in this class.

On to the second half...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

IHAD it!

This term I'm sitting in on my colleague Sigmund's honors section of HON 479: Cultivating Global Citizenship, our school's interdisciplinary senior capstone course. (As Director of the Honors Program it will often fall to me to teach this class, and I'd like to see how someone else puts the course together before I do it myself.) The course addresses modern ethical systems, exposing students to these systems and helping them to understand how to apply those systems of ethics as they take part in an incredibly diverse and dynamic society.

The honors section of the course features a service learning component, in which the students tutor for an hour and a half each week at the I Have a Dream (IHAD) Foundation, a privately-funded program which gives academic support to at-risk youth, helping them to build the skills they need to succeed in middle and high school and to continue on to college. Last Thursday the class met at the IHAD's center, located in the Pisgah View Apartments (public housing development) in West Asheville, about five blocks from one of my usual running routes. Kieran, IHAD's on-site director, led the tour and Eugenia, his assistant, helped out. On that day the students were asked to complete their volunteer forms. I filled one out, too, deciding that the best way to become fully acquainted with the class would be to get in on the after-hours activities, too.

Yesterday was my first day at the center, working alongside five students in the class. It's been a long time since I've tutored, and a long time since I've worked with at-risk youth. The experience was a wonderful one, and eye-opening.

Each kid has to complete whatever homework she has for the day and then read a specific number of pages. The amount each kid reads depends on her grade level: sixth graders read six pages, seventh graders seven, and so on. Once done with each task the kids receive special marks on the cards they wear around their necks on lanyards, and they can receive "dots" (made with a Sharpie) for exceptional effort; dots can later be traded in for various treats and honors.

I worked with four kids, one at a time. The first student, Efrem, had no homework, so we went right on to the reading. He was an eighth grader, but after glancing at the print size in the book Efrem had chosen (a digested version of Dickens' Great Expectations) Eugenia asked him to read ten pages. This he did, and quite well, actually showing excitement at several points in the story. (He loved the word "idiot." Who doesn't?)

The next student struggled far more mightily: Umberto, another eighth grader, was clearly behind his grade level in reading and writing. He'd had to write a story for his language arts class, and the paragraph he'd produced was rife with errors, mostly in spelling and orthography. "It doesn't have to be perfect," Eugenia had told me as she'd paired me off with Umberto. Nonetheless, I hoped I could hit on some of the major problems. We went through the paragraph carefully, and each time a word didn't read the way he read it aloud to me, I stopped him.

"Are you sure that's what you said?" I'd ask. And we'd work it out. It took a while. The reading took some time, too. He was clearly not confident in his reading ability, stumbling over every fourth or fifth word, simply omitting words he didn't have any idea how to pronounce. We stopped several times per page as I asked him to say a word over again or puzzle a word out. He was very patient about this, and I rewarded him with a dot for his efforts.

The next two students were the most fun ones to work with. Ulysses is one of the IHAD program's most popular students. He's a precocious and bright seventh grader who had to work with me on his math homework and his reading. His math he flew through, reducing fractions like nobody's business. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he even caught his own errors. When it came to reading, too, he was a pro, but it was like pulling teeth to get him to read his allotment. He slogged through six pages before trying to cut a deal with me at the end of every sentence on the seventh page. "Can I stop here?" "No, you need to read another paragraph." "Can I stop here?" Nope, one more..."

The last student, Bertrand, was a great kid. A tall and slender eighth grader, he was struggling with problems none of the other tutors there that day knew how to handle: reducing cube roots. The center was clearing out: nearly every other kid was done with his or her work, and no one had dared help poor Bertrand. Eugenia turned to me; she knew that I teach at UNCA, but she didn't know what subject. "Do you know anything about this?" she implored.

" do know what I teach?" I told her, and it was as if the clouds parted. I sat down and started to work with Bertrand. The first couple were slow going as he got the hang of what was going on. I tried to explain it intuitively as well as algorithmically, but I didn't know what sort of conceptual basis he had to build on. We worked out four problems of the five he'd been assigned, leaving the last for him to finish later. "Thank you for working with me," he told me. I think it might be one of the slogans they teach the students to use ("I'm sorry for running into you; it was an accident" is another, for instance), but he said it with earnestness and sincerity. I was touched. I shook his hand.

"You're very welcome, Bertrand. It was a pleasure meeting you." I hope I get to work with him again.

I look forward to working with these kids. It was a pleasant an escape from the craziness of campus. It's good to be reminded that education is more than measurable outcomes, curricular reform, and recruitment and retention benchmarks. It can be simple, as simple as helping a student struggle with the word "sputtering" or with reducing 6/8 to lowest terms.

We can all stand a good dose of such simplicity.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Grist for the rumor mill

The proposal for curricular reform we (the Summer Working Group of the CRTF) put together this past summer has yet to be released in final form, but already much word of it has spread unofficially across the campus. Some of the rumors are making their way back to me...and so far the reportage has been pretty accurate. ("They're scaling back the Humanities program?" "They're getting rid of clusters?" "They're capping majors at 60 hours?")

My assessment of the situation earlier this summer is pretty accurate, too: I strongly suspect that 100% of the faculty are going to be okay with 90% of the proposal and horrified at 10%...but it's going to be a different 10% for every single person.

You know your committee's been successful when you piss off everyone equally.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Week One is in the can!

Just an hour ago I wrapped up my last class of the first week of the semester. I'm looking forward to Complex this term: it's a small (for me) class, with only 15 students, many of whom already know each other and are comfortable working together. So far I've had no trouble getting folks to volunteer to present solutions at the board, and I think the students' level of experience and sophistication is almost exactly what I'd expected. This is good.

Meanwhile, my first-year seminar is proving a bit more of a challenge, relatively unused as I am to leading discussion-based classes. The conversations were sluggish again today, and I asked the students at the end of the class to give me some feedback by asking each of them to tell me one thing that would better help them get involved in the discussions. The most common response (from five or six people) was that they feel they'll open up a bit more once they know each other better. There were several other very good suggestions, one of which I'm going to try to implement: "Less of an assumption that the teacher leads the discussion. Maybe we have daily/topical discussion leaders."

In each class meeting starting on Monday, I'm going to have two people volunteer to lead discussion in the next meeting. It'll be up to those people to design activities to plan to prepare people for conversation and to come up with questions to ask to prod conversation along when it lags. This will give students more ownership in the process. Moreover, they'll be asking each other questions, rather than waiting for me to ask questions of them, which in turn decenters the classroom further.

There were aspects of today's conversation that were interesting. As an exercise in identity formation, and to indicate the power of naming things, I asked each student to describe herself in three words. Though they were not required to share their words with the class, all but a couple of students did so (my own three are last):

I am happy
absurd/optimistic/playful [arranged in a playful little triangle]
Trying my best
outgoing/intelligent/determined [fittingly, for the first, written in large, bold letters]

What's this say about us? An optimistic bunch, I guess.

It's been a good first week, overall. I'm glad to be back in the classroom, though my adjusting to the role of Honors Director is distracting me from fully focusing on my classes. That'll get better as I settle in. To my students: apologies if I've seemed distracted these first few days. I'll get better, I promise.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Just got back from my third meeting with my HON 179 class. Though many of them are still a bit shy about speaking up in front of one another, they're coming out of their shells a little bit. Notably, every single student contributed at least a little bit to the conversation, and though there were five or six folks who were more talkative than others, no one out-and-out dominated the discussion. It was healthy.

Healthy too was the tone the conversation took about two thirds of the way through class, at which point we were discussing the idea of regretfulness, and whether and in which cases expressions of regret are sincere. For a few minutes the conversation continued for the sake of the conversation itself, and not to impress the teacher. For those few minutes students actually seemed to be responding to one another, following up on each others' thoughts with interest, and speaking directly to one another and not to me. It was delightful!

It reminded me of the way in which the classroom conversation involves in Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. On that album, the interstitial tracks carry a conversation held in a classroom full of adolescents talking about a very difficult (for them) topic to talk about, namely love. At first the conversation is stilted, forced, academic. It begins with the students reading aloud the letters "L," "O,", "V," "E" as they are written on the board before them. It gradually evolves, relaxing, loosening, switching from the rigid code of the academic setting to a lithe and lissome language of the streets. The evolution of that conversation is exactly the evolution I want to see in the conversations in my classroom. As I exhorted the students to try to talk more to one another than to me, I only half-jokingly said that I'd be assigning Lauryn Hill's album to them as required listening.

I might just do that...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

So far, so good

Halfway through the second day, and the semester's chugging along nicely.

The first meeting of my Complex Variables class came off without a hitch yesterday. I've got a relatively small group (15 students), comprising math, physics, and engineering majors. We had a lively first class, in which, after a brief review of operations on and properties of real numbers, we encountered the basic definition of a complex number. Tomorrow will tell if the structure I've designed for this course will work out well. I'm doing a sort of "flipped Moore method," wherein the students will be presenting only certain of the problems they're assigned, while they'll be submitting written solutions to them all. From the second problem set on, they'll be required to submit their solutions in LaTeX, and I'll be giving them all the option of taking part in the study my colleague Beatrice and I have put together for this coming year's Conference on College Composition and Communication (viva, Las Vegas!). Our goal will be to understand the effect that using LaTeX has on students' composition processes.

Meanwhile, I'm busy settling into the Honors office and meeting with Honors students as they drop in. I'm beginning to realize that much of this job entails putting out the dozens of little range fires that pop up on an almost hourly basis. (Welcome to administration, I suppose...?) It's not often the same thing twice, so far, so there's enough variety to make the job interesting. Moreover, the students are fantastic. I'm particularly enjoying meeting majors from departments very far removed from my own (Accounting, Health and Wellness Promotion, etc.).

It's going smoothly. Things are settling quickly enough that I'm already starting to look ahead to my next round of trips. First I'm off to Texas A&M International University in Laredo, where I'll be leading a day and a half of faculty development workshops centering on writing in the disciplines. Next, it's up the mountain to the Wildacres Retreat Center for my fifth Carolinas Writing Program Administrators fall conference (love those people!). Finally, a week later I'm off to my first North Carolina English Teachers Association conference (featuring my first official book signing!). I've got a couple more weeks to get ready, but need to get on it, especially for that first trip.

Speaking of which, let me get back to it...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Day One

My first (official) meeting of my HON 179 course on "Metamorphoses in Math and Language" met just a half-hour ago. The students, almost without exception brand-spankin' new, first-semester students, are a bit quiet, still shy about speaking up in front of one another, especially when called on to talk about hifalutin' things like one's personal sense of purpose and vision.

"Why are you here?" I asked them to reflect on, after reading them Billy Collins's "Monday" and suggesting that the poet seems to presume that everything be in its right place. "Why are you here right now?"

While the students wrote in response to this intentionally vague prompt, I reflected in a brief freewrite in my daybook (my colleague Libby will be delighted to know that I'm asking all of the students in this class to keep daybooks this term):

"Why am I here? I'm here to share some wonderful words, to learn how they affect others (do they affect you the same way they affect me?). I'm here to help you all begin to discover your academic selves, to adjust to expectations, new environments, new settings.

"We've seen so much; we've seen so much, now let us see it all together, let us unpack it, sort it through, try to understand what we can make of it. What do we have here?

"What can you bring? That is what I'm here to discover. That is what I'm here to learn.

"What can we do together?"

It occurred to me just moments ago, sitting here in my new office, across the quad, buildings away from my long-time community in the Math Department, one floor down from my adoptive  home in Literature & Language, the sort of changes I'm making right now. They outwardly appear dramatic ones, a break from my old department (a metonym for the discipline), a move across campus into new functions and duties, a new set of colleagues and coworkers...but it's much as though I've consummated a marriage that followed a long engagement with cohabitation: I've done enough interdisciplinary work for the past several years, and in that time I've worked with so many people across campus that this new move doesn't seem all that new.

I've got this. I can handle it.

Now to get ready for my second first class of the semester, Complex Variables...could I be teaching two more different courses this term?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Looking forward/looking back

I’m more sure than ever before that we’re making a mistake, but I feel powerless to stop it.

I’m returning now from a brief visit to Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. There, at the request of my colleague Katarina, I took part in a day of faculty development workshops. That small school’s entire faculty spent two days together in sessions designed to help them craft innovative classroom activities, manage assessment, direct undergraduates in research, and understand the school’s current proposal for curricular change. I’d been invited to give the second day’s keynote, focusing on writing as a means of critical thinking, and to lead two iterations of a brief workshop on mentoring undergraduates in research. Both of these went well, owing more than anything else to Morningside’s very engaged faculty than to anything else. There are a large number of young, as-yet-untenured, faculty at that school, many already making use of progressive pedagogies and eager to learn more.

Most eye-opening for me was the session I attended during the time I wasn’t busy leading my own. The session was led by several faculty who were charged with describing their work in crafting proposals for specific curricular reforms. One faculty member spoke of the school’s new plan to enhance students’ critical thinking. Another spoke on their plan to more intentionally develop students’ communication abilities through a sort of CAC (communication across the curriculum) program. A third focused on the plan to build students’ quantitative literacy. I should note that here, the word “plan” should not be read simply: these plans are robust and elaborate. They include careful vertical integration, course design methodologies, articulation of learning goals, and plans for appropriate multi-stage assessment.

It was the last presentation that struck me most, for it is in stark contrast with particular components of my own school’s current plans for curricular reform. Among the several specific changes the summer working group (SWG) of the Curriculum Reform Task Force (CRTF) has put into its proposal is the out-and-out elimination of a pair of the intensives, including diversity-intensive courses and quantitative-intensive courses. (The information literacy-intensive courses and writing-intensive courses are sliding out from under the axe, receiving a shave but not a grisly end: both of them survive as assessment-driven departmental competencies and not courses approved and overseen by faculty committees.) These intensive programs are victims of our desire to reduce faculty members’ quasi-administrative functions (functions which we see contributing to extraordinarily heavily service expectations) and our attempt to reduce the complexity of the Integrative Liberal Studies (ILS) curriculum, which is indeed very convoluted.

Yet…though I’m all for reducing ILS’s complexity, I worry that the SWG’s strayed too far from our liberal arts ideals. As my wonderful colleague Lexi (also a member of the SWG) pointed out in an email I received while taking part in the listening session at Morningside (oh, irony!), our removal of the DI and QI courses, coupled with our elimination of the ILS’s Topical Cluster requirement and our scaling back in the longstanding Humanities program (requiring only 12 instead of 16 hours of this core common experience), moves us closer to a more generalized model for general education which brings us more in line with the UNC system’s non-liberal arts member schools. What is to distinguish our core curriculum from that of, say, Western Carolina University, or Appalachian State University, the two much larger schools with whom we share the mountainous western region of our state?

Though our move might leave us open to criticism that the new curriculum will too closely resemble that of more “comprehensive” institutions, I’m not sure the political climate at UNC Asheville is such that we could “sell” anything less drastic. The faculty in several of the departments whose majors require a substantial number credit hours have lobbied strongly against the restrictions on majors which would have been necessary to free up the time to save some aspects of the ILS curriculum. Our ultimate decision to cap the size of majors at 60 hours is still unpalatable to members in four or five departments. (Their continued insistence that this number of hours is simply necessary for students to receive a robust disciplinary education is wholly unfounded, in my view, but that’s fodder for an entirely different post.) Mix these faculty members’ objections together with an overall sense that ILS is overly complicated, and you’ve got a recipe for dissent: any attempt to take more hours from the majors and give them back to ILS would send about a third of our faculty into open revolt.

So here we are, bobbing about between Scylla and Charybdis. We’ve got a couple of more details to hammer out (regarding the current and proposed requirements for health and wellness and for foreign [second] languages), but once those are forged we’ll be putting the proposal before first the full CRTF and then the full faculty. Buckle up, y’all. It’s gonna be bumpy.

Coming soon: the skinny on my first day of classes, tomorrow!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Thoreauly deep post

I subscribe to Poem-A-Day, a service that, as its name implies, sends one a poem each day, usually around noon. I just received today's, a brief epigrammatic couplet from H.D. Thoreau, which struck me soundly:

My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.

Why so striking? This is precisely how I've felt about this blog for the past several months: I've been so busy doing all the things that whenever I've managed to corner a little time to write about them and reflect on them, I'm too exhausted to think straight.

Yet reflection is essential, and action without reflection is chaos. I'm going to try to reflect more often.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Moving on

Today I moved the first couple of boxes of things into my new office in Karpen Hall, on the other side of the quad. So, as of two o'clock this afternoon the only thing marking the place as "mine" is a shelfful of poetry.

The Honors Program office is adjacent to the Laurel Forum, one of the nicer small event venues on campus. It's a two-story room with attractive floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, shelves of books on another, and pleasant paneling and woodwork on the remaining walls. It's just been recarpeted and refurnished. The Honors Program "owns" this space and gets dibs on programming events there, though others get to claim it for their goings-on, too.

My own office connects on one side to the Forum via a door that's traditionally been closed (I let Queshia, my assistant, know that I'll often be keeping it open) and on the other to Queshia's office. You've got to go through one or the other of the intervening spaces to get to my place. I have to admit that it leaves me feeling a bit barricaded. I need an escape hatch.

This afternoon, after arranging my poetry books on a shelf at the back of the office, I sat behind my desk for a few minutes and wrote a few lines of verse before moving over to the Forum. There I sat and stared out the window, looking onto the patio between the Forum and the quad.

"How strange," I thought. "How did I get here?"

I'm looking forward to this next phase of my career, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit scared. We'll see what the future holds.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Moore ain't less

Back in January at the Boston Joint Mathematics Meetings my frolleague Stanislaus told me my name had come up in a conversation about plenary speakers for this year’s Legacy of R.L. Moore conference, an annual celebration of inquiry-based learning (IBL) sponsored by the Educational Advancement Foundation and the Mathematical Association of America. I was honored: this conference is well-known and reasonably high-profile. I wasn’t sure I was the best person for the job, though, for although I practice IBL in every course I teach, I generally do so in moderation. Only rarely do I use techniques that even closely approximate all-out Moore method, as I did this past semester in my two sections of Calc III. (Not having taught in Moore’s style for several years, I was a bit rusty at it, and I think the results were mixed.)

Nevertheless, I accepted the invitation.

I warned Stanislaus that I felt like something of a charlatan, for not only did I use Moore’s method infrequently, I had never even attended the conference before this past week. Stanislaus and others on the conference’s program committee reassured me and insisted that I might have something to say about inquiry and undergraduate research, something about which I do know a bit more.

So I set to work on my talk. It took me a while to decide how to pitch it. Should I focus on the act of research itself, and the role that inquiry plays therein, or should I try to tie research back to the classroom, where we’re more used to finding IBL more explicitly articulated? I settled on the latter approach, putting together an interactive presentation that would, I hoped, call attention to the parallel learning outcomes we encounter both in classroom teaching and in authentic disciplinary research, and highlighting the ways in which IBL helps us achieve those outcomes in whatever setting we might make them.

Early on Thursday afternoon, not an hour before my talk was scheduled to start, I was chatting with another frolleague, Ephigenia, whom I’d met during my postdoc at Illinois (she’d been a graduate student then). “I’m not sure I’m going to be saying anything new to anyone here,” I admitted. After all, I was smack-dab in the middle of IBL central. That research takes inquiry, and that research is in many ways no more than an extension of an interactive inquiry-based classroom, are not new ideas.

“This is sometimes a bit of a feel-good exercise,” Ephigenia assured me. (Boy, have I been a needy Nadine!) Makes sense: many of the folks at the conference are coming from colleges where no one else practices any sort of intentional IBL, and these folks need to find some kind of community. Hey, I’m not one to pooh-pooh the role that affect plays in teaching and learning.

I went ahead with my presentation, and as far as I can tell it was pretty uniformly well-received. It’s not likely that someone’s going to come up to my face and tell me that it sucked, but I had many tell me quite the opposite. I still don’t think I said anything new, though I hope it helped to give concrete examples of inquiry activities that don’t quite fit the Moore-shaped mold (the birdhouse exercise from last fall’s precalculus classes and the conversation on claw-free graph powers that took place between me and this year’s REU students about a week ago now). I might not be justified in feeling like a fake.

So now I’ve been to the Legacy conference. Will I go again? It’s good people, and I always like an excuse to get to Austin. But this time of year’s a busy conference season, and I’m pulled a hundred different ways these days.

We’ll see.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bombs away...?

The CRTF's Summer Working Group met this morning, for the fifth time since the end of the spring semester. As we've done before, we met for about two hours, spent mostly tying up loose ends left dangling from previous meetings.

The end product? A tentative proposal for curricular change, covering recommendations for ILS and for major programs. I've no doubt everyone will find something to like...and I've no doubt everyone will find something to hate. It's an imperfect proposal, but a near-perfect set of compromises and shared sacrifice, drafted with the students' and faculty's best interest in mind. Those of us who worked hard to put it together come from very different academic backgrounds and bring very different points of view. I think all of those perspectives are represented in our work.

Now what? We're not going public with it yet. We've got some more behind-the-scenes work to do, but we hope to roll it out in the next couple of months.

Stay tuned...

Monday, June 11, 2012

For Tallulah...

Tallulah, one of this year's REU students mentioned that she'd gone back and read some of my old posts on this blog (props, Tallulah!), giving me one reason to post more often: it's nice to have tangible readership. (Thanks also those of you who've commented on recent posts, particularly this one and this one).

Tallulah also gave me an idea for today's post. After I channeled my inner purist and insisted on specific pronunciations of certain Greek letters, she suggested I post on the correct pronunciations of the Greek alphabet, according to modern standards. Thus...

α: alfa
β: veeta
γ: ghama (it's a guttural, with a little bit of a catch in your throat...)
δ: thelta (where the "th" is voiced, like in "there" and not "theory")
ε: ehpseelon (with a long "o"...all o's following are also long)
ζ: zeeta
η: eeta
θ: theeta (with an unvoiced "th," as in "theory")
ι: yota
κ: kapa
λ: lamvda (yes, you read that right)
μ: mee
ν: nee
ξ: ksee
ο: omikron
π: pee
ρ: rho ( the "h" indicates aspiration: breathe outward slightly as you're saying it)
σ: seegma
τ: tav
υ: eepseelon
φ: fee
χ: khee (this fricative is one of the hardest sounds in Greek for American English-speakers to make)
ψ: psee
ω: omayga

Happy speakin'!

BTW: I don't pronounce β like "veeta" with my class...and I certainly don't pronounce π as "pee." So please don't write me angrily demanding consistency with these pronunciations...and don't even ask me why I didn't use standard IPA symbols. I'm trying to be accessible here, and not erudite.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Every day is TUESday

For several months now I and my colleagues at the College of Charleston, with whom I've spent the past few years analyzing my REU students' writing, have been frustrated by the National Science Foundation's lack of transparency regarding the status of its FIRE (Fostering Interdisciplinary Research on Education) program. For several months now the NSF has hinted that this program may eventually be folded into the REESE (Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering) program, and no new solicitation had been published in over a year. This is troubling, as we've written a draft of a proposal for a project we've felt was perfect for FIRE and have been sitting on it for some time now.

Enter TUES, Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM. This NSF program, to which we were led by one of the speakers at this past week's International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference, is the perfect place to send our proposal. I'm stoked.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Could be worse

Change is in the air. Our Curriculum Review Task Force is currently attempting to overhaul our general education curriculum (the Integrative Liberal Studies [ILS] Program) and provide recommendations and requirements that will guide departments as they redesign their curricula. There's a lot of give-and-take, but mostly give: since our curricular change is being driven by a push for sustainability (faculty simply can't continue to deliver the current curriculum without sacrificing mental or physical health), the curriculum we're proposing will almost certainly be slenderer and more streamlined than the current one.

One potential victim of change is our current "intensives" program. At present we require students to complete intensive courses of four varieties: diversity (1 course), information literacy (2 course), quantitative (1 course), and writing intensives (3 courses). Our tentative plan eliminates all such course requirements. The quantitative intensive requirement will be folded in with the core mathematics requirement, and the fate of the diversity intensive requirement has yet to be decided. Meanwhile, the other two requirements are to be pushed into the departments, made "competency-based" requirements rather than "course-based" ones. More specifically, each department will be asked to design their major programs so that any students completing those program will necessarily complete at least one course treating, intentionally and intensively, discipline-specific information literacy and at least two giving such treatment of discipline-specific writing.

For the past several months I've felt poorly about this move, but several conversations and sessions in which I've taken part here at the 11th Annual International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference (what up, Savannah?) have made me rethink my position. How so?

1. Alignment with departmental learning goals. Under the proposed plan, the courses would be even more closely aligned with departmental learning outcomes, and would involve even more authentic disciplinary writing. Moreover, while several departments currently have only one WI course, forcing their majors to fulfill the WI requirement in part by taking courses from outside the major, under the proposed plan all students would be required to take two writing-competency courses within the discipline: even recalcitrant departments wouldn't be able to escape.

To be sure, currently all proposed WI courses campuswide must meet explicit criteria regarding writing instruction, assessment, and integration into course activities, and we'll lose that in the proposed move. However, now that we've designed careful assessment procedures to keep tabs on writing-intensive courses' efficacy, we'll be able to measure the success of whatever courses department identify as writing-competency courses.

2. Retention of departmental autonomy. It'll be up to the departments to identify the courses they feel offer students the most authentic writing-in-the-disciplines experience. Moreover, we will likely offer leeway to departments in tailoring assessment procedures to their own needs.

3. Campus culture of writing. The proposed plan is a feasible one: almost every department already offers one or two (or more) writing-intensive courses, and I'm certain most departments would have little trouble in identifying one or two more such courses. This feasibility highlights the way in which writing has become a part of the academic culture on campus. Six or seven years ago, when the ILS program was young, there were few WI courses campuswide; now there are many. We've come a long way.

Moreover, moving the WI courses into the departments would likely strengthen writing's presence in the campus academic culture, given its greater proximity to department curricula and learning outcomes.

4. Precedents elsewhere. Chris Anson's keynote address here highlighted several other institutions, big and small, that have implemented or are implementing department-based writing-across-the-curriculum programs. (McDaniel College (MD), the University of Minnesota, and UNC-Charlotte have all adopted some kind of department-based WAC program.) Of course, anyone familiar with Anson's work knows the models he and his colleagues at NC State have promulgated for successful department-based writing and writing assessment. I'd be happy to help UNC Asheville's departments in designing effective WAC programming, drawing heavily on Anson's work.

5. It could be worse. WAC is getting cut back everywhere in the face of budget cuts (here, Sue Doe spoke of defunding at Colorado State University, home of the WAC Clearinghouse), and at least we're not facing system-wide mandates for standardized benchmarks (here, Ohio State's Kay Halasek told horror stories of mandatory granting of credit for certain AP scores and placement for certain ACT scores). We've retained a good deal of autonomy in this regard. Moreover, I'm confident that most of our students, and most of our faculty, recognize the important part writing plays in education...and the particularly important part it plays in our QEP (which focuses on developing critical thinking through inquiry into, application of, reflection on, and communication of course content). Given the recognized centrality of writing, it's unlikely to go away anytime soon.

So...we'll labor on. I'm not so bummed about our situation anymore. We'll see how things work out as we move forward with our plans. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Hot [curricular reform] fun in the summer sun

It comes down to this: after 15 months of data gathering and analysis, debate, conversation, strategizing and schematizing, agonism and agonizing, lost sleep and lost lunches, the 40 or so people on the Curriculum Review Task Force (the Sustainability Subgroup of which I've been heading up) have reached the point where curricular decisions simply must be made.

The task force met as a whole body twice toward the end of the this past Spring semester, and after arguing often heatedly (but, fortunately, never hatefully) over the finer points of three specific proposals for curricular change, it was decided that a smaller group would meet over the summer to draft concrete recommendations for change.

Guess who's leading that group? The only other logical leaders for the group are either administrators or faculty who may be perceived as serving a quasi-administrative function (as outgoing Chair of the Faculty Senate, for instance). I've been involved enough that it's fallen to me to gather the group and coordinate our efforts.

We've met four times to date, and the meetings have gone wonderfully smoothly. The tone has gone beyond cordial to outright friendly. There's been substantial disagreement, but always it's accompanied by open-mindedness and tolerance. Compromise and consensus have ruled the day.

To date we've designed a tentative plan to overhaul the Integrative Liberal Studies (ILS) Program, UNC Asheville's general education program. Currently the program requires roughly 50-55 hours (though sometimes slightly more) for students to complete. As currently drafted, even after adopting a predominantly 4-credit-hour model for the curriculum, ILS would require students to complete at most 40 hours.

This has, as you might imagine, required a great deal of sacrifice on the part of ILS's advocates. For instance, in our tentative model intensives are essentially gone, the writing intensive and information literacy intensive requirements now absorbed by departments as major competencies rather than as course requirements, quantitative intensive requirements now folded into the remaining math requirement, and diversity intensive requirements now met by other curricular elements. Gone too are those pesky bugaboos, the ILS Topical Clusters. We've yet to decide on a model for means to meet the learning goals Clusters currently serve, but we're hoping to design some curricular piece that will guarantee intentional interdisciplinarity.

Now it's time to focus on the majors. To date the most popular proposal is the implementation of a simple 60-credit-hour cap on the number of hours any department can require of any of its major concentrations, along with exhortation to eliminate concentrations whenever possible. As you might imagine, there's resistance to this move, primarily for departments offering large majors (Chemistry, Art, Management, Computer Science), who argue that more than 60 hours may be needed to offer a robust degree, or to meet national accreditation standards. For their part, proponents of the cap point out ways cognate universities have managed to offer parallel programs with more slender course requirements and argue forcefully that it's not the mission of a liberal arts university to focus on disciplinary specialization, but rather on the intentional development of an interdisciplinary educational experience.

Large major advocates ask that we merely encourage departments to re-envision their majors and justify low-enrolled courses and concentrations. This move would be a vain one, I fear: we've essentially already asked departments to do this (in an information request I sent them in Fall 2011), and the response we got from them was almost always a nimbyesque "we don't need to change; we're doing's the other guys who're mucking things up." If we merely recommend change and don't out-and-out require it, we'll get no response. I think (I hope) it's becoming clear to these large major advocates that they too must make some sort of sacrifice if we're to achieve a sustainable curriculum. There's simply no way a proposal that asks ILS to cut back by a third will fly if departments aren't asked (forced?) to make similar cuts.

Will it work? We'll see. We hope to have proposals to put to the Faculty Senate by the fall. Stay tuned.

Enough of my nattering. I'm sure this absolutely riveting discussion of curricular policy has had you on the edge of your seat. My next post will deal with something which is a bit more exciting, I hope: my recent and upcoming writing-related travels.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Shameful self-promotion

One of my editors, Bethany, has urged me to blog more frequently. So here I am.

I understand her point: she’s legitimately concerned that I might not be doing as much as I could to promote my work. Student writing in the quantitative disciplines: A guide for college faculty (Jossey-Bass, 2012) has been out for a few months now, and though I’ve every reason to believe that sales are quite good, they could probably be better, given more ambitious self-marketing. I’m not sure I feel up to this, though.

It’s not that I feel that self-promotion would be beneath me, or would constitute “selling out.” That attitude would be intellectually elitist and unbecoming. Believe me, I’m not against garnering a little fame (and a somewhat smaller fortune) from the book. There’s nothing wrong with showing a little pride in one’s work. It’s just that I’m not sure this blog is the appropriate venue for that self-promotion. Others are doing it, why can’t I?

Bethany mentioned the blog my good friend Erdrick writes, and the one that Maryellen Weimer, who helped me tremendously as my consulting editor for the book, updates regularly. Erdrick’s a wonderful colleague and a superb teacher, and his blog is superlatively good. Maryellen’s blog, too, is a wonderful periodical piece, and a wide-open window on current best practices in teaching at the university level. But I don’t think it’s fair to compare these blogs with my own; they serve different roles. I’ve never meant this space to be an intentional documentation of best practices, or a how-to manual on pedagogy. Though I don’t doubt my own excellence as a teacher (I’ve a great deal of evidence to suggest that I am quite accomplished as an educator), I have been, and I remain, reluctant to take on the task of systematically codifying my thoughts on teaching.

Rather, I’ve always thought of Change of Basis as a safe place to unpack my own teaching activities (and not, though they may frequently coincide, best practices in teaching more generally) in real time, keeping tabs on what goes on in my classroom, in my REU, at my school, in my mind. It’s more made up of notes-to-self than it is directives-to-others. Though I may cite books on teaching, I don’t do so as a careful and intentional review of the literature, but rather as an indicator of what I happen to be reading at any given time. Though I might bring out all the buzzwords (problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, Moore method, writing across the disciplines, writing-to-learn, etc.), I don’t treat them methodically but only as they come up in my own work. How else to put it? I try to teach by example and not rote lecture. My tone is more anecdotal and less comprehensive and directive. It’s “I tried this trick out, and it worked out well” and not “studies show that this trick will reach students most effectively.”

I mentioned to Bethany that one of the reasons I’d not updated lately was that I’d not had much time lately to write. Between near-constant travel to present at conferences, seminars, colloquia, and faculty development workshops; leadership on the Curriculum Review Task Force (a full-time job in itself lately), preparations for the REU (now done with its second day), several ongoing research projects (in both math and composition and rhetoric), assumption of the Honors Program directorship (my administration began officially a few days ago), and teaching a full load of courses, I’ve not had the time I once had to dedicate to this blog…and when I have the time, it’s often directed into other writing projects (notably, 3x30 and poetry).

Honestly, I’m too busy being a dedicated educator to write about being a dedicated educator.

It’s thus that I offer my apologies to you, Bethany. I’m sorry I’m not posting as often as I might, and that my posts aren’t as pointed or focused as they might be. Please know that I wish I had the time and energy to post once, twice, thrice a week, offering some digestible and downloadable 750-to-1000 words of wisdom each time. Please know that I’m not angry with you for asking more of me, and that I do understand, and appreciate, your concern. This just ain’t that kind of blog.

That said, please consider giving Student writing a read. I’m proud of it, and I feel that it’s a very good book. I feel very strongly that writing has much to offer to students and scholars in the quantitative disciplines, and that we do well to pay attention to writing’s potential. I will walk the Earth from end to end to say so, again and again. If you’d like to talk about it, let me know.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

CRTF continues...

As the work of the Curriculum Review Task Force carries on, now well into its second year, I ask all of my colleagues, students, and friends to consider the parts they all play as citizens of the world...and the roles they all play in helping themselves and others fulfill those parts.

Someday (next summer, maybe, when the REU's direction is no longer chiefly my responsibility?) I hope to write at length about the curriculum review, for it's been a sometimes-trying, sometime-exhilarating, but ever-rich-and-rewarding experience. So much to say about it, so much to say.

And so much to say about my ever-changing perception of my part in it...and about my part in the school more broadly, and in society and humanity more broadly still. The reading I've done in the past month alone (Joseph Weizenbaum, Antonio Damasio, William McDonogh & Michael Braungart, and Martha Nussbaum, all tempered by the poetry of Marge Piercy, Ted Hughes, and Adrienne Rich) convinces me more solidly than ever before that we folks in the "hard" sciences constrain our roles too tightly: we tend to dive dangerously deeply into our disciplines. From our depths we lose sight of the stars.

More soon...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

3 friends, 30 objects, etc.

For the past 10 days, my friends Libby and Mariposa (two academic writing specialists) and I have been posting daily on our blog 3 friends, 30 objects, 90 stories, our rendition of a reflective writing exercise described by composition scholars Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey. This exercise (which, as the blog's title suggest, is now one-third of the way through), described more fully here, has proven to be one of the most rewarding of my recent career.

Though we'd originally meant for each of us to write for 30 minutes a day, on some days I've worked for three or more hours on what I'd like to say, drafting and redrafting, tweaking the words until they're just so. On the whole, it's making me a better writer. How could it fail to, given that I'm intentionally devoting so much time to it?

It's healthy. I've written some of the best poems I've written in a long time. I've shared openly wonderful memories from long ago I've never shared before. I've learned a great deal about two close friends. The whole experience has been calming, centering, and enlightening.

I strongly recommend this exercise to any person hoping to learn more about herself...and to any friends hoping to learn more about each other. I also recommend it to any teacher in any area, at any level, as a means of focusing students' attention.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Day of Higher Ed, part 1

My colleague Casie tipped me off that today is The Chronicle of Higher Education's Day of Higher Ed, a day on which those of us who work in higher education are supposed to raise awareness of what we do, and how much of it we're doing. Contrary to the perception of some (mostly conservative, in my experience) suit-types who view higher education with disdain and its employees as fat and fatuous sinecurists, most of us actually work quite hard.

More forcefully, most of us work our asses off.

So, what's in store for me today? (Keep in mind that I'm coming off of a weekend on which I spent roughly 12 hours grading Calc III exams...) Though I can't guarantee I'll get to it all, here's the medium-term docket:

1. Write an end-of-year project report for the National Science Foundation for my 2011 REU (estimated time to complete this: 5-6 hours)

2. Draft a welcome and informational letter to this year's crop of REU students (time to complete: 1-2 hours)

3. Send out rejection letters to the nearly 300 students who didn't get into this year's REU (time to complete: 1 hour)

4. Grade exams for my two students who are taking Abstract Algebra II as a reading course (time to complete: 1 hour)

5. Respond to final drafts of MLA students' latest written projects (time to complete: 3-4 hours)

6. Write three or four rec letters, including an incredibly urgent one for which the requesting student gave me less than a week's notice (time to complete: 2-3 hours)

7. Plan workshop materials for an upcoming writing workshop I'm leading at NC State (time to complete: 3-5 hours)

8. Review and respond to proposed Abstract Algebra curricula floated by other members of the Mathematical Association of America's Committee on Undergraduate Programs in Mathematics (time to complete: 3-5 hours)

9. Generate open problems list for this year's REU (time to complete: 2-3 hours)

10. Begin housing and payroll paperwork for this year's REU students (time to complete: 1-2 hours)

11. Draft a precis for on the latest curricular proposal by the Curriculum Review Task Force's Curricular Sustainability Subgroup (time to complete: 2-3 hours)

12. Complete drafts of research articles currently underway with three different sets of undergraduate coauthors (time to complete: 10-20 hours)

13. Oh yeah...teach!

Anyway, I'd better get to work on that list, me with my oodles of free time. More later, perhaps...

Friday, March 30, 2012


For more than five years (since this blog's inception in Summer 2006), regular readers have known me as "DocTurtle," a riff on my academic qualifications and my "totem animal," for lack of a better term. (Incidentally, I don't take pains to hide my real identity...most of you know that my DocTurtle's Bruce Wayne is a mild-manner happy-go-lucky Pollyanna of a mathematician known as Patrick Bahls.)

So why is it that my screen name has suddenly changed to "Pobject"?

At the recent 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication, two of my wonderful friends and colleagues in rhetoric and composition studies, whose names I'll withhold here (I'm not sure how broadly they want them disseminated) took in a panel discussion led by Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, three of the leaders in the academic rhet-comp community. That discussion focused on a writing exercise they'd assigned themselves: for an hour a day on each of thirty days, these three scholars reflected in writing on a different everyday object each day. In their conference abstract, the scholars ask "What may be learned about the evocative power of objects from a sustained attention to them? How do objects reveal or conceal their origins? And what may we learn about the acts of composing from a sustained project over thirty days?" As they put it, the activity challenged the "traditional boundaries between personal and academic writing."

The three of us (my colleagues and I), all engaged in academic writing in some way, were energized by the idea of this activity and decided to try it out for ourselves. Therefore, on each day in April 2012 each of us will write (under the names "Kobject," "Lobject," and "Pobject," nods to our first initials) for at least 30 minutes on one of the 30 objects we've chosen in advance. We'll be chronicling our ongoing work on a new blog, 3 friends, 30 things, 90 stories. In that blog's first post (to appear later today), I'll say a bit more about the parameters of our exercise.

I hope you'll follow along...we're hoping this will offer us a powerful and consciousness-raising experience.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Re-visioning revision-ing

After dedicating several hours of my morning to reviewing teaching award files, I've turned my afternoon attention to the exciting task of coding drafts of past years' REU students' drafts, preparing for the panel on mathematical rhetoric I'll be presenting with my Charleston friends at this year's very-fast-approaching Conference on College Composition and Communication. While our panel will offer an overview of our earlier work on the rhetorical moves REU students make in crafting disciplinary writing, we'll also offer a sneak peak of the analysis we're doing on revision.

Regarding that analysis: this shit is hard, y'all. At least, it's time consuming. Back in December I spent a full day with my Charleston peeps Bella and Damian making qualitative observations on each of the seven drafts written by a single student author. We're taking this route because we found that existing revision coding strategies (like a classical one due to Faigley and Witte in their 1981 paper "Analyzing revision") don't adequately capture the richness of the students' rhetorical moves as they revise their drafts of authentic disciplinary writing: while Faigley and Witte applied their schema to somewhat tightly-constrained writing produced in an artificial setting with strongly-controlled revision protocols, my REU students were writing in order to elaborate on their ongoing original research projects. The complexity of the latter students' writing (both products and processes) defies easy microscopic analysis, and we quickly abandoned such analytical methods.

That's not to say that we're not getting some "quantitative" data: we're tracking measures like number of pages, number of paragraphs, number of citations and references, etc., with the hope that we can glean some interesting conclusion from this info, if nothing more than trends that roughly parallel our qualitative observations.

We'll see.

For now, back to coding...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

With honors

It seems as though in every term I hit a point at which I'm so busy taking care of what I need to do that I no longer have time to take care of those things I simply want to do (like update this here blog).

I've hit that point.

I'm busy.

I'm busy enough that by the time I've got time to tend to this site, I've got no energy. When I've energy, I've got no time.


Well, in a rare intersection, I've both...fleetingly.

Story: An hour and a half ago I got out of the first meeting of the faculty I've requested to teach the Honors sections of our first-year liberal studies colloquium in Fall 2012. (My thanks to my wonderfully proactive colleague Darlene for organizing and convening this meeting!) Darlene (Health and Wellness), Samuel (Literature), Noella (Computer Science), and Quentin (Psychology) will join me in offering this course to our Honors students next term.

I have to admit to a not small amount of terror at the outset of this meeting: I'm new to Honors, I'm relatively new to teaching first-year colloquia (last year's Ethnomathematics course was my first of that kind), and I'm certainly new to this quasi-administrative functionarihood with which I've found myself vested. I was worried that we'd find no agreement on form, no agreement on function, no agreement on anything.

In retrospect, of course, I must admit my foolishness: I'd underestimated the flexibility and resilience of my colleagues, who are superior to me (it must be said) in recognizing the potential we face.

In summary: we hope to design five discipline-specific-yet-common-in-purpose first-year seminars which will challenge enrollees to meet three learning outcomes common to all first-year courses, four learning outcomes peculiar to writing-intensive courses, and all expectations we hold for students taking part in the Honors program. Further, we hope to design these courses around the common theme of "Metamorphosis."


You betcha.

Easily doable?

Not a chance.

Therein is the challenge and the excitement.

Our conversation led us through skepticism, speculation, and proposition of structure.

I'm less terrified than I was two and a half hours we have a plan, and at least the vaguest of ideas for common texts, events, and experiences.

I'm less terrified.

I'm working with four folks who, in Noella's colorful terms, "can sell swampland."

It's going to be a good term, this.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


While I watched several of my current and former students interacting in the Math Lab this morning, I realized how envious I am of their undergraduate experience.

Though I had good (some very good) professors, none were nearly so dedicated to my success as most of my colleagues in this department are to our students' success. I was never encouraged to do an REU, or to perform undergraduate research. I was never encouraged to attend and present at conferences. I was never given much guidance regarding grad school, and life beyond. For my students, this is all standard.

Though I had a few wonderful friends who shared my math major with me, indeed we were few, maybe ten or so the whole while I was in the program (all years included). The uppermost-level classes had three or four students, never more. My students have nearly a hundred peers in the program, and even the smallest 400-level courses claim over a dozen students...some more than two.

Though we had a satisfactory lounge and a serviceable computer lab, both of which served our needs for space, we had no "home" in the department. We were wanderers, itinerants. My students have the Math Lab, a warm and welcoming place where everybody knows everybody else, and there's never a shortage of assistance, support, and friendship.

They've got it pretty good.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An astronomer, a physicist, and a mathematician...

...are on a train in Scotland. The astronomer looks out of the window, sees a black sheep standing in a field, and remarks, "how odd. Scottish sheep are black."

"No, no, no!" says the physicist. "Only some Scottish sheep are black."

The mathematician rolls his eyes at his companions' muddled thinking and says, "in Scotland, there is at least one sheep, at least one side of which appears to be black from here."

There is danger in inductive thinking, as even Hume acknowledged.

I've been reading up on epistemology for my MLA class's initial foray into the philosophy of mathematics: Bacon, Hume, Descartes, Kant, and Popper...and of course Lakatos! We're going to get in pretty deep. For good measure we'll prove Euler's formula for polyhedra and try to understand what's so unsettling about the Law of Excluded Middle, the Axiom of Choice, and the proof of the Four Color Theorem.

You know you want to join us!

Friday, February 10, 2012

If they only knew

I'm pretty sure that our students would be gratified if they could see the amount of thought a good number of our faculty are giving our curriculum review. The Curricular Sustainability Subgroup alone has met at least 30 times in the past eight or nine months, and various subgroups (subsubgroups?) of this body have met many times beyond say nothing of intergroup meetings with folks on the Big Picture Subgroup, meetings of the "point persons," and meetings of the Steering Committee. We've probably generated several hundred pages of data, culled from every department and program on campus, from the registrar's office and from Academic Affairs, and not least of all from the Institutional Research office.

My eyes may deceive me, but I believe I might actually see a hint of daylight: we're slowly...slowly...moving toward concrete proposals which I believe will, if we're careful, lead to a sustainable curriculum that will give our students a rich and meaningful learning experience.

Hang in there!

Thursday, February 09, 2012


The world says salt
and we say six,
a number which may or may not
really exist.

I oughta know better...

I'm about 30 pages into Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens's The minds of boys: Saving our sons from falling behind in school and life (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005), and I have no earthly idea how much more I'll be able to read. It's tendentious, fatuous, and overwritten, relying primarily on anecdotal evidence to prove its points, and when more critical evidence is given it's given second-hand, safely filtered through reference to other texts and not to the studies those texts rely upon.

Bluntly, it's pap.

Why read it? I thought I'd try to get a grip on views contrasting with that of Cordelia Fine (see this post), who holds that the biological bases for gender differences are blown entirely out of proportion, and that acculturation more than anything else is responsible for differentiation of gender, including differentiation in intelligence and academic performance. Gurian's name shows up an awful lot as one of the giants of biological determinism, and he's written stacks of books on gender difference, so I thought I'd check him out.

His website's not particularly promising, listing scant credentials relevant to the books he writes and boasting membership in three professional organizations, one which doesn't exist, one whose website hasn't been updated in seven years, and another which appears somewhat reputable. I'm not sure I'm one to lobby the former objection, having just finished a book in an area I'm not "credentialed" to write, but I would think that one of the foremost "authorities" in gender difference, its ramifications, and its ameliorations, should have some sort of post-graduate degree in psychology, neuroscience, or at least counseling or social work. Gurian's most advanced degree is an M.F.A., and before that he holds a B.A. in philosophy. In fact, his most promising claim to authority is his unwavering insistence that he has authority: his website is a fantasia of self-promotion, and he mentions his own institute on just about every other page of the book I've begun.

About that book...its primary thesis is that our schools are in crisis (his words, not mine): boys are falling behind and failing in disproportionate numbers...and it's because our educational system does not take into account crucial differences between the ways boys and girls learn. Truly this is a crisis, Gurian insists: "Yes, we're sorry to say, there really is a crisis" (p. 20...did I mention the text is nothing if not inflammatory?). The extremist language he uses to introduce numerous "statistics" (none properly cited and all treated uncritically) "proving" boys' educational crisis is particularly chauvinistic: for all his righteous indignation you'd think that it's men and not women who for the last several centuries have been underserved by Westernized educational systems. Once or twice he throws us a bone and insists that he has equity in mind: "Calling attention to the college problem for males is not to decry an individual's particular qualities, nor to lament women's successes in increasing their college attendance, wages, and financial independence from males" (pp. 27-28). Such mots ring hollow, however, and I can't help but come away feeling that a hundred years ago Gurian would have been a phrenologist, palpating female skulls in order to point out their "obvious" mental deficiencies.


I'll read on, but I can't see this getting any better...

UPDATE: I'm on page 39 now, and can't help sharing this bit of nonsense: "Research in the 1990s clarified ways in which our schools fail our girls, especially in areas of math and science, the dynamics of self-esteem in the classrooms, and computer design instruction. Because our culture recognized a girls' crisis, it has addressed those problems and to a great extent has changed things for the better as far as teaching girls is concerned."

Yay, according to Michael Gurian sexism in educational practice is now over! It's a thing of the past, a problem we're no longer wrestling with. I'm so happy to live in a post-sexist, post-racial America, where we're all colorblind, a black man can be president, and the mathematical sciences are roundly dominated by women.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Random thought #564

Why is it that we fight so hard for students to major in our academic disciplines? (I'm no angel: as a constant salesperson for our department, I'm as guilty as anyone else.) I suspect it's because we feel we need "our own students" to justify our departments' existences. No matter how many students from other areas count on us to teach them skills they need in their disciplines, if don't have a few majors of our own, we become "no more than" a "service" department, a group of contingent faculty, our positions conditioned on the whim of curricular programs elsewhere on campus.

Old habits die hard.

What would our schools look like if we did away with disciplinary and departmental divisions, did away with traditional majors, and did all we could to foster interdisciplinarity and academic interactivity across campus? Not only would our students live a richer and more robust learning experience, with realistic integration of ideas at every turn...but we'd all be a lot less territorial and hoggish about our limited resources.

Just a thought.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Georgia on my mind

I just got back from a lovely overnight trip to Kennesaw State University, where I had a chance to give a talk on the mathematics of the Incan khipu (often spelled quipu) and hang out with Zima, one of my best friends from grad school, who's on the faculty at KSU. Zima'd asked me to spend an hour with her department's faculty, talking with them about writing in the disciplines and writing-to-learn activities, which I was more than happy to do.
One of her colleagues gave me some neat teaching ideas, including the following writing exercise: take a valid mathematical statement (printed out), one with which your students are not familiar, chop it up into its individual words, and scramble it. Give it to your students and challenge them to recreate a valid mathematical statement from the scrambled words, using every word exactly once. This exercise helps students to make sense of the grammar and semantics of mathematical prose, whose density often obscures its meaning.

Later in the afternoon (after a lovely lunch playing catch-up with Zima), I delivered a presentation titled "The traditional mathematics of Peru: khipu and khipumakers" as part of KSU's Year of Peru activities. The audience was made up of faculty and students from across the KSU campus, including a good number of math-anxious folks who were more interested in the "Peru" part of the talk. Overall, I think the presentation went well, even the bit where I had all of the people in the audience making their own khipu cords. Khipu (about which you can learn much more here) offer the most salient example of Incan mathematics, as well as a touchstone of cultural determinacy: khipu demonstrate assertively that math is a cultural artifact, a product of human society. (Moreover, they're beautiful, as a peek at the gallery at the above link will show.)

I'm back home now, and am looking forward to tomorrow's attack on a new Calc III problem set, and a couple of meetings on the curriculum review (well, not really looking forward to the latter, but they'll come nonetheless...). Meanwhile, I'll savor the last sweet sips of today.

Yup, it was a good day.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


In a recent post I fretted a bit about one of my sections of Calc III, which section seemed to me a bit underprepared for class this past Monday. I worried that their apparent lackadaisicalness (if that is indeed a word) regarding Problem Set 4, on which we were working in class on Monday would lead them to be unready for today's class, in which they would be presenting their solutions.

I stand corrected. That section bounced back, showing themselves up to the challenge. Every single student called on to present did so, and did so with aplomb. I was particularly impressed by Dionne's willingness to work all of the way through the dreaded #61, which asked for a proof that two non-parallel vectors in the plane span the entire plane. Dionne, one of our promising young majors, has some exposure to linear algebra and is currently enrolled in Foundations, so she's no stranger to the proof genre. With a little help from a couple of her colleagues, she beasted that problem.

Yes, they bounced back, but not before I exhorted them to keep up with their work outside of class. Don't just come ready for the problem you think you'll be presenting (padded with the one or two preceding problems for insurance); come ready to present any one of them...and ready yourself as soon as you can so that when you're offered time in class to hash out the details, you can do so without delay.

Good work, everyone! I have to admit to a bit of nervousness at running my first Moore-method class in four or five years, but so far you're all making the most of it. Thank you for that, and for all that you do.

Feedback, as ever, is appreciated.


I feel like Hansel and Gretel (being both at once would be an apt ontology for this post), following a trail of breadcrumbs as I wind my way through a forest.

In each of the three meetings we've had so far, the students in my MLA course have raised some interesting (and as yet unanswerable) questions. Many of these concern the classic "nature vs. nurture" matter that infects every conversation involving human abilities and achievements. For instance, is it nature or nurture that leads to mathematical (and otherwise) savantism? That is, do "human calculators" owe their skills to some advantageous neural network structure in their brains...or do they develop those skills through hard work and constant application of ordinary neurological machinery?

Opinions were definitely divided on this matter during our last meeting: some accepted Dehaene's explanation that practice makes perfect, and that those who have plenty of time to practice are liable to more closely approach perfection; others weren't convinced. "Maybe none of us are born geniuses," one student said, "but some of us are born with better propensity to achieve genius than others are. Just like most of us will never be professional basketball players, as we lack the physique it would require."

This analogy might remind us that after all the brain is as much a piece of our anatomy as are our arms and legs, and our interpersonal differences in overall anatomy carry over to interpersonal differences in our brains as well. No doubt some of those differences predispose us well to certain kinds of genius inaccessible to others? It's up to each individual to nurture latent talent in the most efficacious way from that point on.

The risk we run in arguing like this is making dangerous generalizations along the following lines: "brain difference X translates into ability difference Y" and so forth. As I quipped mysteriously on Facebook the other day, brain does not equal mind anymore than map equals territory, and if we pretend that we can extrapolate everything we need to know about a person from the structure of their braincase, we anachronize and become phrenologists, feeling for bumps, risking claims about racial or sexual superiority. Remember that it was held for a long, long time that women were less bright than men because their brains were less massive...and that when this point of view was assailed from all sides, its adherents did all they could to rescue it, falling back on more and more convoluted sophistry to save their theory: "well, it's not brain volume per se, but volume of gray matter...or at least the ratio of gray to white matter...well, maybe the degree to which it's all convoluted..." (See Stephen Jay Gould's marvelous The mismeasure of man for a blow-by-blow debunking of such arguments.)

About sexual superiority (and getting back to our trail of breadcrumbs): one of my students turned me onto Cordelia Fine's Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2010), a thorough discussion of modern attempts to pin gender differences in intellect on neurochemistry. Phrenology's not dead, it just looks a lot different than it did 150 years ago: now we don't look for protrusions in the skull, just higher-than-normal levels of fetal testosterone, and we don't come right out and suggest that women aren't as smart as men, we just say they have a greater propensity to empathize than they do to systematize. Fine spends much of her time pointing out flaws in modern phrenologists' methodologies, though not as many she might; I've noted a few flaws she could have mentioned but didn't.

It's a stimulating read, and I plan on sharing a few chapters with the MLA students. It's also leading me to other sources. Some of these are general in scope, like Jan Morris's Conundrum (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974), a first-person account of the author's transition from male to female and the worlds she lost and gained in the process. Others are more specific, like Nash and Grossi's analysis ("Picking Barbie's brain: Inherent sex differences in scientific ability?" Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought 2(1), Article 5) of Simon Baron-Cohen's methodologies...which analysis might doom some of the infant studies which Dehaene cites, as well (O, circularity!).

I also plan on offering up a few excerpts from Richard E. Cytowic's The man who tasted shapes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), an odd novel/memoir/neuropsychology text dealing with the phenomenon of synesthesia. Though not directly related to our course, I think certain passages bear tangentially on our discussions of brain function and will lead to interesting discussions.

More fun to come! Exciting. I hope the students are getting as much out of the class as I am. I may have to offer this course again soon in the Honors Program. Something to think about for next year...