Monday, January 16, 2012

JaMMin' in 2012

Aside from a brief post on my presentation on writing research, I've not yet had a chance to say anything about this year's Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM), from which I returned a little over a week ago. It was a fruitful affair, marking my first ever JMM where I spent more time in meetings than I did at talks. (Avoiding administration: ur doin it wrong.)

My first full day at JMM began with a two-hour meeting of the MAA's Committee on Undergraduate Programs in Mathematics (CUPM). I was recently appointed to this body, a group charged (as you might expect from its name) with making recommendations regarding the form and content of undergraduate mathematics programs across the country. Of course, this is a very loosely-defined directive, and mission-creep inevitably sneaks in. We spent a good deal of time talking not only about the undergraduate programs themselves but also their interface with K-12 education.

What struck me most about this meeting was my sense by its end that even the most well-informed of college mathematics educators are at a loss when it comes to solving some of the biggest problems facing math education today. Why is this? It's not like the problems are new ones: for decades we've dealt with student recruitment and retention, students' transition to higher mathematics, and imperfect transfer of skills from AP coursework to college coursework. It's not that we don't have proven pedagogies and time-tested methods of math education at our disposal...and it's not that we have a shortage of talented teachers to put those pedagogies and methods into practice. Maybe it's simply that the student body we're dealing with is diverse enough to foil any attempt at applying one-size-fits-all panaceas: more than ever before we serve a population whose members differ from one another ethnically, economically, socially, spiritually, intellectually, and in every other way we can think extremes heretofore unimaginable.

The next meeting I had to make was a one-on-one with one of my colleagues in the AMS. After receiving a note I'd sent a few months ago to the Project NExT list regarding my forthcoming book, Flora had expressed interest in meeting with me at the Joint Meetings to talk about it in a bit more detail. It seems that earlier in her career she'd gone down a path much like the one I've followed recently, leading WAC and WID efforts at her home campus (DePauw University) before heading over to the AMS full-time. Flora and I shared an hour or so together talking about the importance of writing (and other modes of communication) in the teaching and learning of mathematics, and before long she invited me to take part in a morning meeting of the AMS's counterpart to the CUPM a couple of days later. Though she couldn't guarantee me the floor, she mentioned that one of the members of the committee had brought up writing as a potential topic for further elaboration by the AMS's Committee on Education (CoE). Topics selected for such elaboration become the focus of discussions and workshops at the CoE's fall meetings.

So I made it to that Friday morning meeting (still bleary-eyed after a night of revelry with several of my Vanderbilt friends). Less focused than the CUPM meeting had been, this one consisted of a loosely-knit (and often heated) conversation on several topics related to undergraduate math education. We spent about twenty minutes each topic: potential certification (by the MAA, AMS, or both jointly) of undergraduate mathematics programs, facilitating students' success in calculus courses, and the necessity for upper-level "elective" coursework like point-set topology.

The first of these was the most controversial issue, on which there was much disagreement. For my part, I brought up a concern that's faced the members of the Curriculum Review Task Force this past year: those major programs which face accreditation by a professional body are among the most rigid and time-consuming, placing heavy demands on both students and faculty. In this way they are unsustainable and resource-intensive. One of the other folks present at the AMS meeting countered that the "accredited" majors at her school are the ones that receive the most attention and resources from administration, and that this alone is reason enough to pursue the adoption some sort of certification procedure.

As you might suspect, I disagree. From the point of view of a math department member, this move might make sense: why not try to carve out a bigger chunk of the pie by forcing your school to support your attainment of accreditation benchmarks? But from the point of an administrator, the move appears more questionable: the pie's only so big, and with the economy the way it is, it's likely to get any bigger. If every department's trying to carve out bigger and bigger pieces for themselves, there's not going to be much to go around. We'll starve each other out if we don't cooperate more meaningfully at higher levels than the department.

To be continued, I'm sure.

The conference wasn't just one meeting after another. I had a lovely time reconnecting with several past REU students (including Wilhelmina, from way back in 2007!), grad school friends, Project NExT buddies, and a bajillion other people I'd not seen in a long time. I spread the word everywhere I could about my book, shamelessly leaving flyers on tables all over the convention center. I made it to a dozen or so talks on graph theory and group theory...and to several posters and presentations by my students, past and present. Most outstanding was Ino's and Ned's talk on their ongoing research into nutrition, given in the MAA's session on the mathematics of sustainability. They nailed it. Several folks had great questions afterward, and they received at least three invitations for collaboration and further presentation. We'll be following up on those shortly. Well done!

Much more work to do! But it's great fun. I'm looking forward to seeing what the coming weeks and months bring. 2012's gonna be a good one.

1 comment:

Angela Gail said...

Yay for the joint meetings -- it was so awesome to see you there, and I really enjoyed the whole meetings. I like what you wrote about your various meetings that involved "how do we solve problems" in math. Most of the big problems maybe have no solution, or at least no "one size fits all" solution, but of course we all want one, so we all have these drives toward well-intentioned solutions (like certification). I also think that even when solutions exist, there are often multiple solutions that may seem to be completely at odd with each other. Maybe the trouble is that education really boils down to one-on-one student/teacher relationships, and there's no formula for making the magic happen in a relationship.