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.