Monday, September 23, 2013

I just flew in from Laredo, and boy...

Highlights from the past week or so (craziness)...

Last Monday through Wednesday I attended the 10th annual fall meeting of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators at Wildacres. It was my 7th (!) such meeting. I'm getting old. We hosted Doug Hesse, fantastic scholar and teacher of writing and all-around good guy. He led us in a morning of low-stakes reflective writing activities challenging us to rediscover the personal in our professional writing. It was refreshing and calming and enough for a few of us (including me) to give up our afternoon speaking slots to free up more time for writing and reflecting.

Who wants to hear me natter on about the effect of LaTeX use on math students' writing rhythms, anyway?

I was then back home (well, in Asheville, anyway) for about 48 hours before leaving town again, but not before helping to host the Honors Program's first world café, an event attended by 66 of our 80 first-year Honors students. Students had conversations about questions we'd designed to elicit thoughtful responses ("What events have shaped your life? Your parents' lives? What events will shape your children's lives?" "What defines community?"). After considering these questions the students were asked to generate questions of their own for other groups to answer...and then we asked them to do it again, leaving each others' company after the final round of student-generated questions were asked.

Late the next morning I left for Texas. I spent a day and a half in Laredo running a workshop on writing in the STEM disciplines at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU). I'd done a similar workshop at TAMIU almost exactly a year before though last year's group was a bunch of middle-school and high-school math educators and this year I worked mostly with TAMIU faculty, with a few Laredo Community College folks thrown in for good measure. I have to say that I'm thoroughly impressed: both workshops were among the most engaged and engaging I've ever led. This last group in particular was stellar, 24 people clearly dedicated to learning more about authentic disciplinary writing. I was particularly excited to speak with Quinaria, a writing instructor who serves the university as one of their first-year experience (FYE) coordinators. Their FYE courses are tied to introductory-level disciplinary courses (like Calc I and General Chemistry), each of which is housed in a designated first-year learning community. There are some course-to-course articulation issues, but it seems like they're dedicated to making their system work. It can't be any crazier than out 179 system.

Back at home for a couple of weeks now. Two weeks from this past Saturday I head up the mountain to Boone for the NC Honors Association conference where my colleague Samuel joins me in speaking about our 179/479 crossover. Samuel and I each have a student presenting, too. I'm excited to see how well my student's talk goes over; Fawn will be speaking about her final project from Oulipo back in the spring, for which she crafted randomly-generated dictionary entries in an effort to satirize the most lofty lexicon ever written. After that it's back to Laredo for a few days, and then to Wilmington for this year's NC English Teachers Association conference...

...always more in store!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Thank you

It's been a good week, and as the week winds down I want to pause, to reflect gratefully.

Thank you, Irene and Iphigenia, the Honors students who volunteered to person the registration table for today's Teaching About India conference, held all day in the Laurel Forum, just next door to my office.

Thank you, Oswaldo, Frederica, Kent, and all my other Linear I students who grapple tirelessly with the crazy conceptual problems I pose them with week after week, patiently accepting my feedback on their imperfect algebra and rambling grammar as they labor to ensure that each draft is better than the last.

Thank you, Lula, my 479 student who spent several minutes this morning talking with me about the problematic nature of the Honors Program: how do we countenance such expenditure of financial and human resources on students who, honestly, don't need the extra assistance to excel while many more of their peers could use all the academic help they can get just to pass? The program is a walking, talking equity issue, a logical extension of the same K-12 "tracking" systems my 479 students just yesterday derided as iniquitous and unfair.

How do I sleep at night? I overcame white guilt years ago; I think I'm still working through my issues with other forms of power and privilege.

Last, but certainly not least, thank you to Queshia, my wise and warm and indefatigable program assistant. Her able handling of administrative nonsense, her unending supply of good ideas, and her tactful dealings with students expressing every need imaginable all make my job a helluva lot easier. I can't imagine a better right-hand person.

Now. Let's make next week a good one too, huh?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Shattered mirror

Today's HON 479 discussion was the liveliest yet, with most students having strong, often visibly visceral reactions both to the inequities Kozol describes in The shame of the nation and to the assertion of Allison Benedikt that folks who send their kids to private schools are evil. (In her piece, a soi-disant manifesto, Benedikt offers a rather extremist take on the moral and ethical obligations we have to support our public school systems.)

Time was of the essence. I had a list ten students long of folks who wanted their turn to say a few words, generally in response to one another. "I wanted to echo something so-and-so said..." and "I have to disagree with so-and-so..." were common phrases. A healthy academic conversation is, in part, one in which the students engaged in the conversation respond authentically to each other and not to the perceived authority figure (i.e., the teacher). I could have left the room to no ill effect. Much of what I'd hoped would come up came up, anyway, including connections between not just Kozol and Appiah (cosmopolitan conversations, if only with kids from across town, breed healthy familiarity and better democracy) but also between Appiah and Benedikt (ought to have oughts, but we ought not let our oughts overwhelm our own self-interest).

I also continue to be impressed with the students' civility, respect, and supportiveness. In class today there was disagreement aplenty, but never any friction. The culture of the classroom was friendly enough to encourage a couple of the visiting HON 179 students to chime in with their views as well. These HON 179/479 exchanges are working wonders. The 479 students are enjoying their visits to the various 179 courses, and the 179ers are often contributing meaningfully to the discussions we have in 479.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to reading the 479ers' responses to Benedikt. I'll likely ask students for permission to excerpt their work on this blog.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Considering Kozol

On Thursday my HON 479 students began discussing Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation, a book I first read in conjunction with Kozol's visit to UNC Asheville back in 2006. A scathing indictment of America's apartheid-like public school system, Kozol advocates for dramatic changes in the form, function, and funding of our public schools.

Our discussion on the book was far-reaching and often diffuse, motivated by students' reflection on their own elementary school experiences. With the hope of identifying some more coherent topics for conversation this coming Tuesday, I asked students to submit a topic on which they'd like to see our discussion focus tomorrow. Below are the responses I received.

I would like to talk more about the importance of teaching things in schools that are not as academic and intellectual (art, music, dance, etc.) and why this is important in every school.

whether or not the government is obligated to implement policies that promote equity or just to avoid implementing policies that deter equity.

Who is responsible/accountable for changing and integrating the public school system?

Kozol puts the blame on gov't, teachers and administrators. Are kids/parents to blame?

Ideas on how to fix the problem.

I would like to hear about how racial diversity affects edu.

White privilege.

The issue concerning the national level. What we could do as a whole?

Private funding in rural vs. urban/city areas and how it would/does differentiate

Idea of the tracks that [one of the other students in class] brought up that he [Kozol] hinted at regarding management positions.

The influence of corporate culture on education and what it does to childen

Obviously, the situation for students in these schools is grim, but what about the teachers? Is there anything they can do?

"No Child Left Behind"


The industrialization of schools and schools as job training

What can we (as college students, not as government officials or parents) do to change this for the better?

standardize testing / use of Skinner's theory

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Not a private inquiry

My MATH 365 (Linear Algebra I) course this term has been designated "Inquiry ARC," the "ARC" standing for "Apply, Reflect, Communicate." "Inquiry ARC" is the theme of the university's Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a component of our reaffirmation of accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Alphabet soup.

Briefly, every ten years, as a condition of keeping our accreditation, we're asked, as a campus, to formulate a plan for enhancing student learning. This time around we came up with "developing critical thinking," roughly, manifested in the Inquiry ARC program. For the past few semesters we've begun running Inquiry ARC courses, courses which focus intentionally on developing skills relating to one or more steps in the Inquiry ARC process. Last spring, once I knew what I'd be teaching this year, I thought, "what the hell, I'll apply for Inquiry ARC status for Linear I, since the way I teach the course, it's already an Inquiry ARC course." (Not-so-dirty little secret: as any teacher worth her or his salt will tell, you every class should be an Inquiry ARC's just good teaching, folks.)

So far, so good. Communication is always front and center in my courses, given my focus on writing, and I've always been big on reflection. As I've written at length in this blog, I teach this course primarily through applications...and the inquiry? I'm really just going to be able to leave that up to the students.

On Wednesday we spent about 15 minutes on an example I'd meant to take 5, simply because the students kept asking fantastic questions about the example. "What if we changed the number in the last column?" "What would have to happen for us to have a unique solution?" "How does Mathematica know that it's an augmented matrix with three variables and not a matrix with four variables?" and so forth. Not I-have-no-idea-what-I'm-doing-so-I'm-asking-simple-questions-trying-to-get-a-grip-on-this-shit questions, but I've-got-the-basic-operations-down-so-now-I'm-trying-to-take-it-apart-to-see-why-this-shit-works questions. Good stuff!

If they keep it up for the rest of the semester, I'm gonna be a happy man.