Category Archives: Vocation

Good enough teaching, and trust

I spent most of Wednesday at the 17th annual Fall Conference on Teaching and Learning, put on by my new employer, Grand Valley State University. It was a full day of good ideas and good people, and I really enjoyed engaging with both. One experience from today  has really stuck with me, and it happened during the opening session as Kathleen Bailey, professor in the Criminal Justice department, was speaking about the changing student demographic we are encountering (not just at GVSU but everywhere in higher ed).

Kathleen comes from a fairly unique position as not only a professor of CJ and assistant director of freshman orientation but also as a former parole officer for teenagers. In her talk, she drew some parallels between parenting, being a parole officer, and working with college students. I was pretty uncomfortable with that three-way comparison at first, but the more she spoke, the more I had to admit the similarities were pretty striking. She spoke about three conditions that troubled teens — and indeed all children — need to have if they are to thrive:

  1. Kids need to have a good “holding environment” — that is, they need to be in a place where they have a feeling of safety and attachment, and to some extent basic respect as a human being.
  2. Having found a good holding environment, kids then need to have provision of contrasting or contradicting experiences — what Kathleen called “differentiation” — to develop a defined sense of self. For example, a kid who has violent behavioral tendencies needs to be given experiences where he cares about others and acts in appropriate ways, to be shown that he can be kind and gentle and does not have to always follow his tendencies.
  3. Finally, kids need to have an abiding presence of someone else — a person who “stays put” with them and gives them a safe place to integrate all the personal changes they experience through differentiation.

This process is all about building the substrate of a relationship with a kid upon which a mature, productive person can be built. The building process has to be carried out by the kid — the kid with violent tendencies has to choose to act differently, and nobody else can to that for him — but the change that takes place cannot happen in the absence of that “abiding presence” that creates the environment.

Probably by now the comparison with parenting and teaching should be clear. These, too, are about transforming the lives of young people through the presence and enabling work of another person. Kathleen referenced the notion of good-enough parenting (espoused by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) as a model for this kind of relationship. It’s not about being perfect or doing the right things all the time, but rather about “attuning” to the child who is in your care — that is, to attempt to respond to the needs of the child/kid/student, especially emotional needs. The ideal result is that the child/kid/student has a sense of being understood, cared for, and valued. (That’s paraphrased from the article linked just above.)

We faculty tend to focus on covering our content and drilling students to ensure they are mastering a skill set. These things aren’t unimportant. But for students, particularly new students entering into college or university, there is a strong emotional component that intermediates the learning process. They tend to be unsure of themselves; they are struggling to make social connections in a new place; they struggle with homesickness; they are inexperienced at managing freedom and end up making poor personal choices. On top of all this, if we faculty are doing our jobs, we’re asking them to stick their necks out and work harder than they ever have, and wrestle with ideas that are just beyond their grasp. So of course there is a lot of emotional stress at play. It behooves us to build this substrate of a relationship where students have those three things they need to thrive.

I am certainly not good at this sort of thing. I am an introvert and a geek, and emotional stuff like this is not my forte. But I take away two profound things from Kathleen’s talk. First, my personal preferences are irrelevant. If students are going to learn in my classes, they must have a sense that they have from me the basic respect afforded to all people, especially those embarking on a journey through a university education. Second, I can take comfort that all I have to be is “good enough”. From the article I linked earlier:

As parents, we all naturally fail at times. But if we are committed to parenting as important work, we will be able to correct our mistakes and learn from the experience. Children do not need “perfect” parents. However children do need parents they can trust to reflect on their actions and attempt to bridge misunderstandings when they occur. This working through is an act of attunement and strengthens the bond between parent and child.

It is essential to remember that our failures can in part create the healthy disappointments that children must work through to gain strength. However, these are the inevitable failures that occur, despite our best and determined efforts to be attuned and to provide the most optimal environment we can for our children. Therefore we will not have to concern ourselves with perfection. Thankfully we can narrow our focus to being the best parent we can along this path of family making we have all chosen, and turn our attention towards a deeper understanding of what it means to be attuned to our children.

That ought to be something all parents and teachers keep in mind every day. (Parole officers too, I suppose.

I suppose all this boils down to the concept of trust. Students need to know that they can trust me. I need to invest trust in my students (even though they, as imperfect people and works-in-progress, will break that trust). On a bigger level, my colleagues and I have to have a mutual sense of trust to work together. My Dean needs to trust me, and I him. In fact the whole fabric of higher education is predicated on trust. No one can learn or teach in a college where the network of trust is not iron-clad. If trust is missing from a college, what you have is a dying college.

On the other hand, where trust flourishes, learning and teaching flourish. That is the kind of environment I want for myself and my students, and so that’s where my work begins.

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Want a job? Major in what you enjoy.

The Seven liberal arts. Grammatic and Priscianus.

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Excellent blog post in the NY Times website this morning telling us that the choice of college major is not as important as we think. The author shares this research finding:

A University of Texas at Austin professor, Daniel Hamermesh, researched career earnings data sorted by choice of major and concluded that:

“Perceptions of the variations in economic success among graduates in different majors are exaggerated. Our results imply that given a student’s ability, achievement and effort, his or her earnings do not vary all that greatly with the choice of undergraduate major.”

A study conducted by PayScale Inc. found that history majors who pursued careers in business ended up earning, on average, just as much as business majors.

The author goes on to cite four reasons why a liberal arts major would be a fine choice for career-minded college students, including the development of transferable skills and the value — both personal and professional — of majoring in something you truly enjoy rather than something you don’t enjoy but think might be useful someday.

I’m reminded of this great post over at Cal Newport’s blog from last year in which he advises prospective business majors not to major in business but rather to choose a classical liberal arts major and then take 4-6 math courses on the side. That amounts to majoring in something like economics or history and then getting a math minor. The liberal arts major will show employers that you are broadly educated and have those transferable skills, such as the ability to do research and communicate clearly in oral and written forms. Then the math minor adds a significant amount of training to show that you can handle quantitative information — a skill sorely lacking among a huge portion of new job marketeers today — and that you’re not in the liberal arts major to avoid hard work, which is unfortunately a common public perception of liberal arts programs. (That perception is something that we who work in the liberal arts colleges are partially responsible for perpetuating by not communicating the value of the liberal arts clearly enough.)

This combination doesn’t always work — engineering, for instance, really does require a degree in engineering at some point — and the student who goes this route takes on a double responsibility for making sure his or her liberal arts degree is really academically rigorous and for being ready to explain to hard-headed employers that they have the skills that will make them viable in the long term as employees. But I think it’s right to tell students to first study what they love, and then worry about the career part a little later. I’m certainly advising my own students to that effect. And given that most jobs are going to require new employees to learn on the fly the things they need to know anyway, it makes sense to develop students’ passions for learning and abilities to learn on their own, which is IMO one of the major things a liberal arts education is good for.

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Pushing back

Seth Godin has a lot of good things to say in this short blog post, such as:

When a professor assigns you to send a blogger a list of vague and inane interview questions (“1. How did you get started in this field? 2. What type of training (education) does this field require? 3. What do you like best about your job? 4. what do you like least about your job?”) I think you have an obligation to say, “Sir, I’m going to be in debt for ten years because of this degree. Perhaps you could give us an assignment that actually pushes us to solve interesting problems, overcome our fear or learn something that I could learn in no other way…”

When a professor spends hours in class going over concepts that are clearly covered in the textbook, I think you have an obligation to repeat the part about the debt and say, “perhaps you could assign this as homework and we could have an actual conversation in class…”

As a professor, I love it when students make such demands of me. It’s how I want to teach anyway, and it makes it a lot easier when I know students are not only on board with but insisting that I not simply lecture from the book, repeat problems that are in the book, and expect them to learn only the things that are printed in the book.

So I would add one thing to Seth’s injunction: Students, if you feel this way about your professors, take a look at your peers who don’t feel this way. Do you have classmates who just want the professor to read from the book, give tests that are just like the book’s examples, and not expect more from them? Then push back there, as well. Demand from your peers that they not leave you out on an island demanding academic excellence and getting your money’s worth.

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Random observation about workflow and life

It used to be, in graduate school and in my early career, that I really couldn’t get any serious work done unless I had large, uninterrupted slabs of time to work with. I had to have 3-4 straight hours, at least, if I wanted to read a journal article, work on research, or get grading done.

But increasingly, it seems like, in my work at a small liberal arts college, this ideal of monolithic slabs of time with which to work has become unlikely. There’s always the out-of-nowhere fire to put out, the meeting that gets scheduled in the middle of a big block of time, the unexpected student dropping by, and so on. Having kids makes the fragmentation of time even more common and pronounced.

However, I’ve noticed something since being mostly at home with my 6-, 4-, and 1-year olds this summer so far: Not only can I count on frequent interruptions if I try to sit down and work on things, I actually need those interruptions to stay focused. It seems counterintuitive, but my attention span is such that I have a hard time staying truly on task for longer than an hour. When I have to stop and fix lunch for the kids, or break up a fight, or change a diaper, every 30-or-so minutes, it actually provides me with a break I didn’t know I needed, and I end up getting more done with the interruptions than I would in an equal stretch of time without them. (In fact this blog post was interrupted about half a dozen times in the writing and editing of it.)

So I’m not so sure about the advice that new professors often get about making sure to carve out big slabs of time in which to work. You have to go with the flow of how you work and how life impinges (in its own wonderful way) upon your work.

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The semester in review

Plot of the vector field f(x,y) = (-y,x).

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I’ve made it to the end of another semester. Classes ended on Friday, and we have final exams this coming week. It’s been a long and full semester, as you can see by the relative lack of posting going on here since around October. How did things go?

Well, first of all I had a record course load this time around — four different courses, one of which was the MATLAB course that was brand new and outside my main discipline; plus an independent study that was more like an undergraduate research project, and so it required almost as much prep time from me as a regular course.

The Functions and Models class (formerly known as Pre-calculus) has been one of my favorites to teach here, and this class was no exception. We do precalculus a bit differently here, focusing on using functions as data modeling tools, so the main meat of the course is simply looking at data and asking, Are the data linear? If not, are they best fit by a logarithmic, exponential, or power function? Or a polynomial? And what should be the degree of that polynomial? And so on. I enjoy this class because it’s primed for the kind of studio teaching that I’ve come to enjoy. I just bring in some data I’ve found, or which the students have collected, and we play with the data. And these are mainly students who, by virtue of having placed below calculus on our placement exam, have been used to a dry, lecture-oriented math environment, and it’s very cool to see them light up and have fun with math for a change. It was a small class (seven students) and we had fun and learned a lot.

The Calculus class was challenging, as you can tell from my boxplots posts (first post, second post). The grades in the class were nowhere near where I wanted them to be, nor for the students (I hope). I think every instructor is going to have a class every now and then where this happens, and the challenge is to find the lesson to learn and then learn them. If you read those two boxplots posts, you can see some of the lessons and information that I’ve gleaned, and in the fall when I teach two sections of this course there could be some significant changes with respect to getting more active work into the class and more passive work outside the class.

Linear Algebra was a delight. This year we increased the credit load of this class from three hours to four, and the extra hour a week has really transformed what we can do with the course. I had a big class of 15 students (that’s big for us), many of whom are as sharp as you’ll find among undergraduates, and all of whom possess a keen sense of humor and a strong work ethic that makes learning a difficult subject quite doable. I’ll be posting later about their application projects and poster session, which were both terrific.

Computer Tools for Problem Solving (aka the MATLAB course) was a tale of two halves of the semester. The first half of the semester was quite a struggle — against a relatively low comfort level around technology with the students and against the students’ expectations for my teaching. But I tried to listen to the students, giving them weekly questionnaires about how the class is going, and engaging in an ongoing dialogue about what we could be doing better. We made some changes to the course on the fly that didn’t dumb the course down but which made the learning objectives and expectations a lot clearer, and they responded extremely well. By the end of the course, I daresay they were having fun with MATLAB. And more importantly, I was receiving reports from my colleagues that those students were using MATLAB spontaneously to do tasks in those courses. That was the main goal of the course for me — get students to the point where they are comfortable and fluent enough with MATLAB that they’ll pull it up and use it effectively without being told to do so. There are some changes I need to make to next year’s offering of the course, but I’m glad to see that the students were able to come out of the course doing what I wanted them to do.

The independent study on finite fields and applications was quite a trip. Andrew Newman, the young man doing the study with me, is one of the brightest young mathematicians with whom I’ve worked in my whole career, and he took on the project with both hands from the very beginning. The idea was to read through parts of Mullen and Mummert to get basic background in finite field theory; then narrow down his reading to a particular application; then dive in deep to that application. Washington’s book on elliptic curves ended up being the primary text, though, and Andrew ended up studying elliptic curve cryptography and the Diffie-Hellman decision problem. Every independent study has a creative project requirement attached, and his was to implement the decision problem in Sage. He’s currently writing up a paper on his research and we hope to get it published in Mathematics Exchange. (Disclaimer: I’m on the editorial board of Math Exchange.) In the middle of the semester, Andrew found out that he’d been accepted into the summer REU on mathematical cryptology at Northern Kentucky University/University of Cincinnati, and he’ll be heading out there in a few weeks to study (probably) multivariate public-key systems for the summer. I’m extremely proud of Andrew and what he’s been able to do this semester — he certainly knows a lot more about finite fields and elliptic curve crypto than I do now.

In between all the teaching, here are some other things I was able to do:

  • Went to the ICTCM in Chicago and presented a couple of papers. Here’s the Prezi for the MATLAB course presentation. Both of those papers are currently being written up for publication in the conference proceedings.
  • Helped with hosting the Indiana MAA spring meetings at our place, and I finished up my three-year term as Student Activities Coordinator by putting together this year’s Indiana College Mathematics Competition.
  • Did a little consulting work, which I can’t really talk about thanks to the NDA I signed.
  • I got a new Macbook Pro thanks to my college’s generous technology grant system. Of course Apple refreshed the Macbook Pro lineup mere weeks later, but them’s the breaks.
  • I’m sure there’s more, but I’ve got finals on the brain right now.

In another post I’ll talk about what’s coming up for me this summer and look ahead to the fall.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Inverted classroom, Life in academia, Linear algebra, Math, MATLAB, Personal, Teaching, Vocation

Working and having a life, redux

Harvard Yard. Photo taken by Dudesleeper on Se...
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The Chronicle has an article on a Harvard survey of Gen-X professors and their attitudes toward the balance of work and the rest of life. The professors surveyed indicate that they want to be successul in their careers but don’t want to sell out their personal lives in the process. The main survey report is here (PDF, 2.1MB). Here’s a representative quote from one of the interviewees, a business professor, talking about the perils of overwork that Gen-Xers perceive in their older colleagues:

There’s really nothing to be gained by closing your door and working until 11:00 o’clock at night, other than the tenure hurdle that is somewhere out there. If you want to pole vault over it, you go right ahead, but no one here is going to back up the Brinks truck and start dumping all this cash on you, simply because you’ve decided to work like you have three jobs. So that’s the approach I take – sometimes you have to know when there’s this point of diminishing return, where if I keep pounding at this one front, then yes, I may nail it, but at the same time, it will then for a very high cost in other areas.
Although the sample size for this study is painfully small — just 16 professors (the Chronicle article says 12) — the responses are nonetheless fascinating to read and range across a wide variety of work/life balance issues. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

The study is from the same group at Harvard to which I referred in this post from 2006. There, I was responding to comments form some older (or “embedded”) faculty who took the reluctance of Gen-Xers to work until 11:00 PM every night as some form of laziness. Some of the comments at the new Chronicle article tend in that direction also, and conversely there are comments from Gen-Xers that lob equal and opposite stereotypes back at the older faculty.

Unfortunately, until COACHE comes out with a scientific nationwide  study on this issue (with, at the very least, n > 16), all we can do is rely upon anecdotes to understand the issues. But it does seem that most GenX faculty I know share my incredulity at the priorities of some other faculty who place work as the be all-end all of their lives. We also share an extreme irritation toward the inefficient use of time that seems endemic to academia. I shudder to think about how many meetings have I been forced into that have no agenda, spend 45 minutes in chit-chat or irrelevant philosophizing, and accomplish nothing.  And — very especially — we share a kind of hopelessness in considering the rewards structure of academia that gives the loudest applause to those faculty who cut the most out of their lives and say “no” to work the least.

I can only speak for myself (until COACHE gets more data), but I have learned that the best sacrifice to make is not to take time away from your wife and kids so you can get another publication out or hold office hours at 10:00 PM, but rather to lay down hard boundaries around your family and make the crossing of those boundaries by work to be unacceptable. I have learned to say a resounding “no” when work gets to be too much. I have tenure, and surely if I can get tenure then anybody can, but I am coming to understand that I will probably never win one of those prestigious teaching or service awards at my college simply because I maintain those boundaries and protect my family time ruthlessly.

And you know what? So be it. I have three happy and healthy kids who see a great deal of both Mom and Dad every day, who never want for play time or story time, and who know without question that they and their Mom are top priority in Dad’s life. This is more important, more satisfying, and ultimately more crucial to the well-being of the next generation than anything I can possibly crank out in my career. And if it ever gets to the point where my job and my family life cannot coexist, guess which one I’ll jettison without a second thought?

Although hopefully it will never come to that, and I have no reason to think that at my current place of employment it will. And hopefully higher ed as a whole will begin to see that there are a lot of people like me out there and learn to respect our boundaries even as we work to respect the mission of the academy.
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Daily routines

John Cook shared this interesting article on Twitter the other day. It lists 25 great thinkers and their daily rituals. This got me thinking about my daily routine, the little rituals that I observe, and how the rhythms of a routine help me find balance, stability, and productivity in my life and work. I’ve seen the value of a routine through my kids (ages 6, 4, and 1), who early on needed routines to help them learn day from night and know when to eat and nap, and who still need to stick to a routine or else become incorrigible.

While having three kids this young makes routines and rituals more a matter of probability than anything and routines hard to follow, there are a few rituals I like to keep around no matter what happens:

  • I get up at 5:00, and from 5:30-6:15 I do Matins from the Treasury of Daily Prayer, eat breakfast, and get all the stuff the kids need for school that day assembled and ready to go. Then I get the kids up (if they aren’t awake early, as is all too often the case) and we’re out the door for school by 7:15.
  • I try to get to the office by 8:00 or a little after and reply to messages for no more than a half hour. Anything messages I don’t get to wait till the afternoon or later. I don’t even use Entourage or a “push” email client; I use the web access to our email server so that I’m only alerted to new messages when I ask it to alert me.
  • On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I try to take 8:30-9:30 and do something scholarly and/or creative. This might be working on a computer program, watching part of a video from MIT OpenCourseware or iTunesU, reading a journal article, working on a blog post, or the like. When I first became a professor I was instructed that I needed to find large chunks of time in which to do research, but this approach simply hasn’t worked for me. Instead, I try to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook,  shoehorning intellectual work into my busy schedule one 30- or 60-minute segment at a time.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually don’t teach at all (it’s a feature of my college’s scheduling). So I give myself until 10:00 to do my GTD Weekly Review. Then I take the entire remainder of the day and try to get every single course I teach fully prepped through the following Tuesday. That way there is no preparation work to be done through the week, and all I have to do is pull out my materials and walk to class when it’s time. This doesn’t always work, but no ritual works all the time, so I don’t let it bother me as long as I am prepared for at least tomorrow’s classes.
  • I almost always make dinner for the family, and I eat with them and then play games or horse around or what-have-you until it’s bedtime for the kids, which is 7:30-8:00 at our place.
  • From 8:30-9:30, I like to spend time walking on the treadmill while I am watching a course video from iTunesU on the iPod Touch. (Right now I’m doing Gil Strang’s linear algebra course at MIT; also on my “course schedule” is an intro biology course at UC-Berkeley and a basic statistics course from a community college.) I do that 3-4 nights a week. On the other nights I will try to practice my bass guitar (through headphones, of course), work on blog posts, or something else fun.
  • I always read in bed until I fall asleep, usually by 11:00 PM.

And I try extremely hard never to bring work home — no grading at nights or on the weekends for me unless it’s crunch time. This is a commitment I made to myself and to the family early on. I eventually became a GTD disciple precisely because I’ve found that particular approach to work to be very amenable to a satisfying family life, uninterrupted by work tasks that could (should) have gotten done earlier had I been more focused.

Now it’s your turn. What are your daily routines and rituals? How do they make you happy and productive?

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