Category Archives: Personal

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.


Filed under Education, Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching, Vocation

Four lessons from my Lenten social media fast

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This past Sunday was Easter, of course. Easter marks the endpoint of Lent, and therefore it was the end of my 40-day fast from Facebook and Twitter. I do admit that I broke cover once to announce my upcoming job change, and will also admit that I lurked a lot on both services during the last 10 days or so, reading but not commenting. Otherwise, though, I did manage to stay off both Facebook and Twitter for the duration (auto-posted tweets didn’t count).

I’ll have to say my first real tweet after breaking the fast felt awkward — like I’d been out in the wilderness for 40 days and had stepped back into a once-familiar place with people who had never left. I’m gradually getting back into the swing of it, but I also feel like I have a much different perspective on my social media involvement after giving most of it up for 40 days. I’ve learned a few things about the role of social media in my work and life:

Lesson 1: Denoising your life is good. I found this out within days of starting the fast. I didn’t realize until I gave Twitter and Facebook up for a few days just how dependent I’d become on checking status reports every few minutes, not to mention creating status updates myself. There is a tremendous amount of time bound up in these little 2- to 5-minute bursts of social media that I really benefitted from reclaiming. But more than that, I found that once I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter, the pace of my life slowed down several notches. I felt less hurried and more relaxed. When you make yourself try to keep up with a continuous stream of status updates, you soon begin to feel like Lucy and Ethel on the candy wrapping assembly line:

But that’s not all I learned.

Lesson 2: Getting rid of the noise is good, but losing the signal in the process is not so good. Many times over the last couple of months, I’d catch myself leaning over the keyboard about to compose a tweet asking for help or ideas on a question, or looking at Facebook to see what my friends all over the world were doing. But I had to catch myself because I was on a fast. I learned through all this that I really value the thoughts and ideas of the people and groups I follow — these thoughts and ideas enrich my life, fire my imagination, make me laugh at silly stuff, and generally make me a better person and professional. I missed all that, and the people behind them, a lot.

Despite the value I place in my connections, I also learned that:

Lesson 3: It’s good not to share everything. I remember quite clearly having lunch with my dissertation advisor one day, and he gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: Always keep secrets. Work on things that nobody knows about but yourself. While sharing is generally good, and while the power of being able to share yourself quickly and on a large scale through Twitter and Facebook creates a powerful opportunity to connect with others, I think there’s a point of sharing past which the individual starts to get diluted. For example, during the first couple of weeks of Lent, I attended the ICTCM in Denver. There was no tweeting from there, although there was ample opportunity. Instead, I kept notes, talked to people, and made myself social in real life. It was good, and I think it would have been less good if I had taken time away from the here-and-now to tweet about the here-and-now.

Then, the Wednesday after I returned from Denver, I noticed on my right leg a series of painful, angry-looking red streaks going from my lower right calf all the way up to the top of the thigh. I went to the doctor to have it checked out, and they sent me directly to the emergency room, and from there they sent me directly to a hospital room. I was diagnosed with cellulitis, an infection of the subcutaneous tissue under the skin that I probably picked up from walking around barefoot in my Denver hotel room. I spent three days in the hospital getting IV antibiotics around the clock to fight the infection. Had I waited till Thursday morning to go to the doctor, the infection would have made it to my femoral artery and I likely would have gone septic, and it would have gotten considerably worse from there.

I’ll admit it: I was scared, frustrated, and sorely in need of people to connect with during those three days. Had I been using social media, I would have been posting Facebook and Twitter updates, probably with pictures, about as often as I was getting antibiotics. But by choice, I kept this experience to myself, to share with my wife and kids, my doctors, and with God. Instead of tweeting, I prayed and wrote and talked to my wife and children. I watched a lot of Netflix and got some grading done. So while it would have been a comfort to have social media as an outlet for sharing with others, by concentrating my sharing to the real people in my life who matter the most, and keeping the rest a secret (till now), the whole experience somehow has more meaning and lasting power in my memory.

Finally, I learned:

Lesson 4: Social media is a permanent part of who I am, and when managed well it is a powerful force for good. Early on during Lent I realized I liked the slower pace of life so much that I wondered if I would go back to Twitter and Facebook once it was all over. Honestly, I can’t see giving those two services up. I’ve carefully groomed and built my list of people and groups to follow so that whenever I look in on the Twitter update stream, I learn something. Facebook is the same way except on a more personal level with friends from real life. So I can’t see just giving these things up. They are an antidote to stagnation. But I do like taking a more minimal and focused approach to engaging with social media — which, by the way, leaves me more ideas and energy for blogging — so that the signal-to-noise ratio is high.

So ends my Lenten social media fast, with results that I consider successful. I feel that I’m now more apt to use social media outlets to grow and learn and connect in positive ways, less prone to share indiscriminately and inappropriately. Like most things, it takes some time away to help you appreciate what you have.

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Filed under Christianity, Family, Personal, Social software, Technology, Twitter, Web 2.0

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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Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Personal, Profhacks, Vocation

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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Filed under Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Tenure, Vocation

How to memorize the value of e to 15 decimal places

I learned the following trick for memorizing the value of e from my colleague, Gene White. It never fails to impress calculus students (given a wide enough definition of “impress”).

Start by carefully looking at this picture:

That’s a 20 dollar bill, so memorize “2” and put down the decimal point.

The picture on the bill is of Andrew Jackson. He was our seventh President, so put a “7” after the decimal point to get 2.7.

Jackson was elected in 1828, so put down “1828” next. Since there’s a 2 in front of the decimal place, put “1828” a second time. We’re now up to 2.718281828.

Now look at the red square over Jackson’s face. The diagonal creates two congruent right triangles with angle measures 45, 90, and 45. So, add on 459045 to get 2.718281828459045. And that’s e to 15 places.

I’m open to suggestions on how to memorize more of the digits.


Filed under Calculus, Geekhood, Math, Teaching

Friday Random 10: 2/5/2010

Friday music time again, and just about the only thing I’ve had time to post this week due to classes starting back:

  1. Texas Flood (Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Greatest Hits)
  2. 40 Days (Third Day, Come Together)
  3. Who’s Been Talkin’ (Howlin’ Wolf, His Best: Chess 50th Anniversary)
  4. Man in the Green Shirt (Weather Report, Best of Weather Report)
  5. Waiting on the World to Change (John Mayer, Continuum)
  6. Where You Are (Rich Mullins, The World As Best As I Remember It v. 1)
  7. Heavy On My Mind (Back Door Slam, Roll Away)
  8. Try (John Mayer Trio, Try! (Live))
  9. Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman) (Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II)
  10. Doing It To Death (James Brown, The CD of JB)

Normally I would take one of the entries in the list that gets my attention and do a video focus on it. This time… Well, the classic Led Zeppelin chestnut “Living Loving Maid” (#9) makes me think of the fantastic cover done by Dread Zeppelin. You know — that band that does Led Zeppelin covers, only they’re done in a reggae style and using a late-70’s era Elvis impersonator as their lead singer. Sadly, I couldn’t find a video for that. So instead, here’s the video for their version of “Your Time Is Gonna Come”, which Robert Plant once said he preferred to the original.

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Filed under Friday Random 10, Music, Uncategorized, Weekly features