Hello from Seattle!


Just a quick post to let you know that I won’t be (really) posting to PhD + epsilon this week–I’m in Seattle at the Joint Math Meetings and I will be writing for the AMS Joint Math Meetings Blog.  It’s been a big first day–origami, big data, W. Timothy Gowers’ first colloquium lecture, an AWM panel… also enjoying sunny Seattle and running into a lot of my favorite people in the hallways.  I’m co-blogging with the excellent Adriana Salerno and Evelyn Lamb.  Things are looking good.  Check out the JMM blog, and I will be back here at PhD + epsilon in a couple weeks!

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Looking back on the semester and forwards towards the JMM

Like many of you, I’m en route to Seattle for the 2016 Joint Mathematics Meetings. This is my first JMM without interviews or big workshops, and I’m excited about getting to enjoy a relatively low-key conference. If you happen to see me wandering around, I hope you’ll stop me and say hi if you’d like.

While I plan my week and my upcoming semester, I’m also taking a cue from Beth’s post and looking back at the fall. My goals were overly ambitious, but I’m still reasonably happy with what I accomplished as a new faculty member. Some highlights (and lowlights):

Goal: Finish (more-or-less) two papers. Progress: One down, one to go.

I’ve had a paper “almost done” for at least a year now, and I needed to finally rip the bandaid off. I’m calling this a success, but it’s not ready for submission yet. I need to have some people read it over before I’d feel comfortable sending it off, because at this point I’ve been working on it for so long that I’m not sure if it’s even readable to an outsider. Is there such a thing as mathematical semantic satiation?

The second paper is a different story entirely, and I didn’t give it the respect it deserved. I’ve been doing some work on the scholarship of teaching and learning, and gave a talk on my preliminary results at MathFest in August. I thought the rest of the data collection and analysis would be fast, and then the paper would be quick to write. I was wrong. Work continues.

Goal: Get observed twice and give mid-semester evaluations. Progress: Again, 50-50.

My chair observed one of my classes, and I signed up for a peer-evaluation program with a faculty member in another department. Unfortunately, his schedule didn’t allow us to observe each other this semester. Also, I gave mid-semester evaluations (well, three-quarter-semester evaluations), but I never actually read the results. Clearly I need to make my goals more specific next semester.

Goal: Read more papers. Progress: Pretty weak.

I read some papers as a part of the literature review process for this scholarship of teaching and learning paper. That was valuable for more than just references, since I’m brand new to the whole topic, and now I’m getting a feel for how these papers are constructed. But I didn’t read nearly enough in my own research area. I need to do a much better job of staying on top of my field.

Goal: Leave the office by 6, and don’t work at home. Progress: Started to fall apart the last two weeks of the semester, but good overall.

This goal sounded ludicrous to me the first time I heard it too. Let me explain by way of yesterday’s tweet from @AcademicsSay: “I’m very busy. On an unrelated topic, I have questionable time management skills and difficulty saying no.” I know from experience that bringing my work home without solving those two problems first is counterproductive, and this timetable forces me to work on fixing both of them.

I did work at home a couple of nights, mostly because I try to have a very short turnaround time on my exam grading. Of course I also check my email, though I turn off phone notifications from my work email account. I even give my cell number out so students can text me (which I’m a big fan of; more in a future post). But my husband and I lived in different states for the entirety of our postdocs. We suffered for our careers for long enough. When I’m at home, I don’t want to have one eye on the office.

Now it’s time to pick up where I left off and set goals for spring. But first, I’ll see you in Seattle.






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Life is easy for my parents' bloodhound.

Life is easy for Ruby, my parents’ bloodhound.

Happy winter break! I’m spending mine in Wyoming and Colorado, cross-country skiing, doing crossword puzzles, eating, and hanging out with my parents’ dogs, then heading up to Seattle to blog for the AMS at the Joint Math Meetings. I am also devoting some time to reflecting (grading + fretting = reflecting?) on last semester and getting ready (syllabus + fretting = ready?) for next semester. I tried a lot of things in my work last year, with various degrees of success.  Some things were hard but worth it, others were hard and didn’t work out at all.  However, it seems like a good moment to share a few easy things that worked as intended.

  • I changed classrooms.  In the fall I taught two sections of Biocalculus, with a total of about 60 students, mostly freshmen. We cover discrete dynamical systems, modeling, and most of the material from a standard Calc I course, plus more differential equations. I really like these students and the course. Many of the students are math anxious but willing to work hard. I taught the same course last year and struggled a bit—partly because it was my first semester teaching in a new setting, and some of the material was entirely new to me (Cobwebbing? Wha?). This year I came in determined to do better. Success! So many things were so much better! Obviously I had more experience teaching this particular material. However, changing classrooms made a huge difference. Last semester we met in a large lecture hall with three times as many seats as we needed. The room was built only for lecturing and nothing else worked easily in that space. This semester, we had a normal classroom with tables. Just a normal classroom, and wow, what a difference it made in allowing students to work together and speak up in class. Last semester the students were at a great distance from me and from each other. The room was intimidating and encouraged passivity. The rows of desks didn’t allow students to move around and talk to each other. I couldn’t walk through the rows and talk to individual students.The students were fighting against the room in trying to collaborate at a great distance from each other. I found myself constantly asking them to move to the front, which sometimes set up an adversarial relationship. I couldn’t figure out why everything was so hard. Until this year, when I tried the same class in different classroom. Mind blowing.
  • I booked a room for Math Tea.  Physical environment in my department became an obsession for me this fall. If the design of my classroom made this much difference, what about the department as a whole? My colleagues are really cool people. But it’s taking me a long time to figure out just how cool they are, mostly because there is very little common space where I can get to know them. Not to mention the students—how can we provide a community for our students if there is no place to meet them? This isn’t easy to solve–there just doesn’t seem to be much extra space to go around. However, we can start with a tea before colloquium! This was an easy thing to create. I just booked the classroom for the talk a half hour early and sent out announcements to students and faculty. This worked pretty well! Lots of students attended the talk and chatted with faculty. The faculty members talked to each other and the speaker. Great! These two teas were the longest I had talked to several of my colleagues all semester. This was just the first step; I am still plotting to somehow get a common room or lounge. However, it was both easy and awesome to get people together for half an hour every few weeks.
Prisca Derivative

Derivative art from my Biocalc class. I heart math, too!

  • I had my students do public art. Basically, I gave them some colored chalk and a list of problems. Their assignment was to make one of the problems and its solution into public art and email me a picture. That’s all. It was only worth a few points but it gave the boring derivative rules part of class just a little bit of spice. I got some nice pictures, it took no extra class time, and the students had fun with it. Easy!
  • I didn’t curve an exam.  Some of my students did fairly badly on their first Biocalculus exam.  I didn’t want to curve the exam, so I gave them the option of replacing the first exam score with their score on the same material on the final.  Instead of being annoyed that we were having a cumulative final, they were so happy!  Some students gained a lot on the final, but only by learning the material they had missed.  The others lost nothing. It took me no extra time, aside from adding up the score on the first part of the exam.  It was easy to incorporate this into the final grade calculation by using an IF statement in Excel (by far the least difficult part of a painful 20 hour end of semester grading jag).

After the grading was done and the last grades entered, I danced around a little bit and headed out for more easy and awesome things—eating cookies and watching hockey. Mmmm, winter break.

This is what winter break looks like in Laramie, WY--included for those of you on the east coast who didn't get winter this year.

This is winter, skiing near Laramie, WY. (For the east coast, where winter was forgotten this year.)


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