Five Takes for the First Day

Take 1

Welcome to Math Class, I am Professor I-Get-To-Have-A-Name. I will probably never learn your name, and that is okay. Who you are doesn’t matter. I may try to get you interested in math, but not actually you because I know nothing about you. I am basically never talking to you.

First we’ll go over the syllabus. In the syllabus you will find rules, policies, percentages, office hours. You will not find anything here that matters to you. You will not find a reason to care anywhere within these pages.

I will ask you if you have any questions on the syllabus, and then we will start the first lecture. You may not know it yet, but I’ve already lost you.

You have several other classes, and other work or family obligations, or maybe you’re struggling to manage your social life or your mental health. Either way, mine is not your only class. But it’s a new semester and you are totally going to put a lot of work in for all of your classes.

Things don’t play out the way you expect. You do the homework. You don’t get it all right, but this is how you learn, right? Your quiz scores aren’t what you’d hoped for; guess the class is hard. You don’t come to office hours, because you don’t know office hours are for you. At any rate, if you just study really hard for the midterm, it’ll be okay.

At any rate, if you just study really hard for the next midterm, it will be okay.

You send me an email, if you just do really well on the final will it be okay?

Now you reach out to me, you really really really need to pass the class and you’ve struggled all semester with personal issues and you’re certain you’re ready for the next class, because next semester your life will be settled and you can really study hard all semester long you just really really need to pass.

Take 2

Welcome to Math Class, I am Professor Harron. I really want to learn all your names, but I probably won’t because I haven’t worked through my guilt and anxiety about the situation. I idly run through various “fun” ideas, but at the end of the day I have so many other things I have to get done. I want you to know that you matter, but I don’t know how to tell a class this size that everyone matters. I want to tell you that you can each email me anytime you want, but I couldn’t possibly reply if you all emailed me at once.

I want to talk to you about so much more than the bare minimum. I want to talk to you about so much more than just this class. Most of you are still caught in a punitive mentality from high school and you need help transitioning to college level responsibility. I want to empower you by saying you can make your own choices and you don’t have to give me excuses, but it probably sounds like I’m saying I don’t care what you do. I want you to be emotionally invested in this class, but if you decide I’m wasting your time, it’ll show up in the student evaluations.

I ask if there’s anything you want to discuss about the syllabus, and then I start the first lecture. I know I’ve already lost, but there’s nothing I can do.

Homeworks come in. In theory, this is my chance to see how you’re doing with the material. In practice, I don’t have time to read through the assignments. In theory, the data collected is my chance to see how you’re doing in the class. In practice, there are just too many numbers. Again I will think idly about all the ways a better person might reach out to her students, but after running through all possible scenarios (as my anxiety dictates) I can’t decide on any particular action. In class, I talk about how important the homework is and that you should aim to do better on the homework than you want to do in the class. I tell you you should come to office hours, but maybe I’d put more effort into getting you there, if I didn’t use that time to prep lectures, update the website, and answer the few student emails I do get.

I do not know what Calculus class is right for you. I have opinions on what the course “should” cover and what a student “should” be able to do. But those opinions are based on my own privileged experiences. Many of my colleagues have even higher standards, filling me with insecurity. If I make the course too hard, this does not help you, as you just learn that you “can’t do it.” But I’m afraid that if I make the course too easy, you won’t know what calculus is, and you’ll be moved on to a harder course you’re not ready for. And it will be my fault. And I will be the unserious professor who doesn’t value mathematics and is a pushover in the classroom.

High expectations require extra support. If we don’t have the resources to give you the attention you need, do we lower our expectations so that more of you have a positive experience? Or do we keep our expectations high so that the best prepared of you achieve your potential?

Exams are stressful for me because I try to prepare you, and it isn’t enough. I don’t know if your scores are low because of the system or because of me or because of all your experiences before you met me. I assure you that there will be a curve. I assure you I will give you the best grade I can morally justify looking at the work you’ve done.

I really really really want you to do well in the class, to learn, and to feel good about it. You see, teaching is very stressful and way more subjective than we like to talk about in math. How your grade compares or contrasts with your scores throughout the semester and with the grades of other students reflects on my skills or deficiencies as an instructor.

I receive your “I really want to pass” email and my thought is “same.”

Take 3

Welcome to Math Class, I am a black femme and I sometimes have pink hair, and you probably haven’t had a math class taught by someone like me before. But I don’t talk about it in class. I have anxiety, I carry pill bottles, I go to therapy, but I’m led to believe I shouldn’t talk about it in class.

You may be a woman or femme or person of color, but we’re not supposed to talk about it. The white men in the class may be more comfortable speaking up in class than everyone else, but we’re not supposed to talk about it.

You may have a family member who is at risk under the current policies, but we’re not going to talk about it. You may know someone who had their passport revoked, or who is afraid of being deported, but that’s “politics” and this is “math,” so we’re not going to talk about it.

You may need help. You may be missing connections. You may be struggling with other things in your life. Your understanding (and your grade) is suffering, but your issues aren’t strictly related to the actual class. You’ve learned from me that we must only discuss things that are in the textbook, on the syllabus, related to the subject at hand. You may need help, but you think you don’t need your Calc prof. So you’re not going to talk about it.

I am still learning the subjects I teach. I learn from my students. I learn how they think about problems, how they learn. I still learn new connections from teaching, new ways of thinking. I learn from my students, but I need them to write “professor has mastered the material” on their student evaluations, so I don’t talk about it.

Take 4

Welcome to your first day of Calculus, I am just a small part of a large, enduring system that says we cannot afford to discuss the most important aspects of our lives. This class will, at times, make you feel powerless. You will feel as though your only recourse is pleading and excuse-making, but they won’t work. You probably won’t blame me, as I come off as empathetic and enthusiastic, and to be honest, I care and I’m doing the best that I can. But the truth is, we are all guided by past experiences, external pressures, stress, and pre-existing hierarchies. It’s the first day of class, and we’ve already lost our chance to meet as human beings struggling together.

Take 5: Talking About It

On the first day of this semester, I took what felt like a huge risk. It is too early to know what the results will be. After going over the syllabus I spent probably thirty full minutes telling my students things I thought they should know. To summarize:

  • This system works against most students. Everyone needs individualized support, and we are not offering that in the slightest. The way we talk about math makes people feel bad for needing support; that is false and harmfully unfair.

  • Math is not just one linear set of classes or ideas, nor is there just one way of thinking about any particular math. The way we do math, what we call math, creates an artificial sense of who should do math. This is wrong and unfair.

  • Every student matters. Every question matters. Confusion is part of the journey, something we all benefit from. It is rational to worry about derailing class with an “unnecessary” question, but it’s a counterproductive concern for a student to have. It is the instructor’s job to determine how to stay on track while also addressing student needs. I am still on the journey of learning the math that I teach, all the ways to think about a given problem or set of ideas. I learn from my students; they matter. Not only that but feeling that they matter, being emotionally invested, will be key to them making the sort of decisions throughout the semester that will keep them on track.

  • My name is Piper Harron and I am openly and comfortably political. I do not mean partisan debates, though I can participate in those when I feel like suffering. I mean that when people live together in large groups, decisions get made, and this is politics. We are affected by national politics and local politics and university politics and I am comfortably and openly aware of how various decisions affect my life and the lives of people I feel obligated to watch out for (including students). I am openly and comfortably political on the internet and because of this I was harassed and bullied and threatened on the internet and it destroyed me. I have anxiety and panic attacks and that makes my life harder. I have mental illness, but that doesn’t make me unqualified for my job. It means I sometimes need help. Anxiety is just like my body’s on fire for no reason but anyway about that to-do list. I encourage anyone who needs accommodations for any disability including test anxiety to please contact the appropriate people and set that up.

  • I conclude by saying that I want everyone to have a positive experience. I want the classroom to be a safe environment, but there’s only so much I can do. We will have to figure it out together. In my smaller class I had everyone say their names and saying anything more was optional because I didn’t want to stress anyone out. In my larger class I asked if anyone wanted to say anything, but nobody did.

I got some extremely positive responses from some students, but I am still stressed about missing a lecture (and we ended up losing a second lecture due to the weather), and I have no idea whether this will actually help students do better. But at least I was honest, which is something I strive for in general.

This entry was posted in inclusive pedagogy, math education, mathematics experiences, supporting students, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Five Takes for the First Day

  1. Aris Winger says:

    Honesty is a vital part of a healthy educational environment for so many reasons. Good for you!

  2. Michelle Higgins says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thank you for allowing us, for just a few minutes, to think about teaching math as a human being, in the raw. I think “mathematics” triggers an automatic cloaking of our humanness, and it is this presentation of ourselves that we show to students.

  3. Carrie Diaz Eaton says:

    Beautiful!!!

  4. Bruce Reznick says:

    Dear Prof. Harron — Thank you for your honesty and your ferocious originality.

  5. Amanda says:

    This is awesome. Well said.

  6. Amanda Cangelosi says:

    Thanks, Piper. This is helpful.

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