The Hardest Days to Teach

There are only a few days where I was so upset that I did not want to teach. The first instance was in grad school when my adviser told me he was denied tenure. The most recent was two years ago when my mother told me she had cancer. But those weren’t the hardest days to teach. Those “honors” go to November 9, 2016 in Chicago and October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh—respectively, the day after the Clinton/Trump election and the first workday after the Tree of Life shooting.

We begin with Chicago. On November 2—six days before the election—the Cubs won the World Series. For the first time in over 100 years. In the 10th inning of game 7. After a rain delay. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit. For those who know nothing about sports, this is a level of drama a soap opera would find excessive. And on November 4 over FIVE MILLION people (or, as I prefer to think about it, roughly 1.5% of the US population) flooded the celebratory parade route. Not the city. The parade route.

Little got done during that time. Students, obviously, were distracted. But it would all work out. Thanks to the quarter system, finals were November 14 (the Monday after the election). That gave us roughly two weeks to get back to work.

Yeah, right. Continue reading

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First Day of Class Activities

Imagine the following scenario. Your university is offering dozens of sections of your course, of which only a handful will stay active past the first week of classes; the rest will be closed. During that week, students can attend as many sections as they wish. What would you do to convince your students they will get the most out of the course if they stick to your section?

MAA Instructional Practices Guide

This is an unlikely scenario… Yet, there is an ever increasing collection of free courses students can use for learning (MIT’s OpenCourseWare, edX, Coursera, etc), which combined with the high cost of higher education and student debt problem (1.5 Trillion!), make a compelling case to go that route (at least for some students). So, what’s the benefit of in-person courses and what will our roles be in the future? A possible answer is that one of our roles should be to model learning in our classrooms. In a typical lecture-based course (like the ones in the platforms mentioned above), we model knowing, not learning. In courses with active learning components, we model and encourage engagement and discussions of the material, hopefully leading to deeper learning experiences.

So, how do you get started if you want to add tools to your teaching kit that encourage students to be active members in the classrooms? My best suggestion is to read the MAA Instructional Practices Guide (MAA IPG); it has the answer to EVERY question you might initially have (if you don’t believe me, try it! You might prove me wrong but it will get you to read it :-)). To complement the MAA IPG, I want to present here five first day activities (plus some freebies at the end) you can try this coming semester to foster conversations and collaboration among your students. I’ll share my goal for each activity. The first three are more general activities about learning, mindset, and collaboration. They can be adapted to pretty much any course. The last two are content-based. Continue reading

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Hello from Cincinnati!

First off, I’d like to publicly welcome Kate and Alexander to PhD+! Your posts so far have been thoughtful and informative, and I’m so glad you’re here.

Cincinnati Skyline

Tonight I’m posting from Cincinnati, where another MathFest is on its way. I’ve probably said this before, but I’d only vaguely heard of MathFest, the Mathematical Association of America’s annual convention, before I started my teaching postdoc at the University of the Pacific. To be honest, I’d only vaguely heard of the MAA before then, and then only as something that was mostly targeted towards undergraduates. But as I got more involved, I started to appreciate MathFest, and the MAA, for its active community of professors with jobs like mine, where we have the obligation/luxury to deliberately spend most of our time and energy on undergraduate education. I’ve been looking forward to seeing my colleagues, meeting new people, and getting re-energized about math and my teaching before the new school year starts.

This year it’s a family affair. My husband’s new teaching gig doesn’t start for another few weeks, and I’m still nursing my son, so I brought them both with me on our way to visit family in the midwest. I figured I’d get a hotel really close to the convention center and bounce back and forth between my son and the convention. I wouldn’t even need to pump in the lactation room like I did at the JMM.

Or that was the plan. Warning: if you’re reading this in a hotel bed, you may want to save the rest of this for once you’re home.

I won’t mention the hotel except to say that it was not an official MAA conference hotel, but we wound up vacating as quickly as possible this morning once we realized something (I can’t bring myself to type any more speculation) had been biting us all night. After spending the day at the laundromat and baking our stuff in chemicals in the hot car all afternoon, I feel reasonably sure we won’t bring any traveling companions with us to our new place.

This hotel is lovely, and bug free as near as I can tell, though my usual inspections didn’t turn up anything at the previous place either. But it’s also two miles away, so my dream of popping back for a quick feed in between sessions has been crushed. The pump and the lactation room it is.

So I’d planned on this post describing all the fun things I was excited to see at this year’s MathFest, and how great it was going to be traveling with my son. Instead, I’ve only barely looked at schedule for tomorrow and don’t even know what I’m going to be doing in the morning. If I’m looking a little ragged tomorrow, please be charitable and assume it’s because my baby was fussy, and not because I had a flashlight pointed at a hotel bed all night while trying to google how to synthesize DDT.

Surely this has happened to some you, given the amount of travel embedded in academic life, right? Any tips? Or horror stories? Share away in the comments.

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