Another First Day

The view from the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Colorado College.

Monday was the first day of classes for me, and also the first day of a new job.  This fall I started as an assistant professor at Colorado College, a liberal arts college of about 2000 students in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Colorado Springs is about 60 miles south of Denver, at the base of the truly awesome 14,000-foot Pike’s Peak.  Colorado College is great: beautiful setting and campus, my colleagues are interested in their work, but also laid back and simpatico, and the students are creative, curious, and motivated.  It is like many other schools in those ways, though of course CC has its own distinctive personality that I particularly like.  However, one truly unusual thing about Colorado College: the school year here is broken not into semesters or quarters, but into 8 blocks of 3.5 weeks each.  Students take one class per block, with all of their attention on that one course (at least in theory).  Professors teach only one class at a time, too.  But the teaching is intense—most classes meet for around 3 hours every weekday morning, with office hours, problem sessions, and/or labs in the afternoon.  It’s easy to spend 5-6 hours a day in intensive student contact, plus there’s always preparation for the next day and grading.

The intensity is intense.  Did I mention it was intense?  That word comes up constantly when describing the “block plan”.  No question, this schedule can be tiring.  Luckily, each block is followed by a block break, two and a half days plus a normal weekend, when students are completely free to go camping, read novels, play video games, binge watch TV, or whatever.  Of course, if you’re a professor, you might spend a couple of those days grading and a couple getting ready for your next course, which doesn’t leave much of a break when you’re teaching successive blocks.  Again luckily, professors don’t teach during every block—different departments on campus have different teaching loads, but professors generally teach from 4 to 6 out of 8 blocks.  In non-teaching blocks, professors keep up with service, but have a remarkable amount of freedom to travel for research, go to conferences, or do field work.  So professors also have some real breaks built in.

When I tell people about this system, they often tell me that they think it is crazy.  I assure you, I have thought it was crazy at moments as well. However, I knew what I was getting into when I came, since I spent two years as a visiting assistant professor at Colorado College.  That was a really positive experience, and I am very happy to be back here this fall.  Yes, there are aspects of the block plan that are difficult, for both students and teachers.  I think exhaustion is the biggest issue, followed by time management. Many people ask me whether knowledge retention is a problem—how do students remember anything when they completely switch focus every 4 weeks?  My experience has been that this is no more of a problem than on the semester system; Calc 2 students everywhere will claim that they have never heard of the chain rule.

The fact is that there are also many aspects of the block plan that are deeply rewarding and advantageous to teaching and learning. For example, the fact that students have only one class means that very few students totally blow off the class they are in. It happens, but very rarely.  Taking students on field trips and getting out of the classroom is much easier.  Something about the bigger chunks of time spent together can make it easier to build strong relationships with students. If a student is really passionate about math, they can take several courses in succession, moving through the entire calculus sequence, linear algebra, and number theory in one year if they like.  Though students have other appointments, it’s generally ok if class goes over by a few minutes sometimes.  Seeing the students every day means I get far fewer emails.  Non-teaching blocks make extended research travel possible during the semester, without having to cover or cancel classes.  For me, all these positives more than make up for the difficulties.

 

Getting off campus with classes is a great perk of this job. Colorado College has a satellite campus near Crestone, Colorado. I took this picture there a couple years ago when I took my students to “Number Theory Camp”.

So, to return to the moment: I have been teaching for 5 days and I am more than a quarter of the way through a Linear Algebra course.  I have 23 students, I know all of their names, and class has been exceptionally fun so far. We have covered solving linear systems, row reduction, geometric interpretations of solution sets, spans, linear independence, and linear transformations, and we have already done one Mathematica lab.  The first test is Thursday of next week, and will also cover matrix operations, invertibility, and determinants.  I have done almost nothing for the last week and half but prepare, teach, meet with students, and grade. I am soooo excited that it is Saturday.  But, of course, I woke up at 7 AM thinking about how to explain linear transformations differently.  I always obsess a bit when I am teaching, and it is one of my great life projects to learn to let go of whatever just happened in the classroom and live in the present.  Maybe that’s one reason the block plan works for me, though—it leaves me less time to obsess, since I’m spending so much of my time during the block actually teaching.

 

Really missing my friend, collaborator, and Villanova office neighbor Katie Haymaker right now.

One week in, things are mostly excellent here.  I love being back in Colorado. I have to say that I also miss my friends, colleagues, and students from Villanova.  I miss being part of the Graterford program, my students at Community Learning Center, the energy and food of Philadelphia, and the dense mathematical network of the east coast.  I LOVED living in Philly and working at Villanova. Starting over is exciting but moving is horrible.  It takes a long time to make connections in a community, to have real friends and feel at home, and, having finally made those connections, it is really sad and hard to leave those people and start all over again in a new place.  So why did I leave, even for a great job like this?  A big reason was to be close to my partner.  I had been in a long-distance relationship for the last three years, which was simply not sustainable for me.  I am also much closer to my family here.  The importance of these factors overrode the sadness of leaving for me.

This constant starting over is one of the worst parts about early career life in an academic job.  It is poignant to move again, when many of my friends from grad school and all my past jobs are buying houses or having babies or forming bands.  And here I am again, giving away my plants, shoving half my belongings into storage, moving into a new office, and going to new faculty orientation to meet the rare other people my age that are looking for new friends.  However, there are so many great people in exactly this position, and at least this time I have already started over once in this place—I mean, I have a dentist at least!  Friends, community, and a sense of belonging can’t be too far behind.

Starting a new job? Interested in the block plan or teaching in some other unusual way?  Please share in the comments.

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One Response to Another First Day

  1. Brian Winkel says:

    You have done a great job at sharing your experiences in a system we have all heard about, but were never sure of how it went. I like your narrative style. Share more as time goes on. One year I taught in summer session a calculus course in 3.5 weeks, of high intensity, and I experienced the same good vibes, student contact, immediate feedback and use of material, reinforcement of ideas as we met them again sooner than otherwise, etc. Alas I was in flat Michigan (Albion College) at the time and not in gorgeous Colorado Springs. My wife and I got to spend a sabbatical year living on the base of the Air Force Academy while I taught there. I too had the views, with a 14 ft wide 6 ft high picture window of the Front Range. Hey somebody’s gotta put up with it.

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