4+1 Interview: Gavin LaRose

December 29, 2013, 1:05 pm

glrsign2After a bit of a hiatus, here is the newest installment in this Casting Out Nines’ series of 4+1 Interviews. In these interviews, I’ve tapped various people who are doing interesting work in some combination of math, technology, and education to see what they’re up to and what’s on their minds.

In this interview, I had a chance to catch up with Gavin LaRose. Gavin is affiliated with the Mathematics Department at the University of Michigan. He is officially listed as a Program Manager of Instructional Technology in the Mathematics Department, but his areas of interest and accomplishment are a lot more varied than what that title suggests. He’s been involved with Project NExT and other programs in the MAA and is well known for his work with innovative pedagogy and instruction, especially instruction using technology, at U-M. 

1. At the University of Michigan, you do some teaching and you also do some work with technology. About how much of your time do spend with each of those, and how do you see those two aspects of your work fitting together?

My appointment is officially 50% faculty and 50% staff, so I’ll go with the answer that, including things like working on our new faculty training program, my time is split pretty evenly between both. In practice I spend more time teaching during the school year while I don’t teach (but am in theory only part-time) in the summer, and so do more work in technology then. I think that the two pieces fit very well together. My experience has always been that by teaching I have a sense of what is and is not working in the classroom and therefore am able to better think about what technology is going to be useful or appropriate in different classes or to address different pedagogical goals.

2. You came to U-M from a small liberal arts college. What was the biggest surprise for you in making that transition?

I’m going to cheat a bit and give two answers here. The first is the obvious one: the scale on which UM works is radically different from that at a small liberal arts college. The total number of faculty at the liberal arts school I was at was on the order of 100, and the total number of students was 1500. At UM we have (counting post-doctoral faculty) on the order of 100 faculty in the math department alone, and teach between 1500 and 1800 students calculus I. And that’s just in the fall semester, and we teach calculus in sections of 32, so we offer 55 or so sections of calculus I in the fall. Even after having watched it happen for many years it’s hard to imagine how it is possible to effectively teach that many sections of calculus on a common syllabus and uniform exams, but I think we do a remarkably good job of it. I periodically catch myself saying things like “in the winter we only have about 125 students in five sections of precalculus,” and then remember that at my previous institution we never offered more than three sections of any course, ever.

But I think the more interesting surprise was in the Department’s understanding of the importance of undergraduate education. When I first got here I would say that I thought there must be some people who didn’t think much of what I was doing, but the Department was big enough that I didn’t see them. I’m now inclined to think that there aren’t any such people here. There are some who would rather not be involved in the pedagogical or technical work that I do, but I don’t think there are any who don’t think that it’s good, and I think concern with and support of the undergraduate program is in fact as close to ubiquitous in the Department as is possible. This may be something that is a bit unique to UM, but I suspect that there are aspects of the sentiment in pretty well any mathematics department, which is heartening.

3. What’s the biggest pedagogical challenge you see right now, either in your own classes or those of your colleagues?

Perhaps because I’m working in technology and have been seeing examples of it in the past couple of years, I think the biggest challenge is the increasing reality that students can get, on-line, solutions to any problem we can pose to them. Tools like Wolfram Alpha can solve almost any problem that evaluates skills that we want our students to learn, and many other problems as well. This coupled with the availability of social networking and answer sites that range from the simple (Yahoo Answers) to sophisticated (Stack Exchange) means that we are suddenly in a world where any question we ask of our students—from introductory courses to graduate level courses in pure mathematics—can be answered by use of a networked device, be it a phone, tablet, or more traditional computer. We’ve always had to be concerned with students’ abilities to get answers from other sources (talking with ones neighbor is a time-honored method of getting an answer to a difficult problem), but the issue is suddenly much more significant when the neighbor can be a smarter Ph.D. mathematician than I (a world away!) or an application with language processing capability that is able to perform any calculation we expect our students to learn how to do.

4. Is there a technology out there right now that seems well-suited to address the challenge you mentioned in the previous question? If so, how do you see that technology addressing the challenge?

In that the challenge I proposed is intrinsically one of the availability of technology, I don’t see a direct technological solution. That said, I am increasingly of the opinion that we don’t have to find “the solution” to “this problem.” The question of what students are learning and how they have created the work that they submit is one that is as old as teaching, and the change in technology in many respects introduces only an incremental change in how we must approach this. If we are to be effective as instructors we have to be thinking hard about what students know and how we know it, and these are not things that are dependent on technology. That said, it’s probably worth being aware of what the technology will now do.

+1. What question should I have asked you in this interview?

Q: What unexpected things have created interesting professional connections for you this summer?

A: Joe Gallian admonishes all Project NExT Fellows to say “yes” to invitations and opportunities, and my summer argues that this is a good thing for everything but my overall productivity on the projects that I had set for my completion this summer. Among other things, I ended up on an on-line panel on the documentation and dissemination of educational projects and work, and gave a couple of presentations for Project NExT Fellows at the Project NExT workshop in Hartford before Mathfest.

The first turned out to be an interesting reflection on the challenges of disseminating best—or even useful—practices in teaching. We are all doing wonderful things in our own academic worlds, and even those of us who get to conferences and talk with our colleagues have a formidable challenge in finding resources and projects which are relevant to what we are doing, and which are packaged in a way that allows us to use them without spending an excessive amount of time on implementation. I don’t know if there is a solution to this problem, but I do think that it argues strongly for taking time in our daily (weekly, or semester-ly) routines to stop and document in some way what we are doing, why, and how it worked. I don’t do this nearly as much as I should, and I think doing that would be a very large first step to reducing the amount of my own time (and possibly others’) that’s spent reinventing wheels.

The presentations I gave for the Project NExT Fellows probably had less impact than the net effect of getting into that energy-infused, active and enthusiastic environment. It’s far too easy to get bogged down with what I have to do and to lose track of the amount of fun I have doing it all, and the amount of fun that I have talking with and thinking about everything I and we do as academic professionals. I believe this is why meetings and workshops are so powerful when it comes to professional development. Every once in a while I think that I should go to fewer meetings because of the time demanded by the travel, and then I come back from the next conference thinking of all the people I met there who gave me great ideas and the connections I made which I would not have made had I not been there talking with colleagues and friends from near and far.

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