The four things I am really working on this semester

August 18, 2014, 9:30 am

14825779592_d5263cf57e_mThis week at my university, like a lot of other universities and colleges in the US we are making the transition into the new academic year. It’s the end of the summer. I’m sad that the break is ending but I’m very happy with what I was able to get done. For the first time in years, I didn’t teach a summer class. Instead, I spent a lot of time on the road, speaking and giving workshops in places ranging from my own university to North Carolina, Indiana, and Cardiff, Wales – even Paris, via prerecorded video. I’ve dug into Haskell, object-oriented Python, and category theory. I indulged in a lot of the “someday/maybe” items I’ve been squirreling away. And I managed to spend a ton of time with the kids, hitting the beach, going on hikes, hanging around the house playing Mario Kart, or whatever the day and the mood called for. I didn’t waste a lot of time, and that’s the way I wanted it.

I have a lot coming up this fall as well. I’m teaching Calculus again, using the inverted model that I debuted last fall and wrote about back in the spring, with some changes based on those experiences, and – very significantly – working with my colleague Marcia Frobish to collect data from several sections of Calculus here on conceptual and metacognitive skills that we hope will lead to insights on the inverted classroom. I’m also working with a colleague in the School of Education to study the effects of flipped learning among students with learning disabilities in mathematics who are enrolled in remedial courses. On top of that, I’m teaching a section of first-semester Discrete Structures for CS majors with a strong emphasis in Python programming, furthering my self-study in Haskell and Python, taking on new service roles in the department and in the university, and finishing up a large writing project.

That’s a lot to work on. And yet – a couple of weeks ago, I was going through my Quarterly Review, a time I schedule every 90 days or so to reflect on my life goals and priorities and then set 90-day goals for various areas of my life and work. Although I came up with a list of personal and professional goals that are concrete and measurable, when I thought about what I really want to work on this semester, on a larger and more abstract scale, those specific goals and the specific projects listed above didn’t rise to the top. Instead, I found myself gravitating toward four big ideas that I want to build into my work and my life this semester. Have a look at these, and maybe they’ll resonate with you too.

Relationships. This one drives all the others. The more I work in higher education, the more I realize that education is about relationships. The entire enterprise is embedded in a network of relationships: professors to students; students to each other; faculty to each other; administration to faculty; parents to administration; and so on. You cannot divorce higher education from the mystery of human relationships without having something that really doesn’t look like the education we want. This is why the MOOC revolution never took shape – there is no equivalent in a MOOC for human relationships. (Message boards don’t cut it.) I want to work hard this year on building relationships with my students, helping students build relationships with each other, connecting more with my colleagues inside and outside my department (including administrators), and building collegial relationships with others outside my university. The latter was one of the great benefits of my spending a week in Cardiff, Wales this summer, making friendships and collaborations with some of the most dedicated mathematics professors the UK has to offer. There is no education without relationships, and it’s worth my time to build them.

Balance. By this term, I mean two things. First, I am referring to work-life balance. I am going to have a lot more to say soon about work-life balance and how I approach it, but my main goal is to insist that my personal relationships and personal development are at least as high of a priority as anything else, and then to fight for the time and space to nurture those relationships and that development. I think we in higher education are far too quick to cede the time and space we need to grow as human beings, because we think that’s just how academia works. I disagree, and I’m making a special effort this semester to be a tougher negotiator when it comes to time spent at work, and on work. Second, by “balance” I’m referring to balance within work. Being at a primarily teaching-focused university, it’s easy for me to devote every moment of time to prepping courses and grading, leaving nothing for scholarship and only the minimum for service. But the fact is that I’m an incorrigible learner, and when I’m not learning something new, I’m atrophying. And if I’m only giving a half-hearted effort for committee work, I am not proud of the result. I want to work on saying both “yes” and “no” strategically and guarding my time and efforts so that my productivity represents that of a well-rounded and happy teacher-scholar. Others in more research-focused schools have the inverse problem, and perhaps this semester might be a time where you seek balance by being more intentional about efforts in teaching.

Simplicity. I’ve recently gotten hooked on the tiny house movement, where people design fully functional living spaces in the 200–400 square foot range. What I love about those tiny houses is that they encourage the owners to live simply – without clutter, without pretension, and with a clear eye on what matters. You can’t live in a 200 square foot apartment with a lot of clutter that contributes nothing to your life. I’d like to take a tiny-house approach to my work, decluttering both my physical and intellectual spaces – as well as my courses – so that what matters is always front and center, there’s no wasted space or effort, and I manage to take the tiny amount of time I sometimes have and turn it into a whole habitable space.

Kindness. I recently came across two items that reminded me that kindness towards the people in our lives can be the most powerful thing that they, and we, can encounter. One was this video, an adaptation of a commencement speech by George Saunders at Syracuse University on what it can do to a person not to show enough kindness. The other was this piece by Francis Su on grace in teaching. Our lives are full of memories, most of which we cannot recall, but those involving profound acts of kindness in our lives stand out on their own. The more I explore relationships, and the more I look at students through the lens of their own humanity, the more I think that kindness is simply the act of remembering that other people are human beings just like you – warts and all – and acting in the light of that fact. This is hard, and needs to be worked on.

Relationships, balance, simplicity, kindness – these are a lot harder to work on than mathematics, I think.

What about you? What are your goals, big or small, technical or abstract, for the upcoming semester?


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