Category Archives: Life in academia

August 22, 2014, 9:58 am

Approaching balance in an academic life

3832406129_c81191cc27_mRecently, I received an accolade that not only meant a great deal to me, but also set many thoughts in motion about how I think about work. OK, this is just a Twitter mention, but it comes from a person whose own work I respect; and for me, “succeeding at research and teaching while staying human” is a pretty economical description of a successful academic career.

This tweet has come into sharp relief lately. Our semester is starting up on Monday and the ease with which I can find balance will lessen considerably. Also, when I look back on some of the comments I’ve received on recent blog posts, there’s a pattern showing up that has me concerned for some of my fellow academicians, namely that there’s a desire to have a more balanced approach to work – excellent research and excellent teaching – but this balance is disincentivized or downright impossible. There seems to …

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August 18, 2014, 9:30 am

The four things I am really working on this semester

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…

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August 12, 2014, 12:22 pm

Is lecture really the thing that needs fixing?

d510c2df-22fc-47b9-8511-e1e69a9d560bOne of my Twitter people asked me to share my thoughts on yesterday’s Chronicle article, “Can Universities Use Data to Fix What Ails the Lecture?” At the time, I skimmed the article and replied that LectureTools, the technological tool developed by Perry Samson to gather real-time data from students during a lecture, reminded me of the contraption you see in the photo to your left. That’s an automated chalkboard eraser. As technology goes, it’s quite effective in what it does. Just look at how clean that board is! Which is great but… that’s a chalkboard for goodness’ sake. A piece of communications technology that is not significantly different than prehistoric cave drawing, and which has been improved upon countless times. (Purists who still cling to chalkboards: You guys are Luddites. Sorry.)  Strapping an awesome piece of technology to a chalkboard doesn’t make the …

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April 14, 2014, 2:57 pm

The hidden costs of unsolicited textbooks — a view from the mailroom

Back in January I posted an article calling for an end to unsolicited review copies of textbooks being sent to professors. Interestingly, on Reddit a student at my university who works for the mail services department did an AMA, and I had the chance to ask: What kind of impact does it make on the university, from an infrastructure or mail services point of view, to have all these unsolicited books being sent in? Keep in mind that we’re a public university of 24,000 students and lots and lots of faculty. Here are some highlights from his response, which I thought was pretty interesting though not totally surprising:

Ugh, I HATE those! Nobody wants them, nobody asks for them, and they take up valuable space in our truck and our holding area.

As far as the cost it passes onto us, it’s definitely hard to quantify, but I can tell you all the different ways we waste time on those…

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January 29, 2014, 5:17 pm

An end to unsolicited review copies of textbooks, please

2014-01-29 16.29.42The picture you see here is my afternoon mail today. It consists of two copies of a new Calculus text (hardcover), two copies of another Calculus text (hardcover), and one copy of an intermediate algebra text (softcover).

I did not request a single one of these. I certainly did not request duplicates of two of them. The last time I taught intermediate algebra was the mid-1990′s. I am not on a committee that selects textbooks. I have no use for these books other than to prop open a door. So why did I get them? I have no idea.

When I think about the waste and expense of these unsolicited review copies of textbooks, it makes me downright angry. I went to and used a back-of-the-envelope estimate of weight and shipping distance, and got that the total package of these books would have cost about $20 to ship to me from its point of origin. That’s not a large sum, but how many…

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January 22, 2014, 7:52 am

How about a little humor in higher education?

logoAre you like me, and think that higher education could benefit from a sense of humor? That we’re hearing lots of dystopian stories about how bad things are but little about what people – individual people – are doing to effect positive change in their situations? If so, you might find this upcoming workshop called There’s Something Funny About Higher Education appealing. Blurb:

This spring, the satirists behind the humor blog The Cronk of Higher Education at will launch a workshop series “There’s Something Funny about Higher Education” to ignite a spirit of creativity, optimism and humor in the ivory tower.

“We started CronkNews in 2009 with a mission to generate dialogue and healthy laughs about the world of colleges,” said editor-in-chief Leah Wescott. “Poking fun at problems is fun, but making meaningful changes requires a certain skill set.…

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January 19, 2014, 11:00 am

Fixing the wifi situation at academic conferences

WIFIMy innocuous remark about scarce wifi at the Joint Mathematics Meetings yesterday struck a chord with a bunch of people on Twitter. Apparently and unsurprisingly this sort of thing happens at every conference, not just math conferences. So rather than just whine about it, I’d like to propose a solution.

Let’s start with some facts.

1. Wireless internet is not a luxury at an academic conference. Presenters need to be able to access files stored in online repositories like Dropbox. Sometimes internet access is crucial to the presentation itself (like for me on Saturday when I needed to show an example I put on a course website). Most people simply want to be able to access email on their laptops, get work done remotely during downtime, or Skype home to their families at night. This is not something just for screwing around on reddit.

2. Wireless internet enables conferences to…

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January 11, 2014, 11:47 am

Flashback: Unsolicited advice about interviews at the Joint Meetings

I first published the post below about two years ago, just before the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Boston. I had forgotten that I wrote it until this week, when someone — I’m assuming a job candidate headed to the Joint Meetings this year — emailed me about it. The Joint Meetings are about to begin again this coming week in Baltimore, so I thought it would be fun and possibly useful to bump it to the present.

After two years, I really don’t have much to add to what I said in the original post. The only things I might change to the original are that I’d probably use Evernote (one notebook per opening, and a tag of #job or something) instead of VoodooPad to keep track of job openings; and that I think interviewees should ask pointed questions to the institutions about their (the institutions’) vision for higher ed in the next 25 years. The landscape of higher ed is too much in flux …

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August 1, 2013, 7:21 am

4+1 interview with Dana Ernst

img06Welcome to the third installment of the 4+1 Interview series. Today’s interview features Dana Ernst. Dana is a professor in the mathematics department at Northern Arizona University, a champion of Inquiry-Based Learning in mathematics, and an active writer about math and math education. I’ve known Dana for a couple of years, and he never fails to impress me with his clear-headed, positive-minded, student-centered approach to his work. His mountain biking exploits also inspire me to get up and exercise sometimes.

Enjoy the interview and make sure to catch Dana’s writing at his personal blog, the new Math Ed Matters blog (see below for more), on Twitter, and on Google+. If you missed the first two installments, you can click here for Derek Bruff’s interview and here for my interview with Diette Ward.

1. You’re well-known as a vigorous proponent of Inquiry-Based Learning. Tell us…

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March 20, 2013, 8:00 am

Inside the inverted proofs class: Dealing with grading

6251461402_2a11c771db_mSo, what about grading in that inverted transition-to-proofs course? Other than the midterm and final exams, which were graded pretty much as you might expect, we had four recurring assignments that required grading: Guided Practice, Quizzes, Classwork, and the Proof Portfolio. Let’s discuss the workflow and how it was all managed.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: Quizzes and Guided Practice. Quizzes were done using clickers, so the grading was trivial. Guided Practice was graded on the basis of completeness and effort only, on a scale of 0–2. So it was almost instantaneous to grade. Students would submit their work using a Google form that dumped their responses into a spreadsheet. I would just sort the spreadsheet in alphabetical order, look through for any glaring omissions or places where effort was lacking, and then put the grades right into Blackboard. A grade of “0”…

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