Category Archives: Life in academia

February 8, 2012, 11:00 am

Covey on education: Are we superficial?

Here’s a quote from Stephen Covey’s classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which I am reading right now. Covey here is talking about the difference between improving one’s life through the “Character Ethic” (think: Ben Franklin’s autobiography) versus simply changing how you interact with other people without a corresponding shift in your worldview, which he refers to as “technique” or the “Personality Ethic”. All emphases are my own:

To focus on technique is like cramming your way through school. You sometimes get by, perhaps even get good grades, but if you don’t pay the price day in and day out, you never achieve true mastery of the subjects you study or develop an educated mind.

Did you ever consider how ridiculous it would be to try to cram on a farm—to forget to plant in the spring, play all summer and then cram in the fall to bring in the harvest? The farm is…

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February 1, 2012, 7:55 am

Why I believe in technology

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of the day when we received our middle child, Penelope, in China. My wife and mother-in-law traveled to China to receive her and complete the adoption process, while I stayed home with our then-2-year old (who was also adopted from China). Celebrating “Gotcha Day” for our two daughters is always a fun and meaningful time for us. But there’s another anniversary that shares the same date as Penny’s Gotcha Day: It’s the day that I mark as the precise moment in time when I became 100% sold on the power of technology, both in my personal life and in my teaching.

Here’s why:

  • At about 2:00 PM local time in Nanchang, China on January 27 — a Sunday — Penny was brought into the room where my wife and mother-in-law were waiting, and they met for the first time. Lots of pictures were taken with our Canon PowerShot digital camera. This was 2:00 AM local…

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January 18, 2012, 7:12 am

What I learned in 2011: There is always a backstory

Here’s a previous article in an ongoing series of What I Learned in 2011.

While it was still on TV, the show LOST was a favorite of mine. No, that’s not strong enough — it was an obsession. I discovered the show about halfway through its fourth season when I downloaded the series pilot from iTunes on a whim. I was hooked. I proceeded to watch the episodes online at a rate of about one per day — sometimes two or even three — until I caught up. I read the blogs, edited the wiki, listened to the podcasts. I was completely and totally absorbed. And this is coming from a person who otherwise watches TV maybe about an hour a week (modulo football and kids’ shows).

What was it about that show that I found so engaging? For me, the main thing was the deep humanity of the characters. In the first few episodes, it was very easy to pigeonhole them all. Sawyer was the criminal you had to…

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January 3, 2012, 1:59 pm

Three things I learned about teaching by taking a short course

One of the main reasons I’m at the AMS/MAA Joint Meetings this week is to take an MAA short course on discrete and computational geometry. That course is wrapping up this afternoon, and it’s been a good experience. I came into the course with zero knowledge of computational geometry, a within-\(\epsilon\)-of-zero knowledge of algorithms, and an extremely rusty skill set in topology. But I’m coming out with an appreciation for this subject and, hopefully, a basis for pushing farther into the field and eventually contributing something new.

Teachers ought to take courses more often. Apart from being intellectually satisfying, it’s useful to be on the receiving end of academic teaching in one’s own discipline every now and then because it helps you remember what it’s like to be in the shoes of your own students. Here are some things I’ve re-learned about being a student in a math…

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December 22, 2011, 7:27 pm

Unsolicited advice about interviews at the Joint Meetings

The Joint Mathematics Meetings are coming up in Boston during the first week of January. For those outside mathematics, this is a shared conference between the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America and is the “big annual conference” in our discipline. I’ll be attending this year’s meetings somewhat briefly, arriving a couple of days early to take a computational geometry minicourse, giving a talk about clickers in transition-to-proof courses [PDF] on Wednesday, and then heading home Thursday morning. One thing I will not be doing at the Joint Meetings this year is interviewing for jobs. As far as I’m concerned, I’m done forever with that. But I know a lot of folks out there might be interviewing at the meetings, or maybe are a year or two away from doing this, so I thought I might throw out some anecdotes and advice about my experiences in this process…

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December 5, 2011, 7:30 am

The end of the beginning

It’s hard to believe, but we’re entering our last week of Fall classes here at Grand Valley. For those of you who only started reading the blog since it joined the Chronicle blog network in September, this was only my first semester at GVSU. I started here this fall, having left a tenured position at a small liberal arts college where I was on the faculty for ten years, uprooting my wife and three kids to move here to west Michigan in search of a better life for us all. It’s been an eventful time for us since coming here in July and therefore no surprise that fifteen weeks have gone by in what seems like a flash.

I can’t imagine getting off to a better start. My students have been smart, mature, and industrious and it’s been a pleasure to help them learn. My colleagues have been supportive in every way. I’ve really enjoyed the large university environment GVSU offers. My wife’s job…

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December 1, 2011, 8:51 am

Experiments in digital grading

This semester, I made the decision to phase out paper from my professional life. Little by little, and over the course of perhaps a couple of academic years, I hope to shift as much as I can over to digital versions of everything I use in teaching, scholarship, service, and mentoring. There are several reasons I want to do this, but the main thing that convinced me to make the choice to go “as paperless as possible” were my grading practices. At some point during this semester, I became convinced that I simply must move away from paper when dealing with student work. Why? Here are a few reasons:

1. Paper-based student work is cumbersome. More than once this semester, student work has gotten lost or misplaced because it was put into the wrong stack, stapled to the wrong thing, or in one case the staple for one student’s submission got hung on the staple for another student’s submission…

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November 29, 2011, 7:45 am

Four things running has taught me about teaching

This year, I did something new on Thanksgiving: I ran one of those 5K “turkey trot” races on Thanksgiving morning. It was actually the second such race I had done in the space of a week. There’s something invigorating about getting up early and joining a crowd of a few hundred people to buck the temptation to lie in bed or on the couch all day.

Running has been a hobby of mine since my 40th birthday (July 2010). Turning 40, I was overweight and constantly tired, and I decided to do something about it. So I declared I would start training for a 5K, to commence as soon as the birthday party was over. As for how that beginning actually went, I’ll get to that later. For the moment, it’s enough to say that running has always accompanied a reflective mood for me. As I was doing the race on Thursday, I got to thinking about the connections between running and teaching. I think I’ve learned a…

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November 2, 2011, 7:30 am

Was this professor really fired for being too tough?

From Utah, here’s a story about business prof Stephen Maranville who was denied tenure at Utah Valley University, apparently based on student complaints about his use of the Socratic Method. I won’t quote from the article because it’s short — read the whole thing — and because it sounds a lot like other cases where profs have found themselves on the wrong side of student and administrative graces because of grades or pedagogy or both.

Here are my thoughts on this.

1. It can’t be as simple as the meme of: Professor is tough -> Students complain -> Administration caves to student demands -> Prof gets fired. What actually happened in Maranville’s classes? Do we know? There are profs using the Socratic Method all the time, being tough and holding high standards with students not that different from UVU students, who don’t get complaints on this scale or lose tenure. Some of them are…

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September 12, 2011, 7:30 am

Instigation capital

I’m reading Poke the Box right now, an interesting monograph by Seth Godin on the power of initiative and risk-taking. One of the concepts he invents in the book is “instigation capital”:

What can you invest? What can your company invest?

  • Financial capital—Money in the bank that can be put to work on a project or investment.
  • Network capital—People you know, connections you can make, retailers and systems you can plug into.
  • Intellectual capital—Smarts. Software systems. Access to people with insight.
  • Physical capital—Plant and machinery and tools and trucks.
  • Prestige capital—Your reputation.
  • Instigation capital—The desire to move forward. The ability and the guts to say yes.

– Godin, Seth (2011). Poke the Box (p. 12). The Domino Project. Kindle Edition.

He goes on to say that instigation capital is the most important kind of capital in the new economy,…

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