Category Archives: Profhacks

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…

Read More

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…

Read More

February 28, 2011, 8:00 am

How I make screencasts: Chapter 0

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/olaerik/

Since I started to put serious amounts of time and effort into screencasting last summer, I’ve gotten a lot of requests to blog about how I go about making these things. Starting with this post, I’m going to do a multi-part series here about making screencasts — or at least how I make screencasts, which is a long way from perfect or canonical, but it’s what people asked for! I hope it’s useful for people who are interested in this kind of thing and need some pointers; and I hope too that those with more experience and better ideas than I have can share.

First, let’s start with a few FAQ’s.

Q: What is a screencast?

A: A screencast is a video of stuff that is happening on your computer screen. There is often, but not always, some kind of voiceover happening in…

Read More

November 15, 2010, 9:17 pm

Technology FAIL day

This morning as I was driving in to work, I got to thinking: Could I teach my courses without all the technology I use? As in, just me, my students, and a chalk/whiteboard with chalk/markers? As I pulled in to the college, I thought: Sure I could. It just wouldn’t be as good or fun without the tech.

Little did I know, today would be centered around living that theory out:

  • I planned a Keynote presentation with clicker questions to teach the section on antiderivatives in Calculus. As soon as I tried to get the clickers going, I realized the little USB receiver wasn’t working. Turns out, updating Mac OS X to v10.6.5 breaks the software that runs the receiver. Clicker questions for this morning: Out the window. Hopefully I’ll find a useable laptop for tomorrow, when I’m using even more clicker questions.
  • Also in calculus, the laptop inexplicably went into presenter mode when I tried to…

Read More

October 16, 2010, 1:47 pm

Course evaluations: The more, the merrier

This post at ProfHacker reminded me to write about something I’m trying this semester in my calculus classes (the only freshman-level class I have right now). I’m giving not one but four course evaluations during the semester. I’ve given midterm evaluations on occasion in the past, but it seemed to me that even twice a semester isn’t really enough. So, I’m giving evaluations at the end of the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth weeks of the semester.

The first three of these are informal and very loosely structured. They each have three basic questions:

  1. What do you LOVE about this course?
  2. What do you HATE about this course?
  3. If you could change ONE THING about this course, what would it be?

The 6- and 9-week evaluations have two additional questions: What’s changed for the BETTER since the last evaluation? and What’s changed for the WORSE since the last evaluation? In week 12,…

Read More

June 14, 2010, 7:36 am

Random observation about workflow and life

It used to be, in graduate school and in my early career, that I really couldn’t get any serious work done unless I had large, uninterrupted slabs of time to work with. I had to have 3-4 straight hours, at least, if I wanted to read a journal article, work on research, or get grading done.

But increasingly, it seems like, in my work at a small liberal arts college, this ideal of monolithic slabs of time with which to work has become unlikely. There’s always the out-of-nowhere fire to put out, the meeting that gets scheduled in the middle of a big block of time, the unexpected student dropping by, and so on. Having kids makes the fragmentation of time even more common and pronounced.

However, I’ve noticed something since being mostly at home with my 6-, 4-, and 1-year olds this summer so far: Not only can I count on frequent interruptions if I try to sit down and work on things, I…

Read More

February 21, 2010, 9:30 pm

Five reasons you should use LaTeX and five tips for teaching it

Over the weekend a minor smack-talk session opened up on Twitter between Maria Andersen and about half a dozen other math people about MathType versus \(\LaTeX\). Maria is on record as being pro-MathType and yesterday she claimed that \(\LaTeX\) is “not intuitive to learn”.  I warned her that a pro-\(\LaTeX\)  blog post was in the offing with those remarks, and so it comes to this. \(\LaTeX\) is accessible enough that every math teacher and every student in a math class at or above Calculus can (and many should) learn \(\LaTeX\) and use it for their work. I have been using \(\LaTeX\) for 15 years now and have been teaching it to our sophomore math majors for five years. I can tell you that students can learn it, and learn to love it.

Why use \(\LaTeX\) when MathType is already out there, bundled with MS Word and other office programs, tempting us with its…

Read More

February 8, 2010, 7:00 am

A simple idea for publishers to help students (and themselves)

OXFORD, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08:  A student reads...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I’m doing some research, if you can call it that, right now that involves looking at past editions of popular and/or influential calculus books to track the evolution of how certain concepts are developed and presented. I’ll have a lot to say on this if I ever get anywhere with it. But in the course of reading, I have been struck with how little some books change over the course of several editions. For example, the classic Stewart text has retained the exact wording and presentation in its section on concavity in every edition since the first, which was released in the mid-80′s. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with a particular way of doing things, if it works; but you have to ask yourself, does it really work? And if so, why are we now on the sixth edition of the book? I know that books need refreshing from time to time, but five times in 15…

Read More

February 6, 2010, 7:26 am

Handling the opening moments of a course

Classes started for us this week. It’s gotten me thinking about what profs do on the first day of class and their overall concepts for how to approach the first few days of a class, where students form those crucial first impressions about the course and the instructor. Here’s my overall approach:

  • I prefer a quick, energetic launch directly into the course material. I spend maybe the first 7-10 minutes on course structure. Then we start right into the course content through a lecture/activity combination.
  • To help with the first point, I will often create screencasts for some of the course management stuff (like this screencast for how to navigate Moodle) and email students the links to these, often before the first class meets.
  • I do not go in for icebreakers, get-to-know-you activities, exercises intended to discover students Myers-Briggs types or learning styles, or any of that. Not…

Read More

January 13, 2010, 7:30 am

Daily routines

John Cook shared this interesting article on Twitter the other day. It lists 25 great thinkers and their daily rituals. This got me thinking about my daily routine, the little rituals that I observe, and how the rhythms of a routine help me find balance, stability, and productivity in my life and work. I’ve seen the value of a routine through my kids (ages 6, 4, and 1), who early on needed routines to help them learn day from night and know when to eat and nap, and who still need to stick to a routine or else become incorrigible.

While having three kids this young makes routines and rituals more a matter of probability than anything and routines hard to follow, there are a few rituals I like to keep around no matter what happens:

  • I get up at 5:00, and from 5:30-6:15 I do Matins from the Treasury of Daily Prayer, eat breakfast, and get all the stuff the kids need for school that day as…

Read More