College Math Teaching

March 24, 2015

The Death of the math major at smaller and non-elite universities …

The situation: like many small. private, decent but non-elite universities, we are facing a student shortage. (1100 new freshmen in our peak year; 1030-1040 was more typical, last year was 950). Of course, our university president decided this was a good time to give athletics 8 million dollars from our university budget and, well, she was encouraged to “retire”.

But many of her hires remain and the deans/administrators are on a kick to “make professors more productive”: that is, to have us teach larger classes. They wanted the following enrollment rules: a minimum of 10 students in every “graduate” class and 15 in every upper division class.

Now our department put forth a proposal for a statistics major. One of the proposed courses (advanced statistical modeling) got this feedback from one of the deans (hired by the outgoing president):

Do I understand this correctly? MTH 438 has a prerequisite of 437, which has a prerequisite of 327, which has a prerequisite, etc. Here is my take on the situation, which you are welcome to set me straight on if I have this wrong. It appears to me that a student starting in MTH 121 (calc 1) must take calc 1, calc 2, calc 3, S&P1, S&P2, and applied statistics, all in sequence, before being eligible for 428. L

Let’s be clear: evidently he thinks that 3 semesters of calculus (the standard at most places) and the basic 2 semester sequence in calculus based probability and statistics, along with a basic modeling class is too much for and advanced statistical modeling class. And: ALL IN SEQUENCE. Wow. One must learn to differentiate before calculating a gradient and one must learn multi-variable integration before calculating the expectation of a function of joint random variables. Oh noes, not that!

If that’s the case, then it would seem there is virtually no room for error, no room for taking a semester “off” to dig into a second major (particularly important for students interested in applied statistics, say in a discipline), no room for something not to be taught off cycle due to sabbatical leaves or other faculty leaves. By the time students are eligible to take this course, they will be seniors or perhaps the odd junior who came in with calculus credit. Thus, the course will need to be taught every year, not every other year, and to very few students. Wouldn’t a more open, less prerequisite-laden curriculum afford students more pathways to complete the major, allow them more flexibility to pursue a second major or minor in a related discipline, and grant you and your department the capacity for more nimble course scheduling and enrollment management?

Uh, maybe, but the students in these “prerequisite free” classes wouldn’t be learning anything. Remember he is complaining about having a CALCULUS and “basic probability and statistics” class as being too much.
It doesn’t help that the associate dean is a biologist who assumes to know more than she does.

But that is the way that the “let’s run the university like a business” is shaping up. There is more money in teaching larger sections of courses which aren’t intellectually demanding. It is becoming about “bodies in the class room”, at least at places like ours.

The bottom line: undergraduate mathematics, at least at the junior/senior level, can’t really be taught in a no-prerequisite fashion. But these prerequisites required courses are going to be lower enrollment courses, at least at places like ours.

So, my prediction is that, by the time I retire (15 years? If I am lucky), the math department will be a “service courses only” department and our mathematics major will die.

Now it is possible that the “math major” might be replaced by a “mathematical sciences” major in which students can cobble together a degree by taking some “heavy applied math content” courses in other disciplines and perhaps an “about math” course in our department in which we teach a few “show-and-tell neat stuff from Scientific American” in which we sling around a few neat words and perhaps present a few power points with neat photos.

But we’ll have bodies in chairs…maybe.

I believe that the math major will continued to be offered at Stanford, MIT and places like Big Ten universities but at places like ours, not so much.

I sure hope that I am wrong.


1 Comment »

  1. The 10 and 15 thing has become a cry for my university, too. I wonder at which conference for administrators this got passed around as the viable pair of numbers.

    Comment by TJ — March 25, 2015 @ 1:35 am

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