College Math Teaching

December 21, 2018

Over-scheduling of senior faculty and lower division courses: how important is course prep?

It seems as if the time faculty is expected to spend on administrative tasks is growing exponentially. In our case: we’ve had some administrative upheaval with the new people coming in to “clean things up”, thereby launching new task forces, creating more committees, etc. And this is a time suck; often more senior faculty more or less go through the motions when it comes to course preparation for the elementary courses (say: the calculus sequence, or elementary differential equations).

And so:

1. Does this harm the course quality and if so..
2. Is there any effect on the students?

I should first explain why I am thinking about this; I’ll give some specific examples from my department.

1. Some time ago, a faculty member gave a seminar in which he gave an “elementary” proof of why \int e^{x^2} dx is non-elementary. Ok, this proof took 40-50 minutes to get through. But at the end, the professor giving the seminar exclaimed: “isn’t this lovely?” at which, another senior member (one who didn’t have a Ph. D. had had been around since the 1960’s) asked “why are you happy that yet again, we haven’t had success?” The fact that a proof that \int e^{x^2} dx could not be expressed in terms of the usual functions by the standard field operations had been given; the whole point had eluded him. And remember, this person was in our calculus teaching line up.

2. Another time, in a less formal setting, I had mentioned that I had given a brief mention to my class that one could compute and improper integral (over the real line) of an unbounded function that that a function could have a Laplace transform. A junior faculty member who had just taught differential equations tried to inform me that only functions of exponential order could have a Laplace transform; I replied that, while many texts restricted Laplace transforms to such functions, that was not mathematically necessary (though it is a reasonable restriction for an applied first course). (briefly: imagine a function whose graph consisted of a spike of height e^{n^2} at integer points over an interval of width \frac{1}{2^{2n} e^{2n^2}} and was zero elsewhere.

3. In still another case, I was talking about errors in answer keys and how, when I taught courses that I wasn’t qualified to teach (e. g. actuarial science course), it was tough for me to confidently determine when the answer key was wrong. A senior, still active research faculty member said that he found errors in an answer key..that in some cases..the interval of absolute convergence for some power series was given as a closed interval.

I was a bit taken aback; I gently reminded him that \sum \frac{x^k}{k^2} was such a series.

I know what he was confused by; there is a theorem that says that if \sum a_k x^k converges (either conditionally or absolutely) for some x=x_1 then the series converges absolutely for all x_0 where |x_0| < |x_1| The proof isn’t hard; note that convergence of \sum a_k x^k means eventually, |a_k x^k| < M for some positive M then compare the “tail end” of the series: use |\frac{x_0}{x_1}| < r < 1 and then |a_k (x_0)^k| = |a_k x_1^k (\frac{x_0}{x_1})^k| < |r^k|M and compare to a convergent geometric series. Mind you, he was teaching series at the time..and yes, is a senior, research active faculty member with years and years of experience; he mentored me so many years ago.

4. Also…one time, a sharp young faculty member asked around “are there any real functions that are differentiable exactly at one point? (yes: try f(x) = x^2 if x is rational, x^3 if x is irrational.

5. And yes, one time I had forgotten that a function could be differentiable but not be C^1 (try: x^2 sin (\frac{1}{x}) at x = 0

What is the point of all of this? Even smart, active mathematicians forget stuff if they haven’t reviewed it in a while…even elementary stuff. We need time to review our courses! But…does this actually affect the students? I am almost sure that at non-elite universities such as ours, the answer is “probably not in any way that can be measured.”

Think about it. Imagine the following statements in a differential equations course:

1. “Laplace transforms exist only for functions of exponential order (false)”.
2. “We will restrict our study of Laplace transforms to functions of exponential order.”
3. “We will restrict our study of Laplace transforms to functions of exponential order but this is not mathematically necessary.”

Would students really recognize the difference between these three statements?

Yes, making these statements, with confidence, requires quite a bit of difference in preparation time. And our deans and administrators might not see any value to allowing for such preparation time as it doesn’t show up in measures of performance.


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