College Math Teaching

March 24, 2020

My teaching during the COVID-19 Pandemic

My university has moved to “online only” for the rest of the semester. I realize that most of us are in the same boat.
Fortunately, for now, I’ve got some academic freedom to make changes and I am taking a different approach than some.

Some appear to be wanting to keep things “as normal as possible.”

For me: the pandemic changes everything.

Yes, there are those on the beach in Florida. That isn’t most of my students; it could be some of them.

So, here is what will be different for me:
1) I am making exams “open book, open note” and take home: they get it and are given several days to do it and turn it back in, like a project.
Why? Fluid situations, living with a family, etc. might make it difficult to say “you HAVE to take it now…during period X.” This is NOT an online class that they signed up for.
Yes, it is possible that some cheat; that can’t be helped.

Also, studying will be difficult to do. So, getting a relatively long “designed as a programmed text” is, well, getting them to study WHILE DOING THE EXAM. No, it is not the same as “study to put it in your brain and then show you know it” at exam time. But I feel that this gets them to learn while under this stressful situation; they take time aside to look up and think about the material. The exam, in a way, is going through a test bank.

2) Previously, I thought of testing as serving two purposes: a) it encourages students to review and learn and b) distinguishing those with more knowledge from those with lesser knowledge. Now: tests are to get the students to learn..of course diligence will be rewarded. But who does well and who does not..those groups might change a little.

3) Quiz credit: I was able to sign up for webassign, and their quizzes will be “extra credit” to build on their existing grade. This is a “carrot only” approach.

4) Most of the lesson delivery will be a polished set of typeset notes with videos. My classes will be a combination of “live chat” with video where I will discuss said notes and give tips on how to do problems. I’ll have office hours ..some combination of zoom meetings which people can join and I’ll use e-mail to set up “off hours” meetings, either via chat or zoom, or even an exchange of e-mails.

We shall see how it works; I have a plan and think I can execute it, but I make no guarantee of the results.
Yes, there are polished online classes, but those are designed to be done deliberately. What we have here is something made up at the last minute for students who did NOT sign up for it and are living in an emergency situation.

January 15, 2020

Applying for an academic job: what I look for in an application

Filed under: academia, editorial, research — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 4:48 pm

Disclaimer: let me be clear: these are MY thoughts. Not everyone is like me.

I have served on several search committees and have chaired several of them as well. My university: an undergraduate university where we have a very modest, but mandatory research requirement (much less than what an R1 has). Teaching loads: mostly service classes; maybe an upper division class; typically 10-12 hours per semester. Service loads are heavy, especially for senior faculty.

These thoughts are for the applicant who wants to be competitive for OUR specific job; they do not apply to someone who just wants to make a blanket application.

General suggestion: Proofread what you submit. You’d be surprised at how many applications contain grammatical mistakes, spelling errors and typos.

Specific suggestions:
Take note of the job you are applying for. We have two types of tenure track positions: assistant professor positions and tenure track lecturer positions.
One can obtain promotion from the assistant professor position; one cannot be promoted from our lecturer position.

Assistant professor position: has a research and service requirement and involves teaching across the curriculum (lower and upper division classes)
Lecturer position: has a service requirement and involves teaching freshman courses..occasionally calculus but mostly pre-calculus mathematics (college algebra, precalculus, perhaps business math, non-calculus based statistics).

Teaching: What I look for is:
1. Relevant experience: how will you do when you walk into the classes YOU are teaching? Can we reasonably predict success from your application?

2. References: if you are applying for the lecturer position, you should have a teaching reference from someone who has observed your teaching in a pre calculus class (algebra, trig, pre calculus, etc.). Letters that say “X is a great teacher” and is followed by the current buzzwords really don’t stand out. Letters that say “I observed X teaching a precalculus class and saw that…” get my attention.

If you are applying for the assistant professor position, I’d like to see the observation from, say, a calculus class.

Observations of how well you lead a graduate student review for the Ph. D. exam on the topology of manifolds really isn’t helpful to us.

3. Teaching statement: I don’t care about all of the hot buzzwords or how you want to make the world a better place. I’d like to see that you thought about how to teach and, even better, how your initial experiences lead to adjustments. Things like “I saw students could not do this type of problem because they did not know X..” catch my eye as do “I tried this..it didn’t work as well as I had hoped so I tried that and it worked better ..” also catch my eye. Also, “students have trouble with these concepts and I have found that they really haven’t mastered…” are also great.

4. Please be realistic: if you ware applying for the lecturer position, it doesn’t help to state your heart is set on directing student research our teaching our complex variables class. If your heart IS really set on these things, this job is not for you.

Research (assistant professor position only) What I am looking for here is someone who won’t die on the vine. So I’d like to see evidence of:

1. Independence: can you work independently? Can you find your own problems to work on? Do you have collaborators already set (if appropriate)? What I mean: you cannot be too advisor dependent at our job, given its limited resources and heavy teaching load. An advisor’s letter that says “student X suggested this problem to work on” stand out in a positive way.

2. Plan: do you have plan moving forward?

3. Realism: you aren’t going to in a Fields Medal or an Abel Prize at our job. You aren’t going to publish in the Annals of Math. If you have your heart set on working on the toughest cutting edge problems, you will likely fail at our place and end up frustrated. And yes..staying current at the cutting edges of mathematics is all but impossible; they best you’ll be able to do is to tackle some of the stuff that isn’t dependent on heavy, difficult to learn machinery. You simply will not have large blocks of uninterrupted time to think.

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.

August 3, 2018

A rant about academic publishing

Filed under: academia, editorial, research — collegemathteaching @ 12:52 am

Ok, it is nearing the end of the summer and I feel as if I am nearing the end of a paper that I have been working on for some time. Yes, I am confident that it will get accepted somewhere, though I will submit it to my “first choice” journal when it is ready to go. I have 6 diagrams to draw up, put in, and then to do yet another grammar/spelling/consistent usage check.

Part of this “comes with the territory” of trying to stay active when teaching at a non-research intensive school; one tends to tackle such projects in “modules” and then try to put them together in a seamless fashion.

But that isn’t my rant.

My rant (which might seem strange to younger faculty):

A long time ago, one would work on a paper and write it longhand and ..if you were a professor, have the technical secretary type it up. Or one would just use a word processor of some sort and make up your Greek characters by hand. You’d submit it, and if it were accepted, the publisher would have it typeset.

Now: YOU are expected to do the typesetting and that can be very time consuming. YOU are expected to make camera ready diagrams.

And guess what: you aren’t paid for your article. The editor isn’t paid. The referee(s) isn’t (aren’t) paid. But the journal still charges subscription fees, sometimes outrageously high fees. And these are the standard journals, not the “fly by night” predatory journals.

This is another case where the professor’s workload went up, someone else’s expense went down, and the professor received no extra benefit.

Yes, I know, “cry me a river”, blah, blah, blah. But in this respect, academia HAS changed and not for the better.

August 1, 2017

Numerical solutions to differential equations: I wish that I had heard this talk first

The MAA Mathfest in Chicago was a success for me. I talked about some other talks I went to; my favorite was probably the one given by Douglas Arnold. I wish I had had this talk prior to teaching numerical analysis for the fist time.

Confession: my research specialty is knot theory (a subset of 3-manifold topology); all of my graduate program classes have been in pure mathematics. I last took numerical analysis as an undergraduate in 1980 and as a “part time, not taking things seriously” masters student in 1981 (at UTSA of all places).

In each course…I. Made. A. “C”.

Needless to say, I didn’t learn a damned thing, even though both professors gave decent courses. The fault was mine.

But…I was what my department had, and away I went to teach the course. The first couple of times, I studied hard and stayed maybe 2 weeks ahead of the class.
Nevertheless, I found the material fascinating.

When it came to understanding how to find a numerical approximation to an ordinary differential equation (say, first order), you have: y' = f(t,y) with some initial value for both y'(0), y(0) . All of the techniques use some sort of “linearization of the function” technique to: given a step size, approximate the value of the function at the end of the next step. One chooses a step size, and some sort of schemes to approximate an “average slope” (e. g. Runga-Kutta is one of the best known).

This is a lot like numerical integration, but in integration, one knows y'(t) for all values; here you have to infer y'(t) from previous approximations of %latex y(t) $. And there are things like error (often calculated by using some sort of approximation to y(t) such as, say, the Taylor polynomial, and error terms which are based on things like the second derivative.

And yes, I faithfully taught all that. But what was unknown to me is WHY one might choose one method over another..and much of this is based on the type of problem that one is attempting to solve.

And this is the idea: take something like the Euler method, where one estimates y(t+h) \approx y(t) + y'(t)h . You repeat this process a bunch of times thereby obtaining a sequence of approximations for y(t) . Hopefully, you get something close to the “true solution” (unknown to you) (and yes, the Euler method is fine for existence theorems and for teaching, but it is too crude for most applications).

But the Euler method DOES yield a piecewise linear approximation to SOME f(t) which might be close to y(t)  (a good approximation) or possibly far away from it (a bad approximation). And this f(t) that you actually get from the Euler (or other method) is important.

It turns out that some implicit methods (using an approximation to obtain y(t+h) and then using THAT to refine your approximation can lead to a more stable system of f(t) (the solution that you actually obtain…not the one that you are seeking to obtain) in that this system of “actual functions” might not have a source or a sink…and therefore never spiral out of control. But this comes from the mathematics of the type of equations that you are seeking to obtain an approximation for. This type of example was presented in the talk that I went to.

In other words, we need a large toolbox of approximations to use because some methods work better with certain types of problems.

I wish that I had known that before…but I know it now. 🙂

April 12, 2016

At long last…

Filed under: academia, editorial — Tags: — collegemathteaching @ 9:17 pm

I’ve been silent on this blog for too long. Part of what is happening: our department is slowly morphing into a “mostly service courses” department due to new regulations on “minimum class size” (set to 10 students for upper division courses). THAT, plus a dearth of “mathematics teaching majors” is hurting our “majors” enrollment.

So it has been “all calculus/all the time” for me lately. Yes, calculus can be fun to teach but after close to 30 years…..zzzzzz….

And it would be unethical for me to try something new just because I am bored.

But I finally have something I want to talk about: next post!

February 9, 2016

An economist talks about graphs

Filed under: academia, economics, editorial, pedagogy, student learning — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 7:49 pm

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Laureate caliber economist (he won whatever they call the economics prize).
Here he discusses the utility of using a graph to understand an economic situation:

Brad DeLong asks a question about which of the various funny diagrams economists love should be taught in Econ 101. I say production possibilities yes, Edgeworth box no — which, strange to say, is how we deal with this issue in Krugman/Wells. But students who go on to major in economics should be exposed to the box — and those who go on to grad school really, really need to have seen it, and in general need more simple general-equilibrium analysis than, as far as I can tell, many of them get these days.

There was, clearly, a time when economics had too many pictures. But now, I suspect, it doesn’t have enough.

OK, this is partly a personal bias. My own mathematical intuition, and a lot of my economic intuition in general, is visual: I tend to start with a picture, then work out both the math and the verbal argument to make sense of that picture. (Sometimes I have to learn the math, as I did on target zones; the picture points me to the math I need.) I know that’s not true for everyone, but it’s true for a fair number of students, who should be given the chance to learn things that way.

Beyond that, pictures are often the best way to convey global insights about the economy — global in the sense of thinking about all possibilities as opposed to small changes, not as in theworldisflat. […]

And it probably doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that our students are, in general, NOT like us. What comes to us naturally probably does not come to them naturally.

February 8, 2016

Where these posts are (often) coming from

Filed under: academia, linear albegra, student learning — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 9:57 pm

books

messydesk

theoffice

Yes, my office is messy. Deal with it. 🙂 And yes, some of my professional friends (an accountant and a lawyer) just HAD to send me their office shots…pristine condition, of course.
(all in good fun!)

Note: this semester I teach 3 classes in a row: second semester “business/life science” calculus, second semester “engineering/physical science” calculus and linear algebra. Yes, I love the topics, but there is just enough overlap that I have to really clear my head between lessons. Example: we covered numerical integration in both of my calculus classes, as well as improper integrals. I have to be careful not to throw in \int^{\infty}_{-\infty} \frac{dx}{1+x^2} as an example during my “life science calculus” class. I do the “head clearing” by going up the stairs to my office between classes.

Linear algebra is a bit tricky; we are so accustomed to taking things like “linear independence” for granted that it is easy to forget that this is the first time the students are seeing it. Also, the line between rigor and “computational usefulness” is tricky; for example, how rigorously do we explain “the determinant” of a matrix?

Oh well…back to some admin nonsense.

January 26, 2016

The walk of shame…but

Filed under: academia, research — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 9:07 pm

Well, I walked to our university library with a whole stack of books that I had checked out to do a project…one which didn’t work out.

But I did check out a new book to get some new ideas…and in the book I found a little bit of my work in it (properly attributed). That was uplifting.

Now to get to work…

September 23, 2015

Intelligence doesn’t show outwardly….

Filed under: academia, editorial — Tags: , — oldgote @ 12:02 pm

This semester has been the “semester from hell” in that I am teaching a class in actuarial mathematics and I have never seen the material before. So I am doing a “self-study” course on my own just ahead of the students.

I’ve done things like this before, but almost always it has been in classes where at least I understood both the notation and the point of the material fairly well.

The upside: I am learning something new.
But one consequence is that I have had little to share on this blog this semester.

I will make one comment though:

I am giving the first exam back in my “calculus II” (of 3) courses. This is the “off semester” which means that I’ll have students who placed out of calculus I and I’ll have those who have either flunked this course once (or several times) or I’ll have some who have been through our remedial calculus preparation program.

Hence, my grading curve looks like a “bathtub” curve.

But, time and time again, I am fascinated by the fact that all of the students, both the smart ones and the not-so-smart ones, “look alike” in that you can not distinguish them by appearance.

This is just the opposite from sports.

In a 5K race, if I see some tiny, slender but muscular person I know that I won’t see them after the start of the race. In the gym, if i see some guy who looks like he was carved out of marble, I know that I’ll be lifting about half of what he will.

But intelligence just doesn’t show in the same way.

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