Newsletter #100     A Hundred!

There's something very compelling about the number 100. This may or may not be the 100th newsletter -- it depends whether the numbers I have skipped and the numbers I have duplicated are suitably balanced -- but by golly it is #100 and as such it cried out for attention. Various friends have made suggestions, the most intriguing being that I write a newsletter consisting of one sentence from each of the previous 99, but I decided in the end to be conventional and just muse gently over what's gone on in the whole period. You could picture me puffing meditatively on a pipe and occasionally gesturing with its stem, but there's a bit of a gender clash to the image, especially since I don't smoke at all, so perhaps that's not too helpful. More accurately, you can picture me reading through the previous 99 and chortling gleefully over the recollection of sundry events and developments. I am clearly going to have to exercise restraint to keep this from being inexcusably bulky.

First off, perhaps a little background is in order. The newsletters began in autumn of 1994, but their origins antedate that. I had returned from a sabbatical two years before determined to show my appreciation for having been permitted to focus on mathematics education by getting the department interested in issues of teaching and learning. As it turned out, the interest was already there -- a huge climate change since my early career, when helping graduate students learn to teach was pretty much a subversive activity. What wasn't there was a general consciousness of how much interest there was. When the colloquium chair and I put together a colloquium by Marj Enneking which was unabashedly about teaching we scheduled it for the smaller of the rooms that were being used that year, on the theory that few would attend -- and there were people sitting on the window sills. That and a few similar events convinced us that the interest deserved nurturing, so we started the Brown Bag seminars -- lunchtime discussions in the Math Lounge whose connecting feature was that the topic had something to do with teaching and learning of mathematics. They still continue, though they've been slightly sparse lately -- slight dry patch in the inspiration well. Discussion launchers have ranged from our own faculty and TA's to professorial guests from far (France, China, ...), near ( across campus) and many points between. Attendance has ranged from two to standing room only -- also with many points between. All in all, the Brown Bags have definitely helped keep things simmering along. What they didn't do was keep people informed about what other people were doing. After some brooding about this situation, I somewhat timidly sent out a note to the department at large saying "If I were to write something about what's going on on the teaching/learning front, would anybody read it?" and 65 people promptly said that they would. I was enormously heartened, and the rest is history -- 99 pieces of history so far. Somewhere along the line I lurched into the modern world by putting the newsletters on the web (at, to be specific.) Unfortunately I haven't made it far enough into the modern world to act on what I know (really I do) to be a fact: that it is easy to update a web page. I note with distress that the page is now a cool year behind. Oh, dear.

That's the history of the newsletters themselves. My real aim, though, was a cruise through their content, with some heavy-duty synoptification to keep things from getting out of hand. I've already brushed past one major on-going topic -- the Brown Bags -- so I will leave them in peace. They're really not subject to synopticizing anyway -- John Conway leaping howling into the air to attract his students' attention and Deborah Hatch from CIDR quietly demonstrating to graduate students how to set up a good job application just don't fit naturally into a single paragraph. Some other things do, however. The PFF, for instance. It also makes an appropriate start, because it was just getting revved up as the newsletters began. Newsletter 20.5 (yes, I did mess up numeration!) gives a summary, but as things turned out, that needs to be squished in the final account, because a lot happened thereafter. Here goes:
In spring of 1994, Doug Lind, then chair, succeeded in getting our department a place in a project funded by the Pew Charitable Foundation, entitled Preparing Future Faculty. The project's objective was to broaden the horizons of graduate students to include teaching and service and other aspects of faculty existence normally kept firmly in the background for them. It was an experiment, and being privately funded it had a marvelously no-holds-barred slant. Our mandate was to think of ways to promote the goal in question, try them out, and report on them so that others might perhaps do likewise. So we did that. Our partners in the effort were Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College. Our centerpiece was a program of sending graduate students out to spend a chunk of time on one of their campuses visiting the classes of someone who had agreed to be their mentor and having a chance to talk with him/her. Closely tied to that was an effort to connect ourselves more closely with both of our partner departments so as to create future opportunities for communication. That effort took a number of forms, but the most dramatic were what we entitled (for acronymic consistency) the Pew Festive Fora -- occasions when some visiting luminary would make a presentation at one or another of the three campuses and then folks from all three would stay on for dinner and a chance to talk with each other about the lecture or anything else that came to hand. Myself, I'd say we did some pretty good bonding on those occasions, not to mention having a really good time! A further development that occurred a couple of quarters into the project was a series of dinner-discussions among graduate students and UW faculty, resulting from the realization that while we were sending graduate students out to find out about faculty life on other campuses they in fact knew remarkably little about life on our own -- or in fact we about life as a graduate student here and now. That produced another web page summarizing the conversations (and, like the newsletter one, now in arrears...):

Other outcomes of the Pew grant were more individual, and some settled into permanence while others disappeared. The original grant iself ended after two years, but the Graduate School, which had sponsored UW's involvement, continued funding some graduate student visits to SU and SCCC for a couple of years. And just as that ran out the NSF decided to fund another round and Jack Lee (then Graduate Advisor) nabbed us one. The basic activities were much the same, and a new generation of graduate students benefited thereby. Now that, too, has expired, and the splashier aspects (like the Festive Fora) seem unlikely to recur. We're working, though, to find ways of continuing some of the other aspects. Future newsletters should reveal whether we succeed!

Onward: about the time the first PFF grant was running out, another grant ran in -- this one for a huge NSF project involving not only the Mathematics Department but also the College of Education and six school districts around Lake Washington. It was called Creating a Community of Mathematics Learners, or CCML, and it focused on secondary school teachers. A couple of years later its existence helped usher in another NSF project, this one entitled Expanding the Community of Mathematics Learners, or (you guessed it) ECML, working with elementary school teachers in the same six districts. Ramesh Gangolli and I have had the privilege of working on both of those (in fact, i think his powers of communicating in DC what it was we planned and why it was reasonable to trust us to do it had a lot to do with the grants' coming our way.) There developed a strong working relationship between us, the College of Education -- first Jack Beal, then Elham Kazemi-- and the mathematical elements of the school districts -- notably Gini Stimpson,then from Mercer Island, and Chris Fraley from Lake Washington -- a relationship which would be highly worthwhile even without what it produced. And what it produced was huge: we ran summer institutes and school-year workshops, we organized retreats and in-school seminars and campus visits, we got to know and value a vast number of teachers from all around the lake. More importantly, they got to know and value each other. The world of K-12 teaching provides shockingly little opportunity for professional discourse with colleagues. All in all, high intensity and highly rewarding and very much of a learning experience. Part of the learning, of course, was that some of our goals were unduly idealistic, but other parts included some unexpected successes, which helped keep things in balance. CCML is now in the seventh of its five years (i.e., definitely finishing up) but ECML is in its fourth year and going strong, with growth and development regularly popping up. Expect to hear more!
One gorgeous spin-off which nobody could possibly have predicted resulted from a conversation that Loyce Adams in Applied Math had with a district mathematics coordinator at an early CCML event. By a route which I will make no effort to retrace, this conversation led to a project now in its third year of placing graduate students in a carefully selected few elementary and middle school classrooms to help teachers who request that help as they make the transition from traditional texts to the far more mathematically demanding new curricula. Huge benefits to the teachers, the kids -- and the graduate students.

So all the exciting events of these years have resulted from infusions of outside grant money? No way! A large number have been purely homegrown. One obvious example is Math Day, which originated well before the newsletters and is still going strong. It brings around 1200 high school students from all over the state to campus for a day during spring break, to attend some lectures, take part in some activities, discover the UW campus (we try to arrange for the cherry trees to be in bloom), find out that mathematicians are real live human beings who even carry signs saying "Follow me to the Computer Science Lab", and in general have a good time. Another is calculus reform, which deserves a paragraph of its own.

At time of Newsletter #1, our calculus program had a distinctive flavor, with some dramatic strengths, but also some difficulties. Interesting philosophical debate was the order of the day and, given the nature of academia, could still be going on now. Two factors propelled us beyond the debate stage: a large enough number of faculty members were not comfortable teaching the existing calculus series to make it difficult to cover the sections of it, and a large enough number of students were complaining to cause the university administration to begin to growl at us in a manner that it seemed unwise to ignore. Clearly change was needed. Equally clearly the change needed to be well thought out and carefully instituted. With some creaking of the harness, a process was set in motion which included visits by members of our faculty to other campuses, visits by faculty members from elsewhere to our department, and many, many hours of deliberation. The resulting decisions involved splitting the course in three, changing the textbook, diminishing section size and restructuring section time. Probably other things, too, but that's enough to give the general impression. We're now well into the second year of the new set-up. I'm not in close contact with the situation myself, but the report presented at a September faculty meeting certainly wowed me. Especially the footnote: in the course of last year, the dean's office received one (1) complaint about calculus.

There's one more ongoing item which is not merely homegrown but grown by me, with strong and essential departmental support. That's WaToToM, otherwise known as Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics. Annually a bunch of folks who teach future teachers at institutions all over our splendid state converge upon the Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth and spend an entire week-end talking with each other about what we're doing and what we're thinking of trying and what we have tried and how well it has or hasn't worked. Also in recent years about what we see as state-wide issues and some of the things we feel the state should be doing. We also (let's not sound too totally task-oriented) have a bit of time for cross-country skiing and hot-tubbing, not to mention lots of time for consuming phenomenal meals. It's a highly enjoyable event that seems to me to be contributing a lot to connecting up what used to be a totally non-communicating collection of people with a lot of important interests in common, and it would not be happening without the department's sponsorship.

And that, according to my newsletter-bulk-meter, is quite enough content for a single newsletter. On the other hand, in the course of brushing up on the preceding 99, I ran across a number of quotations which I had totally fogotten, and which need no context to be appreciated. I shall conclude by trotting out a few of my favorites:

The Seven Deadly Myths of Mathematics:

  1. Mathematics is static.
  2. Mathematicians are 1-dimensional.
  3. Theorems come ready-made.
  4. Mathematicians never make mistakes.
  5. Math teachers solve every problem perfectly.
  6. Mathematics is for boys.
  7. Every day new poems and novels are written in English; every day current events contribute to History; every day new discoveries further the Physical Sciences; BUT Mathematics has been finished for a long time.

The dilemma of the mathematics teacher: I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you think you heard is not exactly what I meant.

I'm not worried. It's not my problem--the hole's in your end of the boat.

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