Newsletter #13     MER Forum and Treisman visit

I'm going to turn the tables on you and start this newsletter off by requesting information rather than dealing it out. The situation is that we are about to have a visitor with a message and I am in need of help locating the people (of whom I suspect there are a lot) to whom her message would be of particular interest.
The visitor is Eva Browder, and the message is about the Gelfand Outreach Program in Mathematics. The program is the brain child of the Russian mathematician I.M. Gelfand, and was originally born (hmmm) in Moscow, where it grew and throve nicely for thirty years until he up and emigrated. Now he and some collaborators have adapted it for American students, apparently quite successfully. Eva is an outreacher for the program (I guess the technical term is consultant) and would love to talk with people, preferably informally. Have you any suggestions to offer?

Well, now that I have sidled onto the e-waves, I had better not sidle back off without filling in a bit on the two hunks of news that have been sitting around mellowing for a couple of weeks, to wit MER and Uri Treisman. I shall be chronological.

The MER (= Mathematicians and Educational Reform) Network is an organization that has been running workshops, special sessions at the joint mathematical meetings and a newsletter since 1988 to promote communication among people in math departments with an interest in the teaching/learning side of the field. A year and half ago, it expanded its horizons and started a network among university math departments. The first workshop at this level happened last year in Austin, and the second happened May 4-7 of this year in Santa Barbara. There were teams (or were we task forces?) from about a dozen universities, including Michigan and Rutgers and Arizona and Texas and Nebraska--and, of couse, Washington. The primary (though not exclusive) focus this year was graduate programs. One consequence of this was that teams were encouraged to include graduate students (Brian Hopkins filled the role admirably), which turned out to be such a successful ploy that I have a shrewd suspicion it may become a fixture. The format included some sessions where all 40-50 participants were together and more where we were subdivided by status, interest or region.I particularly enjoyed one on assessment (somewhat sparsely attended--it's everybody's nightmare!) because there was a nice balance of areas where we all moaned together about the impossibility of it all and areas where one university or another actually had something going. Though I confess I felt one discussor put an awful notch in his credibility by seeming TOO happy with their student evaluation questions.

Other areas that came more within the scope of the official focus included ways of making graduate study more pleasant and profitable for students, not to mention preparing them for life after graduate school (our PFF information caught a lot of attention). There were a lot of interesting reports on things done by and for graduate students--Nebraska has a "buddy" system quite firmly in place; elsewhere the graduate students have collaborated on producing a book on "How to Get a Job"; someone suggested distributing minutes of faculty meetings to graduate students as a means of diminishing the isolation factor; and a lot of information got exchanged about forms of and expectations for qualifying exams and prelims. Most concretely, plans were made for a possible exchange of graduate student visitors among us and our "neighboring" institutions (Nebraska and the University of Illinois at Chicago!) and a probable special session by and for graduate students at the summer joint meetings here in 1996.

Onward. Sunday the 7th marked the end of the MER workshop and the beginning of a whirlwind two days of Treisman Visit. Uri Treisman, formerly of Berkeley and now of UT at Austin, wears many fascinating hats, but was here mainly in connection with the Emerging Scholars programs (which are more generally known as Treisman programs). These are programs now going on at a good many universities with a primary goal of making a major in mathematics accessible and feasible for bright students whose background puts them at an academic disadvantage (generally underrepresented minorities, but Kentucky's program for rural white students is a big success.) The spin-off which makes the programs all the more appealing is that they tend to liven up the math major scene across the boards, producing both increased numbers of majors and increased intensity of interest. Uri discussed the program--its origin, objectives, functioning and current track record--from various perspectives first at a dinner for a collection of interested people from on and off campus, then at a departmental colloquium, then at an evening lecture for the public at large (which was video-taped and will be broadcast, I believe, on the university channel.) In between, he spoke about graduate programs, informally and with a perfect focus, at a luncheon for PFF participants. After the public lecture, he answered everybody's questions until the reception for him was over, handed Doug a batch of written materials about his programs, and hopped on the red-eye for Austin. What a dynamo!

Enough. I'm exhausted just writing about the man (only retroactively, mind you--the visit was a kick!) My Brown Bag Synopsification account is a little in the red, but not as much as you might think, because one of them featured Doug and Brian (and Tom Duchamp in absentia) discussing MER, and lots of people discussing Treisman, and that's what I just de-synoptified or re-synoptified or...oh, never mind!

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