Newsletter #18.9 Sundry Brown Bags

As the quarter's earliest Brown Bags begin to fade gently into the mists of time, my conscience has started caterwauling. Lest either of these escalate any further, I shall attempt herewith at least a sketch of the three excellent discussions that have so far gone unrecorded.

The first was on Portfolio Assessment, and was run for us by Deborah Hatch of CIDR. Teaching portfolios are rumored to be considered desiderata by many institutions with job openings--a rumor due to have been checked out at the Orlando meetings, but I neglected to find out the outcome. In any case, the idea is to put together a file of evidence that one is a Good Teacher. Whether or not the portfolio is a necessary job application ingredient, the putting together of the file is a process from which a good deal of profit can be gained. In order, for instance, to produce evidence that one is teaching well, one must first consider what it is that one considers to be good teaching, and next what would constitute evidence that that is indeed what one is doing. After doing which, regardless of whether anybody actually wants to see the documentation, a job applicant is a good deal less likely to be nonplussed if an interviewer comes up with a question on the subject.

Deborah discussed the above, complete with far more detail than I have included, and showed us a couple of excellent looking references in the area. She also collected some questions from the assembled considerable multitude of graduate students for a follow-up session at their colloquium. That one I can't report on, but I can't imagine, given Deborah's powers of communication and the manifestly high interest level, that it was anything other than a smashing success.

Four weeks later, David Pengelley agreed to take on a Brown Bag. David is on sabbatical (or returning to the fold for a year, depending on the point of view) from New Mexico State University. He began the hour by commenting that he is now eight years into a process of changing his teaching, and beginning to conclude that the end of the process looks uncommonly like something that will happen at or after his retirement from teaching. And that, as I recall, was the last sentence he was allowed to complete. He has tried out a huge battery of different ideas, cheerfully perching himself well out along several branches, and learned a bunch out of each attempt. One of his recurrent themes was that we are far too much hung up on numbers in the evaluation process. Mind you, he is speaking from the vantage point of a university where semester grades are of the A, B, ..., F variety, but most of his theories apply perfectly well here, modulo just a smidgeon of tampering with the system. The issue arose especially in reaction to his statement that most of his grading is done on the basis of projects and journals, and he gives no number grades on either. That's a little deceptive, however, because there is some encoded grading on them. Students know darned well that a string of, for instance, "very good"s is heading them for a B. But they don't get all feisty and pushy about word grades, and begin hassling David to raise them (which has just occasionally been known to occur around here...)

The next obvious query on the subject of assessment by and of projects is how a mere mathematician, trained in the high art of taking off eight points for a conceptual error, but only three for a missed computation, can deal with a situation requiring simply an overall judgment, but one which distinguishes, say, between an excellent paper and a very good one. "Easy", said David, "You just do it! After all, English professors do it constantly." Alternatively put, "Persevere and faith will come to you." Lots of people looked as if they would really enjoy believing that!

Many fascinating details from sundry courses sailed by in the course of the hour, none of them particularly reproducible here. One highly reproducible thing, though, is the underlying message that came through loud and clear: if you have an interesting idea on how to teach something, GO FOR IT! It may take a number of spins along the way and keep you on the jump, but the chances are your students will gain by it, and you are almost guaranteed to have fun.

This is getting out of hand--I had better be sketchy about the most recent Brown Bag. That was the one designed to be the opening salvo in an effort to let the PFF fellows who have been off on the campuses of SU and SCCC fill us in on at least a bit of what they have learned there. John Roth led off with a nice description of SCCC's calculus as taught by Jan Ray in their absolutely fabulous computer-equipped classroom. Students are in groups of four with each such group having the use of two (2) computers, complete with a whole slew of software--though at the level John was watching, they pretty much only used Derive. They do a lot of their work, including quizzes, in the four-group, and also have several fairly large-scale projects to do, taking a week or more, and requiring a fair amount of non-routine thinking. Presumably, since they are in the habit of using the computer as a tool, the students also use them when doing their projects, but it's fairly much of a non-issue.

Meanwhile, over at Seattle U, as observed by Jeff Eldridge and Jon Jay, we have yet another teaching set-up. SU has a bunch of computers, but set up more as a lab than a classroom. Their calculus sections meet in there once a week, but the other three days they are in the classroom, so the computer lab day takes on a special status. They tend to do projects scaled to a single day, and designed specifically to enrich the current material.

One thing that becomes clear out of all this is that there need to be more ways for more of us to hear what our PFF fellows are seeing and doing--they have a lot of interesting things to say. Another is that it would be fun arrange a calculus project fest (like a swap meet!) if we could entice David Pengelly, and a batch of SU and SCCC people into doing it (format at the moment eludes me...)

And the other thing that the has been growing in me is a desire for a discussion of the middle ground in the technology debate. I have listened in at both ends of the spectrum (metaphor??) and am completely willing to accept that there are some valuable things accessible only through computers and/or graphing calculators, and also that there are some valuable things which cannot survive them. What I want to hear is the way--or preferably the range of ways--that people go about maximizing the former while minimizing the latter. The only thing I know for sure is that it isn't likely to be achieved by casually tacking an add-on to an existing course.

Looks like a busy Spring!

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