Newsletter #74     The New Orleans Joint Meetings

Every now and then I am struck anew by the speed with which I can re-normalize my views. The most recent such striking occurred at the New Orleans Joint Meetings, from which I have just returned. Part way through the meeting I found myself muttering and mumbling that I was having too frequently to miss something I really wanted to get to because there was something else at the same time that I wanted to get to more. Fortunately I caught myself before I got too grumpy about it. It came to me that ten years ago I wasn't even thinking about going to the Joint Meetings because I knew there would be very little that interested me. It wasn't until the MER began running special sessions that I even considered going. Then when Steve Monk gave the inaugural address in an AMS series on Mathematics Education I started looking hard at the possibilities. Four years ago I attended my first Joint Meeting and was pleased to find that there were indeed several sessions besides the MER ones that had items of interest to me. And now I'm already complaining because there are too many! (Admittedly my interests have broadened a bit...) One could even apply the same algorithm to the conversation issue, since this time I missed a number of opportunities to talk with people I would have loved to catch up with because I was enjoying conversations with other people too much -- but at least the grumpiness factor didn't catch me there!

All of which makes it clear that this newsletter is going to require me to do some high-spot-hitting. I'll start with the first such spot, but hit it quite lightly, since it is about to turn itself into an AWM column, which (I fondly hope) will follow closely on the heels of this. That was the panel on K-8 Education which the AWM sponsored on Wednesday afternoon. I was on it, which made it also a high-adrenaline spot for me, but the thing I found most exciting was my fellow panelists. That's one bunch of people with whom I could happily have conversed away the entire rest of the afternoon. And the neat thing was the way that from four quite different perspectives we found we were presenting the exact same views. Hats off to Suzanne Lenhart, who arranged it. The only painful thing (and this one was legitimate) was that it coincided with what must have been a really terrific talk by Hyman Bass and Deborah Ball on "Using Mathematics in Teaching: what do teachers and mathematicians need to learn?"

Thursday had a particularly high density of interesting sessions combined with a particularly high density of conversation opportunities, and my natural priorities demonstrated themselves unambiguously by the degree to which the latter dominated my actual day. I suspect I learned a lot more that way, in fact, but none of it in reportable form.

Friday morning I enjoyed several brief sessions on Classroom Demonstrations and Course Projects That Make a Difference (couldn't possibly resist something entitled "The Mystery of the Francois Vase: a Calculus Project"!) I also very much appreciated the existence of another MAA session which I didn't attend: a whole morning of reports on Outreach Programs for Women and Girls, run by our own Kathy Sullivan (Seattle University might cavil at that possessive, but after five years of PFF activities I feel our-own-ish about quite a lot of people at SU and SCCC!)

By this time I was beginning to feel sufficiently meeting-saturated to wonder whether the task of commanding my attention might be an unfair one to present anybody with, but I nonetheless took myself off to a session on Integrating Mathematics and Other Disciplines -- and it was great! Also jammed, which was interesting -- I hadn't realized how much interest people would take in the subject. Lots of ideas, including some I can apply in Math 107, but the course I most wished I could sit in on was one on the novels of Jorge Luis Borges, jointly taught by professors of Math, Spanish and Library Science at Kennesaw State University. Cool!

Obviously that was going to use up my powers of concentration -- but no! an hour later came a lecture by Steve Monk (which I came appallingly close to not noticing in my program.) It took a latte and 45 minutes of brisk walking along the Mississippi to uncross my eyes, but I got myself there and was most glad of it. Steve used a videotape of a few minutes of conversation in which three women are working on decoding a chunk of a velocity graph to illustrate his tenet that efforts to penetrate the haze of student conversation and discern the state of the students' conceptual knowledge have a potential that is limited by the fact that that knowledge is a moving target. It's not just sitting there, it is being built.

On top of that, even Saturday was not eventless. In fact, the session I went to in the morning was downright riveting. It seems the NRC (= National Research Council -- in effect an arm of the National Academy of Sciences) was commissioned a few years ago to produce a study on the state of mathematical learning in grades K-8. They assembled an absolute powerhouse of a committee, with National Academy level mathematicians, hot-shot mathematics educators, at least one active classroom teacher and a businessman, and turned them loose. The panelists felt that their hands were slightly tied as far as Saturday's presentation went, because the official unveiling of the report won't happen until January 24 and there were heavy restrictions on what they could reveal, but it was enough to glue me to their web page on the 24th. Also to induce in me a heartfelt wish that I could have been a fly on the wall at their committee's meetings as they arrived at consensus on a fascinating array of highly loaded issues (not, mind you, a wish to have been on the committee -- the amount of work must have been incredible!)

I rounded out the Meetings by being on another panel -- this time for the PFF. Since everyone in the room turned out to be either a PFF participant or a friend of one, the adrenaline demands were considerably less than for the previous panel, but it was certainly pleasant to find out what was up elsewhere. The best part for me, though, was the support of the three UW PFFers who responded to my SOS. Linda Martin, in particular, mentioned a number of ways in which her PFF experience had strengthened both her application to and activities on the faculty of Albuquerque Community College of which I had been unaware. A lovely finish for a most excellent Joint Meeting. --

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