Friday, September 30, 2005

Nice weather means a nice day

The weather is beautiful, finally. Things are finally cooling off; we're around 70 with sunshine today, and everything is still green. It's a slow start to Fall. (I finally did see some leaves falling off trees last week.)

It's days like this that make me want to do nothing, which I've been fairly successful at so far. Oh I posted grades for my students (today is the last day to drop), but that involved a second trip home to retrieve a stack of papers I left behind. During the trip, I dropped my rent check and had to go back to retrieve it, making a second trip home and back in one day. But that just meant some time sailing along the area streets with the windows down, noticing that the weather is nice.

Last weekend was a little intense, since I had tons of tests to grade. The rest of the week got sort of crushed under trying to keep up with the opportunities I offered for bonus points after the tests. (The tests were a little disappointed.) But that's all over now, and this weekend can be a little slower. Next weekend I'm planning on making another trip to Atlanta, so I guess I have to get a little ahead. But at the moment, I'm feeling lazy. After a week as long as this one, I think I'll do nothing for a while. Which is probably what I'm best at.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Why I don't like Tuesdays

This semester I spend Tuesday afternoons at a computer/tutoring lab. My primary purpose for being there is to work with a group of students in a class I'm teaching. The students are learning about calculus through numerical and graphical work using computer software. (This counts as their third day a week; the other two class days meet in a regular classroom.) I give a brief introduction to techniques they need to know, then send them out to work on a worksheet in small groups at a computer. I (supposedly) answer questions when they are stuck.

Unfortunately, my students end up scattered across the computer lab (which is large), and I'm not always sure where they are. Also, while working there, I'm supposed to answer questions from any student in the lab, about any math class, and not just the students I'm working with. So I spend most of my time answering questions from the elementary calculus class which is now entirely on-line. (They have one teacher to cover about 1,000 students, so it's not surprising that she can't cover all the questions.) When the department has several large classes over there with many confused students and only one teacher, and the department insists that (a) students from the class cannot all be seated in one area, and (b) everyone has to answer all questions, then I begin to suspect that my real teaching load is actually a few more classes than show up on my course schedule.

Days vary with that class, but yesterday was a bad one. Students had an quiz problem to practice that was very difficult for them, so I saw the problem many times. One reason it was so difficult was that it required remembering how to divide polynomials, which was covered in the previous course.

Yesterday also included a fair number of people who had a list of questions ready for me when they got my attention. When this happens, I end up answering questions from one student for 20-30 minutes as it continues with "Wait--I had another problem I didn't know how to do." (Help available at the lab is supposed to be brief help with whatever the student is having trouble with at the moment. More detailed tutoring is available elsewhere.) I'm not a fan of the list-keepers. Maybe I need to learn to give more confusing answers to the first question so they will send me away and try to get someone else when I'm gone.

Truth be told, I'm more comfortable working with a student for an extended period than just running from student to student answering quick questions. In fact, on days when I just have to work the lab in general (and don't feel responsible for any particular groups of students), I sometimes regain my sanity by ditching the rules and handling the help in my own way. I sometimes just sit down and spend some time with a student going over everything they're doing in detail. No one is really keeping track of how long I spend with a student, so no one probably notices that I haven't moved in a while. I may get some slack on this anyway, since I seem to be known as the answer guy. I'm one of the only people working at the lab who has a PhD (most of the staff are undergraduates, graduate students, or instructors with masters degrees), and I seem to be one of the few people in the department comfortable with answering software questions.

But yesterday I had students I was responsible for, and so I tried to keep moving. It didn't help much. All told, I spent very little time with students I actually came with yesterday; most of my time ended up with the online calculus course. I can only assume someone else helped students. Maybe it was the teacher with the online calculus course.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A minor annoyance, and something enjoyable

Sigh. Apparently bots have found my (very minor) blog, and I've started getting comments that are really ads for websites and such. So I've turned on "word recognition", which requires commenters to type a word displayed in a graphic before they can comment. Sorry about that if you'd like to add a comment, but it shouldn't be too bad.

On the other hand, I just upgraded my Mac to OS 10.4 (Tiger) this weekend, and I'm really liking it. I skipped the last update, so I have quite the host of new features. For those of you who are Mac fans and know what I'm talking about: I'm really liking Expose, Dashboard is really growing on me surprisingly quickly, and the jury is still out on Spotlight. (Spotlight is somewhat less speedy than I was led to believe, and it has failed to find some things at all.)

Spiritual Enlightenment on Bathroom Walls

This is just a quick one. While running to the restroom today, I found the following amongst all the usual graffiti (which usually alternates among personal ads for sex acts, drawings of genitalia of both genders, and "DIE FAGS!!):
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7.
Now OK, it's a bit out of place, but this is truly lovely. It turns out that the passage goes on with some other really nice stuff:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.
(I looked it up.) These are beautiful passages, and striking. (One person I know translated the first as "Don't worry, be happy," which is probably reasonable if a little less poetic.) A god that is a god of peace, and passes it on to his believers when they have worries. A god that will help you resolve your problems, if you pray to him. I like that.

I sort of wonder why I don't see more passages like this from evangelicals trying to gain converts. I find most of the commonly used passages fall completely flat, unless you already believe. (I particularly like the passages shown to us infidels that are the equivalent of "Everything written on this piece of paper is true.") But this passage has a certain beauty and a certain appeal in and of itself. It's the closest anything ever came to "converting" me, but still, atheist I remain.

But it does at least make me want to believe.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Salt and Toxins

This semester I'm teaching a differential equations course. It's kind of fun. (Don't tell my students, but I didn't take this as an undergraduate. I actually learned most of this when I taught the course for the first time about four years ago.)

We just recently finished a section on modeling, which includes so-called mixing problems. Generally, there is a tank containing some solution (often salt dissolved in water), and some inflow and outflow of solution with differing concentrations. The idea is to model how the concentration of the solution in the tank changes based on the concentration of the incoming solution and what is allowed to flow out of the tank. A common problem is a "flushing" problem, where we start with a mixture in the tank at some concentration, and have clean water flowing in while the mixture flows out. Over time, the concentration in the tank will approach zero, "flushing" the tank.

It's a nifty application, and the approach to modeling with differential equations is (I think) pretty clever. One thing I like about this application is it has a nice application to environmental issues. The same idea is often used to model pollution levels in a lake, given that there is some inflow and outflow to the lake in the form of rivers or streams. In fact, I was once involved with creating a web-based module focusing on the application. I like the fact that in some sense this is a mathematical problem that might lead people to think about broader social implications about clean water and environmental protection.

There's a problem like this in our text that talks about two inter-connected lakes, one feeding into the next. At the start of the problem, it says 1000 pounds of a toxin is spilled into the first lake, and the task is to model the levels of the toxin in the two lakes over time. However, I noticed something in the solution set developed in our department: The solution immediately starts talking about the concentration of salt in the lakes. I found this oddly disturbing, but no more so than discovering many of my students did the same thing when solving the problem.

Now while I know salt is not really considered a health food, I think switching from "toxins" to "salt" is a pretty significant change. Obviously the model looks the same either way, but it means very different things for actual lakes. Perhaps nobody really takes this problem particularly seriously. It sort of bothers me that there's a glib attitude towards polluting lakes, even if they're imaginary ones.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Meet Ooga-Booga

We math people on the fourth floor of this building are unusual, in that we have our own personal god. (Well, OK, we are unusual in a number of other ways, but the existence of a personal god is the one I wish to address at this time.) I would like you meet Ooga-Booga, a giant, amorphous, ghost-like being who dispenses wrath on the deserving. He says hello. He is pleased to meet you.

Ooga-booga is the original creation of my office-neighbor, who drew on our white board a picture of Ooga-Booga attacking a college which had turned me down for a job about a year and a half ago. (We are a loyal group up here.) Ooga-booga is an angry god, who rains down green, lightning-bolt shaped "zotting rays." (They make the sound "zot!") We have determined that zotting rays make things burn and shrink at the same time. This makes clean up after Ooga-booga's rampage so much easier--everything (and everyone) destroyed can be dropped into a relatively small hole and buried. The theological origins of the shrinking power of zots involve problems in getting appropriate scales for drawings on the white board.

When I encountered job hunting problems, Ooga-Booga has appeared on the white board to take vengeance for me, as if by magic. When someone else encountered hiring problems, Ooga-Booga zotted the offending parties on the white board. Paper sketches have started filling the common-room door. Ooga-Booga now has a family, including a son (little Oogie), who he apparently goes skeet shooting with (using zots, of course). Ooga-Booga enjoys listening to his iZot shuffle ("total chaos made even more random, starting at $99.") When my office-neighbor had his nearby apartment building bought out and had to move, we learned that "Ooga-Booga hates moving." (He zotted the old apartment building. We engaged in a theological debate for a while as to whether the shrinking nature of zots were an aid in packing.) When my neighbor (who shortly became a regular neighbor when he moved across the street from me) had to also buy a car, Ooga-Booga was seen wrecking local car dealerships. (Caption: "Guess what else Ooga-Booga hates?")

Recently, I've been avoiding meetings. The department is a little meeting happy sometimes; they have meetings for the sake of having meetings. There is a weekly "course meeting" for one class I teach. It may be helpful to TAs who have never taught before, but I'm already familiar with this class. The content of the meetings could be handled by an e-mail message, but they meet every week anyway. Since they picked a time which is fairly inconvenient for me, I've not been going. I found out the course coordinators are miffed with me. My condensed response: Bite me.

I did come in early this Thursday for a different committee meeting. (I volunteered to be part of this committee, so it could be worse.) But since one of the agenda items for the meeting was to find a more convenient time to meet, I suggested that we stop physically meeting, since everything we were doing could be accomplished by e-mail and an online message board. In fact, we have course management software which could provide us with everything we need with an easy-to-use Web-based interface. I even offered to set this up and manage it. After all, the school prides itself on its high-tech approach to everything. Every student and faculty member has a computer, and students are expected to use a variety of systems (including e-mail and the web, but also including specialized course software and technical programs). But we couldn't switch to asynchronous meetings; it would require learning "all that." And besides, no one would be able to "see people's faces". (I resisted the urge to point out the department web page has faculty pictures on it.) So we will continue to have these meetings, which are convenient for almost no one, so that we can see each others faces. And I'll continue to avoid course meetings and be frowned at.

There's a new picture on the door of the common room: "Ooga-Booga hates meetings."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Interesting Students

When I start a new class, I take pictures of my students with nametags made from notecards to help me in learning names. I got serious about this when I started teaching large sections, since there's really no hope for learning so many names without some kind of a system. (Unfortunately, it doesn't help that much in large sections; I still can't learn all the names by the end of the semester.)

I usually ask students to include their full name on the back of their card, together with one interesting fact about them. (I'm hoping to find something to associate with the student.) I leave it pretty open; the students can respond with anything they want.

Now the definition of interesting is pretty open to interpretation too. A favorite response in a sophomore level class is "I am a sophomore." If the class is intended for major X, then I get a number of students who answer "I am an X major." And for some reason, I used to get "I like horses" from about twenty women each semester in one large section I used to teach. (I don't know why that response was so popular.)

Recently I've been processing my note cards for this semester. It's a long process of cropping pictures and copying the tidbits students share into an Excel spreadsheet where I keep their grades and other information. I noticed recently that someone else I read has been writing about the asking the same question. (Interestingly, it's another math teacher at another school. Go figure.) She has apparently been getting somewhat better answers than "I am a sophomore X major."

But I have gotten interesting answers. I usually find out that I have students playing in a variety of varsity and club sports at the university, or who are in the marching band or another musical group. I frequently have some student who is widely traveled: "I've been to 5 continents", or "I've lived in 13 countries, and underground for 3 days." I usually have a polyglot or two: "I speak 8 different languages." (These students are generally not from the US.)

I also find out that some students want to be orthodontists or vets, love animals, can't swim, hold a swimming record at their high school, hate math, love Jesus, that some are an only child and that some have a twin. (I often have more than one twin, although usually not as a set.)

I find out some of my students are making long trips to come to school. I get students who are from India, Pakistan, Korea, Guatemala, Peru, Turkey, Singapore, and a host of other countries. Some also tell me they grew up less than 30 miles from this school.

Some cards are blank. Years ago I had a student with blue hair and a nose ring write "There is nothing interesting about me."

I usually have some students who I think should be very tired by now: "I have been singing for nine years." "I have been playing soccer for 12 years now." "I have been playing piano for 11 years."

But my most interesting response came a few years back. It just said "I pee in the bed." I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean, but I got nervous if the student looked like they were about to fall asleep during class.