Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Academic Year Interstitial

Spring semester has started, much too soon... it always does.

Over the break, I put together my "notebook", explaining what I've been doing at the University for the last year, except in my case it was what I've been doing at the University for the past five months. I'm hoping that matters, because I have the feeling that most of the sections on scholarly development and university service essentially boil down to: "I got nothin'." At least I can say I won Time magazine's person of the year.

I feel the same way about the courses I'm teaching in the spring. I have three sections which meet once a week for two and a half hours, and I'm feeling slightly lost about what to do. One class now counts for a whole week. The classes will only meet 15 times! In one respect I like the longer sessions; it feels like I can do some things (like group activities) which take a little time to start--we don't have to break suddenly in the middle and assume the students will still remember what they are doing when we start the next class. But what do I do about tests? I can't really see successfully covering new material the same class as I give a test, but I don't see giving up three weeks of class to give three tests either. For the topics course, I'm thinking I should be able to get away with some take homes, but I'm not sure that will work in lower level courses. So I'm experimenting. One course I'm doing just quizzes, basically every week. Another I'm actually giving an hour test and then moving on to new material. We'll see what happens.

Then there's the textbook for one low level course I'm teaching. I was pressed for time last semester, and ended up selecting the textbook that most of the rest of the department uses for the same course. I've been reading it over the past week or so, and I hate it. It's annoyingly filled with bubble-gummy pop culture references to everything under the sun, from Jurassic Park to "Judge Judy", in some sort of attempt to be hip and exciting for what I'm sure the author thinks of as "those wacky college kids", or equivalently, "gen-y" or "gen-z" or maybe we've cycled back to "gen-a". There is also a formula, neatly boxed, for everything. In each section, we have a sequence of carefully labeled problems. Each problem has its own formula, and an example of plugging numbers into the formula. It's a frigging how-to manual on steroids. Nowhere does it ask students to actually think about anything; it asks them to memorize, plug numbers into formulas, and regurgitate regularly. (The author has the gall to then title the book Mathematical Thinking.) Oh, and then there's this other little kicker: sometimes it's just flat out wrong. I'll look for another book for the next time I teach this course, and if I don't find something better, I'll roll my own. The list of topics isn't that complicated.

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