Snow Daze

Most of the snow is already almost gone; hard to believe that just a week ago some of us were still snowed in. The big blizzard (winter storms don’t deserve first names) dropped three feet of snow in about a day and a half here in Maryland. I’m originally from Minnesota and even I’d never seen anything like it.

Hood College after the storm, with a little forced perspective

Hood College after the storm, with just a little forced perspective

Of course, we missed a few days of school. The storm started Friday afternoon, so everything shut down in anticipation. The public schools didn’t start back up for more than a week, though mercifully we only missed three days of class. And now we’re all trying to get back some momentum for a semester that had only barely started when it crashed and burned.

Missing class due to snow is almost an inevitability here. We get snow, but infrequently enough that there aren’t enough trucks and plows in the area to deal with a big storm. One of my classes wasn’t dramatically affected, since we had enough room in our calculus schedule to comfortably recover. But I’m also teaching a weekly evening algebra class for middle grades teachers in our master’s program, and we missed one of those. Since we’d also been out for Martin Luther King Jr. Day the previous week, that meant a three week gap between the first and second day of class. Which was a bit of a problem.

I’ve taught courses for middle grades teachers before, so I’m familiar with this population of students, but it takes a little while to get back into their particular groove. These students are adults with jobs and families. They’re sometimes less comfortable thinking very abstractly or generalizing from examples. And they have enough distance from their original school experience that they’re not used to the kind of…let’s say humbling experiences that studying mathematics can provide. Also, these students come from a very mixed background – I have everything from applied mathematicians who’ve never taught to English teachers who’ve never studied math. In short: this could be a challenging group.

I briefly thought about trying to hold some kind of online class on Monday. The technology issues alone seemed insurmountable – trying to do something new on Blackboard always seems to take three times as long as it should – and that combined with my students’ issues with childcare (and my general snowday malaise) made me decide against it. I asked them to read a few sections of the book, attempt all the activities, and we’d see each other the following week.

A few hours before class, I checked the results of the survey I’d posted on how well they’d grasped what they’d read, and it was grim. This chapter covered a bit of elementary combinatorics and introduced the binomial theorem, so I figured they might get bogged down in notation, but it seemed worse than that. I got the feeling a lot of them gave up shortly after opening the book. Needless to say, we’re behind schedule now.

If (and when) this happens again, I’ll take the time to at least post some kind of pencast or video. I had no reason to expect that these students had the experience to tackle a reading like this effectively and just assumed they could handle it with some gentle encouragement. I need to give these students more coaching in how to do a pre-class reading like this. They need to know that it’s ok to not understand portions of the book, and to skip over details if they feel they need to.

Hopefully Monday will go more smoothly, but I hate having to come from behind like this. And snow’s already back in the forecast for next week!

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Go VSCAWM!

Yay, Villanova Stucent Chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics! Chapter President Katie Robbins had to explain to me what an Ellen selfie was.

It’s the Villanova Student Chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics! Chapter President Katie Robbins (foreground right and photo artiste) had to explain to me what an Ellen selfie was.

This fall I helped some students organize the Villanova Student Chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (VSCAWM). While we currently have the worst acronym ever, the group is going really well. I decided to start a student chapter last spring after going to the AWM Research Symposium at the University of Maryland. I tried to find students to bring along to the meeting, but nobody seemed interested. I realized that the students probably had no idea what AWM was or why they would want to be involved. Since AWM has done a lot for me (given me money for conferences, opportunities to speak, connections with amazing women in math, and the chance to see these same women singing parody songs at the AWM reception at the Joint Meetings every year), I thought it was time to share that with the Villanova students. The risks: still nobody would be interested and it would be a ton of work. In fact, it turned out that once I explained what the organization does, people were sold on AWM, and as a bonus, the organizational time-costs were fairly low.

Most of my work happened last fall, in September and October. I started by checking out the AWM Student Chapter section on their website—they have good information on getting started, and they are currently focusing on increasing the student chapter presence and adding more resources for the student chapters. Since I wasn’t really sure how many people would even read a random email announcement, I got permission from Villanova’s Math Club to go to a meeting and talk about AWM. At the Math Club meeting, I explained the mission of the organization and what it had meant for me. I asked people to sign up on a sheet of paper if they would like to be a part of a student chapter. Several people signed up, so I used Google forms to set a meeting date that worked for them, and then emailed all math majors and minors about an organizational meeting.

I reserved a room with 20 or so chairs, thinking that this was an ambitious number. When the day came, actually more like 35 students showed up. It was incredible! The students were great.  At the first meeting, we introduced ourselves, read over the AWM student chapter bylaws, took nominations for the offices, and brainstormed ideas, including bringing in speakers, discussing articles and studies relevant to women in mathematics, taking field trips, and creating a mentoring system among the students.

All the nominees wrote blurbs about themselves, which I compiled into a ballot and emailed out. After the students voted, I announced the results and met with the new officers. We talked about how they wanted to run the meetings, and I gave them some ideas of what I thought would work.

The officers took over and ran the next meeting, and they have basically organized them ever since. I have helped with a few things, like applying for recognition by the national organization and reserving some rooms. However, my goal has been to get out of the way and let the students organize the best group for them. Of course I can’t stay out of it, mostly because I’m excited to contribute and have a lot of ideas for club activities. I’m hoping they don’t kick me out of their meetings for commenting too much. Seriously, I’m lucky they put up with me.

The members have already done some cool things, like develop a “buddy system” to help connect early majors with more experienced students. We had a meeting Tuesday, and everybody met their buddies. One of the students gave a great presentation on stereotype threat and its relevance to women in mathematics. We started making plans to put on a Julia Robinson Math festival this spring, and to take a field trip to MoMath.

This is the kind of service I can really get behind—service that is exactly what I wanted to do anyway! Starting this student chapter has allowed me to connect with students who are passionate about math, which I had been sorely missing. It has been interesting and heartening to see that students, both men and women, really care about women in math. Thanks, VSCAWM! Hmm, maybe AWMVSC? AWMSCV? If only we had a few more vowels, we could take over the world.

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Lest ye be judged: Student Evaluations

My semester plan tells me I need to read my student evaluations this week. They were just released to us a couple weeks ago, so it’s not like I’ve been sitting on these since mid-December, but this is still the part of my job I procrastinate about the most. In fact, for the last few years I’ve mostly ignored them unless I had to include them in a job application. But now, for the first time, they actually matter to my career. And I’m dreading it.

It’s not like my evals are scathing. Even when I teach 8am business calc classes, the scores are positive and so are (most of) the remarks. But reading that one comment – from the student who has spent the last 15 weeks hating my guts, biding their time until they’re granted this one prized moment of retribution – just kills me. Especially when their comment shows they’ve clearly missed the point of why I teach the way I do.

Talking to friends and colleagues, I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I see it blow up online every semester, as people post choice excerpts from student comments. Interestingly, most people seem to like posting the bad ones more than the good. Do we find publishing praise too gauche, or just prefer moral support for our perceived shortcomings?

Then comes the eternal debate: are student evaluations even valid instruments for assessing instructor quality? I’m not qualified to weigh in about the research – there’s just too much to wade through for one thing, all muddied with arguments about study designs and response rates. I’m also inherently suspicious of our efforts to study ourselves, especially on such an emotionally-charged topic.

What I will comment on is the mounting evidence of at least one thing student evaluations are good at: exposing societal gender bias. Inside Higher Ed posted an article on the latest bit of evidence just last week. In an online class, students gave higher evaluations to the instructor they thought was male – even when the two professors (one male, one female) switched identities. This bias was present even in seemingly objective rating criteria; though both faculty members returned homework at the same time, the male identity was ranked 4.35 out of 5 for promptness, while the female identity received only a 3.55.

This study was small, but a larger one (without the same blind design) confirmed the difference in ratings of the male instructors versus the female instructors. Interestingly, there was no statistically significant difference in student learning between the two categories, as measured by scores on an anonymously graded final exam, though the paper did note that students of female instructors performed slightly better than those of the male instructors.

It’s unclear to me what role these evaluations will play in the future of academia. Everyone has opinions on their flaws, and yet they still get used for high-stakes decisions on employment and promotion. One of the authors of the above paper suspects this use, together with these issues of gender bias, may lead to class action lawsuits as early as this year. While I’m not explicitly required to include mine in my tenure dossier, it’s been made clear to me that not doing so would be a major red flag. In a way they remind me of polygraph tests – the data received might be virtually meaningless, but meaningless numbers are somehow better than no numbers at all.I’m not arrogant enough to assume my students have no valid feedback on my performance; on the other hand, having once been twenty years old myself, I know they may not have the perspective on their education that I might like them to have. I’m sure some of their comments will be useful and help me find weaknesses in my teaching that I need to address. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

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