Making my teaching more public

I’ve made a promise to blog regularly this fall on my experiences in teaching calculus I at GVSU using Active Calculus.  Before starting that endeavor, here are a few overall thoughts.

Teaching is an oddly private endeavor.  While it is certainly public and open with my students, my work as an instructor can almost be done in confidence relative to my university colleagues.  I find this odd for several reasons, but a big one is how this stands in contrast to doing research.  In scholarly work, peer-review is the prized standard.  If I think I have discovered something new or done some innovative mathematics, it’s imperative that I share my work with other experts in the field for feedback, validation, and further development.  But with teaching, we professors are often content to keep much of our work to ourselves.

For me, one reason that I think I often tend to keep my teaching endeavors private — or only shared with a small number of peers — is that I’m afraid of doing stupid things in front of my colleagues.  This seems tied to one of my fundamental human instincts:  wanting to always appear like I know the answer to whatever is at hand and to look like I generally know what I’m doing.  That instinct doesn’t (a) stop me from ever doing dumb things, (b) keep me from appearing stupid in front of others, or (c) prevent me from still harboring some fears about appearing stupid.  But, being unafraid to fail is a key trait for success in life generally, and math in particular.  So, I keep working on that:  being unafraid to fail.

Writing a calculus text has forced me to face some of these fears.  Having others use a text you wrote means they are certainly going to find errors in it, certainly encounter ideas that aren’t communicated well, and certainly offer suggestions for improvement.  As more folks are using Active Calculus this fall, I find myself mostly excited to get that feedback so that the book can improve, and improve quickly.

I’m hoping that as I share some instructional materials this fall through the blog that I’ll get similar feedback.  My students will provide their own suggestions and support, as they tell me what seems to work well and what doesn’t.  Indeed, every semester for the past 10 years I have taken some time for oral course evaluations by my students.  In that 20-30 minutes with them, I learn a tremendous amount about how my instruction is perceived, what students value, and what they wish was different.  But I am hopeful that by sharing more of my work and more broadly, the professional community of my peers will provide ideas, critique, and new direction in my work.

So, a plan for my next three posts (modulo other more urgent items that might arise):  (1) an overview of the structure of my calculus class this fall — what my top goals are, what the typical student activities will be, and what the major assessments will be; (2) an overview of a typical week in calculus — what we aim to accomplish in our four hours of meeting and 8-12 hours of outside work; (3) reflection on a single meeting — what I planned in advance, what actually happened, and what I think in retrospect.  Along the way, I will post a couple of relevant documents via Dropbox links so that anyone interested can learn more.

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2 comments

  1. suevanhattum · · Reply

    “This seems tied to one of my fundamental human instincts: wanting to always appear like I know the answer to whatever is at hand and to look like I generally know what I’m doing.”

    Not a fundamental human instinct – I definitely am not that way. (Might it be tied to how men are socialized?) I have enjoyed the community of bloggers (mostly high school math, less college math), and have eagerly reported many of my failures, in hopes of good discussions that might help me improve.

    “…every semester for the past 10 years I have taken some time for oral course evaluations by my students.”

    But in this way, you are braver than I am. I would be scared to do this. I much prefer written evaluations.

  2. […] an earlier post, I thought to make my teaching more public, and then subsequently shared some reflections on how my calculus I course looks overall.  In this […]

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