Thursday, August 28, 2008

Back to School

The semester, here at UVA, started this week. In fact, I kicked it off with an 8am calculus class on the first day. It's been a busy week, largely due to my failure this summer to use my time wisely, but it's been fun.

Last semester I didn't teach. To compensate, I worked as a tutor for athletes in their tutoring center. It was ok, and certainly had it's moments, but it's nothing like having your own class that you meet with several times a week. I was nervous before the semester that I wouldn't have my old enthusiasm for teaching. It's always been what's gotten me through grad school (both the teaching now, and the hope to teach when I'm done). This summer, though, I was frustrated and couldn't motivate myself to think about the semester. It didn't seem like a good sign, but it's just a few days in, and I'm feeling better already.

I've been reminded of the fun of starting the fall semester, with mostly first year (we don't call them freshmen here, I don't know why) students in my class. This is my 5th year in grad school, and the first class of my own that I taught was 4 years ago. That means most of that class will be graduating this year (I hope). I believe that today, walking around on campus, I passed one of the students from that first semester, but they made no indication that they recognized me. That'll happen, I guess. They probably forgot most of the math even quicker.

I always want my class to go well (who doesn't?). I want to show them interesting things, and the things they'll need to know. Of course, in calc classes (any math classes), there is no shortage of interesting things. It's harder to figure out what it is they need to know. Since my class is one of several coordinated calculus classes, I at least have a pretty good idea what will be on exams. Certainly that's something they'll want to know. Whether it's the "right" content for the exam or not is harder to tell. Do we teach something because it's content a later class depends on? Or do we teach it just out of tradition? Is there a national standard base-level curriculum at the college level that we're trying to follow? Harder still is determining if there is a better way to structure a class than having it be largely exam (and homework set) based. Perhaps there's a nice way to do the class that's project based? And just how much technology should we be using? The old "calculators question".

The start of the semester has it's frustrations. We use the online homework system webwork in my class, and I really like it. Of course, every time I use it, I think about other ways to have it set up. Since it's open source, I should probably try to contribute some of these ideas in code. Not right now though. For now, I've got the usual issue of making sure everybody can log in. Some changes were made to our setup here, but there still seem to be some login issues. My class is also set up to use an online waitlist for enrollment. Which means I'm getting lots of emails from students asking to get in, and if they have a chance to get in off the waitlist. And since they've now missed two class periods... it's a hastle.

It'll be good when the administrivia settles down, and we can concentrate on the math. We're doing improper integrals tomorrow (and probably a little into Monday), and then spending several class periods covering the rest of the chapter on integration techniques. I've got an idea I'm excited about for teaching it, but I think I'll leave that for a later post, when I can tell you how it went. For now, the Mythbusters are busting some lunar landing myths.

No comments: