Last week I attended the first in a series of three workshops for members of the professional development program Project NExT. The meeting was a mixture of activities designed to broaden the horizons of new math faculty across the country. Here are the main things that happened.
- Networking, networking, networking. Starting at breakfast on that first morning, I began conversations with what would become a new set of colleagues. These aren’t the kind of colleagues I’ll see in my hallway, nor the kind I’ll see in set theory conferences. They are spread out both in region and interest. But they are all like me in that we will each do the same thing next month: teach math in an unfamiliar classroom. And they all really want to do it “right”.
Mixing with 75 other people isn’t easy, but the workshop made an effort to get it done. We were grouped again and again, along many different criteria: by research interests, pedagogical interests, social interests, institution type, and even randomly. By the end of the three days, I had probably participated in at least one discussion with almost everybody.
- New experiences in teaching. True to its name, the meeting offered a number of insights into pedagogical methods, many of which were new to me. The over-arching theme throughout was that the lecture is one of the worst ways to deliver learning, and that we should do better. Thus many of the talks involved “inverting the classroom” in one way or another, that is, coaxing students to prepare for class in advance, and using the class time for group work or other activities.
One of the most interesting talks I attended was about social justice: both using it in our profession, and teaching it to our students. The speaker first made the point that treating people “equally” isn’t the same as treating people “fairly”—it would be more fair to treat people in a way that gives them an equal opportunity. His second point was that it is literally an oxymoron for students to take pre-calculus as their final math course. A nice alternative would be a course that prepares students to use math to make the world a better place. The first step is to understand and criticize the so-called science we hear about in the media. In one exercise, he asked students to look at a table of wind power output by country, and to spin the data first in a right-wing direction, and then in a left-wing direction. Awesome.
- Career training. The workshops even addressed the elephant in the room: how to get tenure. This is the one thing on the mind of every new faculty member, and the one thing that is rarely discussed in academic circles. It was nice to hear some matter-of-fact words on the subject. The advice, of course, varied significantly depending on your institution’s type and mission. While traditional universities still push for earth-shattering research (or the illusion thereof), it was interesting to hear that many colleges have a broader view of “scholarship”. This can sometimes include other things that make a difference: fostering undergraduate research, writing expository articles, developing new courses, conducting research on pedagogy and teaching effectiveness, organizing conferences, and so on.
- Motivational speaking? This was completely new to me. Several of the talks had little purpose other than to get us fired up about our new jobs. At the very end of the workshop (and indeed at the end of the workshop every year), the fellows were implored to “Just say Yes!” to anything and everything asked of us. Good advice if you want to be all you can be, but of course this tacitly assumes handle all those new responsibilities. Still, it was rather poetic.
There was a lot more, but this is a long enough summary as it is! All-in-all, and despite some drippy moments, I have to rate the experience A+.