Jul. 4th, 2015

I exist!

I need some teachign icons.

It's really tough remembering to journal regularly. I'm currently on my summer vacation: I took a class in June, which I let eat up all my time because it was a class on teaching and I want to be a better teacher. I got some good lessons on teaching in general as well as on the method in particular.

The method is called 'the flipped classroom' and it's based around two ideas:

1. Lectures or reading might be good ways to introduce material, but lecture alone is terrible for retention, even when students think they got it. I've certainly had the 'this all made sense when Doctor Smith was explaining it in class, but doing it on my own is an exercise in frustration'. At best, that means students come to office hours or seek their peers or the help center for extra help. More likely, they flail about. (This is why we assign homework: so students can practice using the stuff we make them learn.)

2. 'Homework' and applications are the times students are most likely to need interaction with an instructor or peer. Lecture is traditionally not very interactive. So why not have the application as time in class when the professor is around, and the lecture at home before class when it doesn't matter if the instructor recorded it three years ago? Hence, 'flipped'.

The class I took had us making a flipped module, but also had us talking about various things about measuring if students are learning, setting reasonable expectations, lower and higher order thinking and how to make group work work when there's always at least one person who is The Load. The class was a mix of fields: we had two engineers, me, a computer scientist, an environmental planner, the business librarian (who guest lectures on 'how to research things'), a speech teacher, someone from the masters in education program, and someone from the social sciences that was looking at her field's research methods course. One of the guest lecturers reminded me about exactly how much stuff is out there for physics education (he was an engineer and had adapted things).

I also got my schedule for Fall. Good news: it's all classes I've taught before, which means that not only do I have 2.5 months to plan everything, I can adapt things. I also don't have to teach on Fridays, so that means I'll probably do an office hour Friday morning, then leave around lunchtime. Bad news: I got the evening classes, probably because I was 'meh' instead of 'hell no'* on the schedule. So the draft schedule has me teaching Physics at 4, Astronomy at 5, break for dinner at 6, then the same physics again at 7.

Now, I might just shift my schedule so I get up later in the morning, except it is impossible to get a good parking spot after 8 AM on campus and I can't wait until the day shift go home because I also need office hours (also, I think 4 is a bit too early for that). So I have to decide if it's better to show up to work right before lunch and have to walk across all of campus (and then either move my car during my dinner break or walk back in the dark), or schedule 'mid-day siesta/goof off break' in my office.

I still think I like this schedule better than 'first class starts at 8, last class ends at 6', which I've done two terms out of three. Because it's a lot easier when you have a long break to work on class prep and grading.

(The evening class has a mixed reputation: on the one hand, it's usually the class with empty seats because no one wants to be there. And small classes are awesome for learning things. On the other, the 'no one wants to be here' means low everything scores. If I can get good reviews here, I shall consider this a badge of pride.)

* One of the virtues of being childless and single: my time is a lot more flexible than most.

Sep. 18th, 2014

Another Aphorism

I don't have to adopt every new idea that comes down to me. I can focus on developing a solid course this time, and try something new next time I teach. I should write the ideas down in my teaching journal**, since I know I had one, but I forgot.

(Well, besides that the general education physics course could use a better theme than 'broad overview of a physics sequence', even with my attempts to make it all about energy.)

In other news, the astronomy group practically begged me to teach Astro 101 (the gen ed course on the solar system) for winter and spring terms. And were willing to give me 102 (the stars and galaxies course) as well until someone pointed out that because I was a lecturer, there was no way I could do that without teaching a third new course. And that asking me to do three preps* was out of line. The main problem is that most of the astronomers are teaching the few upperclass courses for the minor, or other upperclassmen courses, and the one planetary scientist is on sabbatical. (They have an exoplanets guy, but he has too much else he has to do in winter term.)

One thing that happened yesterday that make things click for me: we met the Dean, and, among other things, he went on about how he's trying to get the students to study 25-35 hours a week. Which, yes, is recommended for college courses (2 times as much out of class as in class). And he did the math for us: a high schooler spends 25-35 hours a week in class (5-7 1-hour classes every weekday), and hopefully 5-10 hours a week doing homework or studying (say 1-2 hours a night), which comes out to 30 to 45 hours. A college student only spends 12-15 hours in class (more if they are like me and ended up taking two labs in one semester... don't do this), so to get the same amount of practice, they need 15 to 33 hours of out of class homework and study.

(Also, it occurs to me that I spend 17 hours directly interacting with students (12 in the classroom, and 5 as office hours), but I definitely have a full time job teaching because the magic pixies don't write my lectures, find the demo equipment***, grade papers (graders are not magic pixies; they need instruction and a rubric), and figure out how to measure that students learned a thing.

It's a bit different, since you specialize more in college. My first-semester schedule was math, physics, composition, and honors seminar (another English course), while as a high-schooler, I'd have also had social studies, Spanish, and another course (and I wouldn't have taken two English courses in one year). But I hope that helps students take things seriously.

I also know they are 18-20, and will screw up, because I did. See, above story about taking two labs at once. (I really hope that wasn't the semester I took 17 credit hours. I was full of good ideas.)

(And I feel bad that students who have a full-time job already are trying to do two full-time things at once; something is going to give for them. Probably sleep.

* As you all probably realize, it matters not only how many courses I teach, but which ones: it's easier to teach three sections of Physics 141 than one of Astro 101, one of Astro 102, and one of Physics 141. (Which, incidentally, because of arcane rules that count math-heavy courses as worth a bit more than their credit hours for faculty to teach them, is NOT a full load.) And it will be easier if I'm teaching Physics 141 or Physics 104 next quarter, because I don't have to adapt everything from scratch. (Though, if Cal Poly is like most schools, there will be fewer sections of 141, because it's the first in a three-course sequence, and most students do that fall-winter-spring.)

Basically, it boils down to a lecturer like me gets 3 lecture courses (at least two of which have to be math-intensive), or 2 lectures and 2 labs. (Labs also count more than their credit hours, because, unlike students, instructors have a lot of lab prep and grading to do, while it's assumed students will spend most of their time on the course in lab.)

** Not an online journal. It also holds research notes, since I'm going to forget everything by the time I can actually do research again.

*** Okay, there is someone in charge of the demo room, who gets out useful things each week for physics demos.

Sep. 16th, 2014

Cultural Markers

A couple of days ago, I mentioned ordering checks to a friend. I don't pay for much via check -- I still have my first box of checks from my local bank in Ithaca (which is why I had to open a new bank account here in California, and, thus, order checks) -- but they're handy for paying bills where I can't pay electronically. Said friend wondered why I didn't use money orders; her reasoning was that money orders might cost money, but they meant you could control when the money left your account.

It occurred to me that this was some kind of cultural marker; said friend had lived hand-to-mouth for some time, so couldn't trust that a badly-timed check wouldn't leave her overdrawn, while I've been broke but not poor*. Hell, this move is probably the farthest into debt I've ever been (even excluding the car loan), and I suspect it won't last until 2015.

The reason I think about this, is Monday the university president was all up about first-generation college students and making sure they graduated (at least at the same rates as their peers with college-educated parents). Like, apparently Cal Poly has a food pantry for low-income students and faculty can ask for meal vouchers for students they suspect are skipping to save money for tuition or rent. He read some letters from students appealing their probation, often explaining they pretty much had to save one quarter at a time.

I was considering this compared to my friend, when I overheard something a colleague was saying about assumptions. He said, 'don't assume your students will buy the workbook and online service; don't assume your students will even have the textbook'**. A lot of my planning was based on trying to get the students to read the textbook before class so we could focus on practicing the material in class (you know, where there's a teacher to help, unlike trying to do homework at home). A lot of my success tips focus on things like how to study outside class beyond homework, or showing up to extra things on campus. I wonder how much I miss since my college experience wasn't one where I had to work***, and I could go to office hours or meet study groups if I needed it. I also had a textbook scholarship.

OTOH, some of it is that you need the time to practice any skill you want to learn, and physics isn't any different. If the students can't get the time to study****, I don't know what else I can do. I can't wave my hand and give these students the money so they don't have to work full-time, or can live on-campus (cutting down the cost and time of commuting). The best I can do is listen, figure out ways to get students to tell me where I'm biased by my upbringing, and present things as options rather than YOU MUST DO THIS.

I'm going to head to the library tomorrow and make sure they have copies of textbooks. Possibly also the tutoring center. If I want students to read the textbook, I can at least offer ways they can do it without having to buy the thing. (At least the physics book is for three quarters. It's a doorstop. I could use it to kill small mammals.)

* The difference is one of immediacy. Before I got a job as a college student, I had little spending money, but I had food and housing, almost no debt, and the ability to call on my parents if I really needed something. Basically, I didn't have to worry about the cost of things, even though I had scant few monetary assets.

** A different gripe than a friend's annoyance that her students order from Amazon... and forget to factor in that it takes time for Amazon to ship books (unless you pay them) and don't make alternate arrangements.

*** My job (teaching assistant and undergrad researcher) was for spending money and CV building for grad school, and also because I liked it.

**** Well, or go to office hours, use the campus tutoring resources, etc. Most of these students, I suspect, were like me and learned how to get by in high school by doing what was expected and memorizing things. Which is going to fail them sometime in college, most likely. See: the story of my sophomore year. Also in grad school.

Sep. 14th, 2014

Oh, hi there!

I forgot the guilt I develop when facing a long, somewhat time-sensitive, multi-part task, and don't finish it RIGHT AWAY DAMMIT. It starts to intrude on my leisure time, even though I know that such a task will expand to fit the time available. Even though reading (well, skimming) a good hundred pages or more of textbook and considering the content was an afternoon's work, I get antsy because I didn't move on to the other textbook.

I have at least one full day and five days that have or will have free blocks. (The only full day of meetings is the department retreat on Tuesday; even then, I could spend two hours in my office writing.) I don't need to have everything done today.

(add in that Physics 141 is a collaborative class, so I can't do much fussing with scheduling, or the students won't be able to do the labs.)
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Feb. 12th, 2014

Interview #1

So, I went on an interview, at the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics, a public residential high school program for 200+ of Carolina's most high-scoring and interested high schoolers.

I think most of the question-asking went well, but I totally flubbed the teaching demo. The lecture part went okay with a few technological hiccups, but one of the interviewers asked me to work a problem on the board for the students, and I froze up doing it, which really made it look like I didn't know my stuff. Next time I do a teaching demo, I'll not focus so much on the lecture and make sure I can handle fielded questions.

Anyway, the town was small, but nice. A bit weird to get used to places where the residential streets didn't have sidewalks. It's really a driving culture down there, and not just because of the NASCAR track within 15 minutes of town. (I was counseled that unless I was attending a race, to avoid the area during races... much as one avoids driving near campus and downtown Lincoln when the Huskers are playing at home.) So if I get a job in the area, I'd have to learn to drive finally. That was actually a question asked of me: was I philosophically opposed to driving, or just never in a position to need it.

Besides that, there are always the bits of culture shock. Pickup trucks aren't new, nor are the proximity to farms. Between Lincoln and Ithaca, I'm used to things, and the realtor giving me a tour of town mentioned that there was a Farmer's Market last year**. Our Sunday dinner plans changed because half the restaurants in Hartsville close on Sundays -- we did end up at a very nice Mexican restaurant that probably does a good business on Sundays. That and

My flight back was needlessly complicated. I was flying out of Florence, SC, which is a tiny airport. I might even count it as smaller than Lincoln and Ithaca, since unlike them, it doesn't have a cafe, just some poorly stocked vending machines. Mechanical problems* meant that my plane didn't arrive in time and my connection was in doubt, but I decided to risk it. I didn't make the connection, so got to overnight in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Hey, new state for the checklist***.

On the morning I did fly out, it was snowing, and flights were already being canceled in expectation of the ice storm that is now blanketing the Southeast. I made it out in a not-quite timely fashion as airline schedules in Charlotte don't build in 'de-ice plane'. (Actually, they don't account for it in Ithaca where it's common in winter, which was why I never scheduled a tight connection in winter if I was taking the 6 AM flight, since we'd sit on the tarmac for 20-30 minutes while they sprayed down the plane with antifreeze).

So, next interview is late next week, and I should start prepping. And keep on the job market.

* Of the sort that propagate forward all day, since the plane has a schedule.
** Which is a nice thing for me; I like having lots of fresh seasonable veggies, and I'm starting to investigate being a slightly more humane omnivore and picking up (more expensive) animal products from local farms where the cows/pigs/chickens had a more pleasant life before their death. I'm probably never going to be a vegetarian/vegan, but I figure I can do what I can when I have the money to spend on happier hamburgers.
*** Airports and driving through states don't count as visits, but overnights or visiting any attraction does. Though seeing the Charlotte airport AND the Sleep Inn is not much of a visit to North Carolina.