It was Spring Break at Carleton, and I took advantage of that to journey through India with a 5-year-old kid in tow. I could write about the trip through a cross-cultural studies perspective, I suppose. The external and cultural differences between the United States and India, even as they shrink every month, every minute practically, remain huge. And yet I find that I am just at home when I step off the plane in either direction. Perhaps it’s because I am never fully at home in either place.
But this trip was far too personal an experience for me to analyze in this forum at the moment. Suffice to say that I am back in circulation, tired but happy for having made the trip. And ready — whether I like it or not — for the new term which starts tomorrow.
I have two unusual experiences ahead of me this term, with regards to teaching. The first: I am trying out something new in my introductory mechanics class, and I’ll blog the results over the next few weeks. This class suffers from the same issues as introductory mechanics did at Rice (where I taught before I came to Carleton) and at almost every other school, I’ll bet, although being at Carleton it is relatively small (the cap is ‘only’ 48 students).
This course has a large and varied population. This variation exists (a) in terms of previous exposure to the material, (c) likewise in terms of interest in continuing in Physics (it is part of the requirement for Chemistry majors and pre-meds but we also recruit our majors in this course), and (c) comfort with mathematics. It is also a fast-paced course with a lot of techniques to be mastered, in principle. At the same time, however, there are relatively few major concepts to be grasped (if not just the one: F= ma)
I taught this course my first 3 years at Carleton, and it was a fundamentally frustrating course in terms of trying to find the right rhythm and pace while trying to accommodate everyone’s preparation, inclination and speed in mastery. One result of my frustration was that I created a course that used Chabay and Sherwood’s ‘Matter and Interactions’ format (with a focus on computation and modeling) to draw away some of the more prepared students — but this was a small group, extra-prepared.
I am teaching the ‘big’ course for the first time in 4 years this Spring, and here is what I intend to do: Some of it will be consistent with what I have tried with success in other, smaller classes: I ask students to read the textbook, email questions to me before class, and then I construct lectures or activities in response to these questions. Students also spend a fair amount of in-class time working on problems together while I circulate between the various groups. This spring, I will do an extreme version of this: Students will be asked to read the textbook and come into class prepared to work on problems. With a class of 48, I will not be able to read and respond to questions from all the students. Also, in my estimation, there are not enough complicated ideas – as opposed to applied techniques – for me to use a lot of class time lecturing. So the focus will be entirely on problem solving, and self-paced mastery. I will be able to provide directed help as needed by the students, and monitor individual learning. This comes at the expense of exposition time, of course, but I am reasonably sure this is a fair trade-off in this class.
I expect this to be somewhat successful, but it is unlikely things will work as well as I would like the first time with this approach. But here goes anyway.
The other new experience will be co-teaching an Interdisciplinary Computational Modeling course with my colleague Cindy, which I will write about more later.