Spring Heartbreak 2020

Friday, March 13th, 2020. That was the last day of in-person classes this semester.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020. That’s (for now) the first day of classes for the upcoming Fall semester.

Yes, that’s almost six months (!) without classes in the traditional sense. Now don’t get me wrong, every decision being made is for the greater good and I’m absolutely on board with doing my part to slow down the spread of this pandemic while we wait for more testing and medical advances. With that being said, this hurts. Every single person is affected by all of this in one way or another. It’s about all of us and I simply want to share my feelings to add an example of the myriad of ways that we are impacted and to hopefully shed light on what others might be experiencing.

Here’s the thing: Teaching saved my life. It gave me a purpose, a platform, a passion, and a voice that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. No matter what stages or levels of anxiety and depression I’ve experienced in the past decade, teaching has been something that I’ve always looked forward to. The classroom is my home. It’s where I feel most confident, empowered, valued, proud, and happy.

And now that place with those feelings and all of the incredible people has been taken away for the next 6-7 weeks. Yes, teaching will attempt to continue in a digital space (more on that shortly), but the teaching that I know is gone. It would be gone for four months during the summer anyway and my past experience knows that this is a problem. Even outside of a pandemic, my day-to-day life is one that isn’t too far off from a self-quarantine (feel free to insert the “finally all of your preparation pays off!” joke) and during the semester this is perfectly fine – occupied by teaching prep, take care of my apartment and body (questionable), and have the classroom to look forward to most days. It’s the between semester breaks where I sometimes find myself too isolated and where depression wants to challenge me to a battle. Some days I win, and some days it wins and I’m left with negative motivation to even leave the couch.

So naturally I’m worried that adding two more months to the already long summer break might have a negative impact on my mental health. Although the move to online classes for the remainder of the semester wasn’t made official until this week, as things progressed last week most of us knew that this was inevitable and there was an aspect of finality to classes. I have an incredibly special Calc 2 class this semester that feels like a family of sorts. The absolute last thing I was going to do in class last Friday was teach calculus. We spent the time and space with each other practicing Tik Tok dances (it’s what college kids do) and then I shared some thoughts similar to what you’re reading here. And naturally I cried. In a “I’m acknowledging the value that all of you incredible people have” sort of way. And to have that feeling reciprocated throughout the room meant everything and it’s exactly why I feel that value and confidence in that space.

Now what? It’s my responsibility to do the best job I can at delivering the remaining content online for my two classes over the rest of the semester. All of the different thoughts and resources shared by faculty all over the country this week have led me to what I believe is a reasonable approach which is to create (short) videos introducing content and explaining key concepts for students to watch on their own time and then use videoconferencing (live and recorded) to practice examples and be able to answer questions. For many of us, this is our first experience with online classes and a week of transition time certainly isn’t enough to figure everything out, but all teaching requires flexibility and ability to adapt in different ways.

I can’t stress how important that flexibility and ability to adapt is in this current situation. It puts academics in its place and to expect all of the same things from students that you normally would is simply inhumane. We’re people first and I shared my feelings as honestly a mild example of how we are impacted. When you build connections you realize there are so many students whose lives are completely different away from a campus community. Additional demands and pressures on their space and time, environments that may not be conducive to work or focus, taking away social groups and activities such as clubs and sports, limited access to resources, the list goes on.

So please, whether you are in academics or not, act with kindness. Act in equity. Act with empathy. Act in love. Certainly good habits to have in general, and if it takes a pandemic to remind us of them then so be it. #SpreadLoveAlways

The Journey of a New Course

As yet another semester comes to a close, this one was even more special than usual because my vision of creating a new class finally came to life. Considering I assigned my students a final reflection assignment, I thought I’d share my thoughts and experiences as well.

First some background if you haven’t been following along: the goal of creating an entire class on redistricting that authentically uses math in the context of a relevant (and often contentious) political issue was almost two years in the making. In my last semester at UConn (Spring 2018), Adam Giambrone (now teaching at Elmira) and I tried the “let’s throw some things [content] at the wall [students] and see what sticks” approach to teaching this topic which for my money is an underrated approach to education – you don’t always need to have a plan! (More on that later.)

Anyway, upon being hired at Trinity, I was connected to Jack Dougherty who made me quickly realize that my goal of creating such a class was far from a dream, in fact it was exactly the sort of thing the institution wanted and that it had the potential to be brought to life even more through community / government partners. I was also fortunate enough to have the support of my department (Mathematics) who easily could have asked for something more concrete for a new course offering.

Through the help of Jack and Megan Hartline (who both do an amazing job organizing and supporting Trinity’s Community Learning Initiative) I was put in touch with various local professionals who had some connection to redistricting or politics and voting in general. This led me to a government employee (who would prefer to remain anonymous) who is simply incredible and whose knowledge and passion further inspired my own. Our first meeting is when my vision started to feel real for the first time.

Ok so I had a government partner supporting my vision and the course was quickly approved by the school – with the Political Science and Public Policy & Law departments even counting it towards their major! – and my passion for the topic and for education were always there, but creating a class from scratch isn’t easy. To be honest, up until the beginning of this semester I had nothing prepared beyond a list of potential topics, an idea for the final project (having them redistrict Connecticut as authentically as possible), and some materials I developed and used for a 2-3 week unit on the topic in my general education “Math and Politics” class.

Back to not having a plan…here’s the thing: It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do and it certainly wasn’t laziness. For me part of education is being responsive to your audience and I wanted to gauge the mathematical and political science background of my students and use that to guide my instruction. This was especially important because this was my first time teaching a subject area outside of math or education and I had no prior experiences to rely on to somewhat estimate the level of the students.

As you might imagine, this “approach” led to a lot of late nights making lecture slides, handouts, readings, etc. I always joked with the students that twice a week I felt like one of them working on a class presentation assignment. Creating a course organically and in real-time is not something I would recommend (especially when you have two other preps in the same semester) but it did keep me very close to the content and to current events. On that note, thanks to the state of North Carolina for providing excellent content for this class!

What ended up happening is that effectively all of my course content was front-loaded into the first eight weeks (out of 14) of the semester. At that point I think both myself and the students (we affected each other) sort of “ran out of steam” when it came to content. There were definitely a few other related topics I could have covered, but I’m confident that I covered all of the crucial content and in a way that the students successfully grasped.

At the same time, I was communicating with various stakeholders to create and schedule the authentic learning experiences that I believed were absolutely essential for the course. Managing these logistics takes time and naturally forced these experiences into the second half of the semester, but I think this worked out because students went into the experiences with a strong foundational knowledge of redistricting policy and the associated mathematics.

What experiences am I referring to? In addition to two excellent guest speakers in the first half of the semester, there were three experiences I was able to put together and add (in my and the students’ opinion) incredible value to the course. First, I’m extremely thankful for the Caliper Corporation that generously gave my class a license to the software program Maptitude for Redistricting, which is the actual program used by a majority of the states. Thanks to Cheryl Cape and others in Information Technology, we were able to put together a “Redistricting Lab” in the library for students to grind away and act as independent redistricting commissions to propose a new State Senate map for Connecticut. There were certainly challenges and a learning curve for all of us in operating the software, but it was more than worth it for the authentic experience and the ability to empower students as some of the most qualified individuals for future redistricting in any state.

Second, I can’t thank State Representative (and Chief of Staff to Trinity’s President) Jason Rojas enough for leading a behind-the-scenes tour of the State Capitol and Legislative Office Building. While the focus was not directly on redistricting, so many students reflected with incredible positive feedback about the experience and how it humanized the people working in the government. And it’s not every day you get a chance encounter with the Governor!

Third, I was hoping that students could get an even more personalized meeting with elected officials involved in the redistricting process both to add anecdotes that I or any reading wouldn’t be able to provide and to humanize the process as well. Fortunately with Jason’s help, I was able to have smaller groups of students meet with two former Democratic Speakers of the House (Chris Donovan and Brendan Sharkey) and a former and current Republican Minority Leader of the House (Themis Klarides and Larry Cafero). I am thankful for each of them giving some of their time to our class and I was personally involved in two of the four meetings and I know I learned so much more from them than in researching my lecture slides.

I want to clarify that this class isn’t about me. Anyone can have an idea or vision for a new course but without interested and engaged students it’s simply not possible. This is a good time to mention that registering for this new class was by permission only and that the initial interest of my 22 students (from an initial cap of 19) actually did carryover throughout the semester. I can only imagine our collective attitudes toward education if all of our classes were this way.

With that being said, I do want to share a couple of personal anecdotes. First, I don’t have any formal background in Political Science (I completed half of a minor as an undergraduate!) and I never pretended that I did. I joked that I was a “Math professor masquerading as a Political Science professor” and it was no secret that the advanced Political Science majors were more well-spoken about the field in general than I was. And that’s ok! There’s something to be said about learning together and using our unique knowledge as individuals to advance our collective knowledge. As for my own knowledge, I certainly noticed a shift as the semester progressed. Thanks to the students, the guest speakers, the legislators, and hours of research in preparing lecture slides and activities, I noticed myself transition from someone who is knowledgeable and interested in redistricting to someone who is an expert in redistricting (particularly in the context of Connecticut).

My final takeaway: In looking back, I’m proud of what I was able to provide my students both in terms of content and experiences in my first attempt at doing something like this. It’s really amazing to think back to an initial vision and realize everything that contributed to its reality. Thanks to my experiences and my students’ input, my head has been spinning at all of the tweaks I can make to improve this class when (not if) I teach this class again. I firmly believe that this type of class represents something we should do more often in education, but clearly it’s not easy. Most importantly, we can’t do this alone. It takes (a lot of) communication and collaboration with others at your institution and the right people in your community. It takes others to trust and support your vision. It takes the right students. It takes the Supreme Court making a key ruling two months before the semester (just kidding, but it does help). It takes a belief that math truly matters. And finally, it takes a commitment to the philosophy that the sharing of perspectives and experiences are at the core of education.

For more information about the course content, see my page about the course.