A Post of Pure Self-Indulgence

I have not been blogging much lately, a state of affairs likely to persist until the end of the semester at the start of May. This is partly a consequence of blogger burn-out; I just flat haven't felt like blogging. Mainly, though, it is because this semester has been an unusually busy and stressful one. The reason I have not felt like blogging is that I have been inundated with other work, some self-inflicted, some inflicted from without.

EvolutionBlog will make a triumphant return, but until then I thought I would unburden myself by telling you what I have been up to this term. What, exactly, do professors spend their time doing?

As in every semester, my biggest responsibility is to my students. JMU generally has a three-three teaching load, which means that I teach three courses every semester. This is fairly typical, and puts us somewhere in the middle of universities generally. Research-focused schools will generally have two-two teaching loads, or perhaps even lighter than that. Of course, such schools also expect substantial research output, which quickly devours the time savings of the lighter teaching load. On the other hand, many teaching-focused schools, including many large state schools, have three-four and even four-four teaching loads. This leaves little time for serious research, at least during the semester.

JMU is somewhere in the middle. We are mostly an undergraduate school, and therefore tend to focus on teaching. But we are also expected to be active scholars in our field. Consequently a three-three load. That's heavy enough to eat up a lot of time, but is not so burdensome that there is no time for other activities.

One of my courses this term is the second semester of a year-long course in real analysis. I have never taught this course before, and have not looked at this material since I passed my analysis qualifying exam as a first-year graduate student, more than a decade ago. Real analysis is, by its nature, a fairly technical subject. The proofs have lots of deltas and epsiolons and, as one of my undergraduate professors put it, you have to work your ass off to prove anything. They are not the sort of thing where you can simply remember the main idea of the proof, and then recreate it from scratch at the chalkboard.

When I teach something like abstract algebra or discrete mathematics (not to mention calculus) I can mostly go in cold and deliver a good lecture. Sadly, not so here. This course has required some serious preparation time. In previous semesters that time might have been spent blogging.

My other two courses are two sections of calculus. We have several versions of introductory calculus, and I am teaching the version intended for people with weak math backgrounds. This can get a bit frustrating, since no matter how clear you think you are being you can be certain that it will be a funhouse mirror version of calculus that comes back to you on the quizzes and tests. Inevitably, in classes such as this, you have a fair number of students who lack motivation. I don't really have a problem with them, as long as they don't come to me the day before the final and blame me for the giant hole they have dug for themselves. The bigger frustrations are the students who really are working hard, but are still not getting it. Someday I will find the perfect way of explaining calculus, but until that day the frustration will ensue.

At any rate, since I have not yet mastered the art of shutting my door when I don't have office hours, I have had a steady flow of students coming to talk to me outside of class. There are only so many u-substitutions you can carry out and trig functions you can differentiate before anything more complex than slinking on home and watching reruns of House is off the table. Explaining calculus for the better part of an afternoon has its satisfactions, but it does tend to leave you a bit whipped.

The other stress-producer this term was the big Monty Hall book. It is now in the hands of the printer, and should be available for sale in May. I have no doubt that upon receiving the finished book I shall open it to a random page and immediately spot a typo. Such is life. Anyway, a good part of the term has involved sending drafts back and forth with my editor, making the index, and other assorted tasks. The last bit of excitement was when I noticed, the day before the book left for the printer, that the dedication had been left out. Ugh! The problem was solved by joining the Preface and Acknowledgements into one section, thereby freeing up a page for the dedication. Still, more excitement than I wanted.

Having finished the big Monty Hall book, I decided it was time to get started on the big evolution/creationism book. Roughly, the book would be a memoir of my experiences at various creationist conferences and gatherings (and museums). Inevitably it will have some of the “Creationists say X, but the reality is Y” sort of writing so typical of the genre, but it will also be heavy on anecdotes and human drama.

Alas, every book begins with a proposal, and since the proposal is supposed to include sample chapters it takes quite a big chunk of time to produce. I wrote the first fifty pages of the book, but since it takes me forever to write anything this representes a depressingly large chunk of time. I'm one of those writers who can't bear to go on to sentence two until sentence one is just perfect, which it never is, which leads to many frustrated hours of self-flagellation (think of Nicolas Cage in Adaptation.)

Finally got the proposal finished, and it has now been sent off to my editor at Oxford. It goes without saying that as soon as I submitted it I thought of a hundred things I should have done differently. Too late now. Will the proposal be accepted? Probably not. (Did I mention that I also tend to be pessimistic by nature?)

Okay, whatever it's eventual fate, the proposal is finished. Time to move on. I'm currently working on three papers with my research collaborator, and all have been in my court at various times during the term. One of them, an amusing little ditty about estimating the Cheeger constants of certain arithmetic, hyperbolic three-manifolds, has now been sent off. It's likely fate is that eight months from now we will get a three-line referree's report explaining that while the paper is correct and well-written, it just isn't quite up to the general standard of the journal. So sorry.

Paper two is about the isoperimetric numbers of Cayley graphs of matrix groups. Putting the finishing touches on that one has been my main project for this week. Paper three had something to do with Hamilton cycles and Hadwiger numbers. I don't even remember anymore. Whatever. It still has a way to go before it is ready to be submitted. Guess that will be a summer project.

It's not all bad news. An expository paper about the Monty Hall problem that I wrote with two coauthors was accepted for publication in one of the MAA journals. Yay! The editor wanted some pretty subtantial revisions, though. Boo! But what can you do? The editor gets what the editor wants. Sadly, making revisions takes quite a bit of time, since much is wasted hurling profanity at the computer screen over the idea of having to make the changes in the first place.

Meanwhile, I am also slowly working on a proposal for a book about the mathematical aspects of Sudoku puzzles, to be written with one of my JMU colleagues. Sudoku puzzles are really her niche, and she is quite well-known among people interested in this. Oxford University Press has been on her for some time to write a book on the subject. My badgering her about it backfired when she said she would only do the book if I would cowrite it with her. How could I say no? The trouble is, I don't actually know anything about the mathematics of Sudoku puzzles, though I have now acquired a large file of papers about them. Working my way through them has been another little project for the term. Who knows? I might find myself writing two books this summer.

Then there have been the other niggling little things, I am serving on a subcommittee of the MAA, a fact that will be featured prominently on my acitivity report at the end of the year, have no doubt about that. This has not been a huge responsibility, but it does involve combing through some exceedingly boring documents, while making suggestions for how to revise them.

There are also the normal little stresses that inevitably come up when large numbers of mathematicians must come to an agreement on something. This term the big fracas has been over the calculus text we should use in our standard introductory courses. Do we go with Early Transcendentals, or Late Transcendantals? In the early version you introduce logarithms and exponentials early in the term, even though this means treating them, at least initially, in a non-rigorous way. Late transcendentals means, well, not doing that. For example, the natural logarithm function is typically defined as the integral of one over x. But you can't define it that way until you have introduced integration. But that doesn't happen until you have done a whole pile of other stuff. Which means it gets put off to the second semester. Which means that people who only take the first semester never get to see them. Quite a void in their lives, I'm sure you will agree. Intorducing them early avoids this calamity.

Suffice it to say, this is the sort of thing that arouses great passions in many people. Not my passions, mind you, since I think calculus eductaion is largely futile regardless of when you bring up logarithms. But it seems like every term there has to be some great controversy for the department to fight over.

Which reminds me of a joke. What's a logarithm? It's a birth control method for lumberjacks. Hahahaha!

There have been other things. Visits from job candidates that require large investments of tiem from the faculty. Stacks of papers in need of grading. Colloquium talks to attend. New episodes of House that don't get watched on their own. Cats that are always meowing about something.

So, a busy and occasionally frustrating term. I wouldn't have it any other way. (Which doesn't mean I'm not going to seriously enjoy the relative calm of the summer). Unfortunatly, there are only so many hours in a day, and something had to give. This term it was blogging.

Sorry about that.

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well you're blogging now!

or, er, were a little while ago...

its ok. I miss you but Ed B has been taking up the slack...

post some terror stories about calc students worst answers.

By Kevin (NYC) (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

Well, I did have a student recently tell me that log_2 (6) over log_2 (3) was equal to 2. The logic was that we can cancel out the log_2 's, which leaves 6/3. Actually, there' something kind of ingenious about that!

I am curious about this Intro to Calculus you mention, Jason.

Over here in Oz, it's been a good 20 years since I was in high school, but being more or less mathematically enthused (not, obviously, in your league - but calculus doesn't frighten me), I've helped out several younger friends and family over the years with their high school assignments. The general impression I got was that they were gradually shifting a lot of what I did at Uni (logarithms, Taylor series, and so on) to year 12 at high school (our last year - I suspect you call them "seniors"?) So you can imagine my confusion when you say that something as basic as integration is left to second semester of university.

Is this intended as some sort of "bridging" course for students who didn't take mathematics at high school? Or am I misinterpreting your mention of integration to be something far simpler than what you actually cover?

real analysis doesn't HAVE to be a lot of work for the prof - it certainly wasn't for the prof who "taught" it to me a couple decades ago. he'd come in and literally just copy the proofs in the book onto the board, more slowly than you can imagine, then give us time to copy them down, which was completely unnecessary since they were all, uh, right in the very book he had copied them down from.
It was the most ridiculous math class I had ever taken. There were occasionally a few interesting homework problems that required work, but he didn't collect them or go over them. The day before the midterm and final, he would come up with a list about 6 proofs, seemingly chosen at random, and tell us to memorize those because they'd be on the exam. The exam was literally just regurgitating those 6 proofs - nothing else!
I'm glad that you're putting in the time and effort to make the class worthwhile for your students. I wish you had been my teacher!

Jason - don't give up on blogging forever. Your site was one of my absolute favourites. You may think you're a mathematician, but believe me, you have an ability to write as well.

Oh, and I have two masters degrees in numerate disciplines, but I never came across an epsiolon. Must be way beyond my level.

This term the big fracas has been over the calculus text we should use in our standard introductory courses.

There is only one Introductory Calculus text. Thomas. George B. Thomas. There is no other.

snafu and Matthew -

Thanks for the encouragement! I'll be back.

heddle -

I'll pass your recommendation on to the committee. I'm sure they will be delighted by the extra feedback.

A while back I saw my grandfather's calculus textbook. I thought it was much better than any book on the market today. Light on the fancy graphics, heavy on the clear explanations. The way it should be.

Samantha -

Sorry to hear about your bad experience in real analysis. Frankly, the subject tends to be a little dull all by itself; it definitely doesn't need the professor going out of his way to make it more boring still.

As it happens, the textbook I am using places a lot of the key material in the exercises. Since there is no solutions manual, I actually have to work out the problems myself. Oy!

Glad to hear about the Monty Hall book!

Real analysis was easily one of the dullest classes I took at university. I didn't have to take it, but I needed a mathematics elective for my physics major. Of all the ones I could have chosen. . . .

I'm currently in the planning stage of a mathematics book myself: sketching out what ought to go in each chapter, writing sections here and there to find the right "voice", playing with different software tools which might let me write chunks of it as blog posts. Serious progress will probably have to wait until the summer, alas.

There is a lovely little book, Counterexamples in Analysis, by Gelbaum and Olmsted. I have always thought that a real analysis course -- where we find out that so many of our intuitions are wrong -- focusing on this book would be very interesting.

By Jeffrey Shallit (not verified) on 09 Apr 2009 #permalink

An analysis course which explores cases where intuition goes awry would be much more interesting than the course I slogged through: "Hey, let's build ourselves a cumbersome proof which nobody will remember, motivated by nothing in particular, following a path which nobody would have thought of if they hadn't read it in the textbook first, which will prove that our intuition was fine after all."

Blake -

What sort of math book would this be? If you get as far as a having a fully fleshed out proposal I would be happy to put in a good word for you with my editor at Oxford.

Jeff -

I know that book! I spent a lot of time going through it in my first year of graduate school. It would be interesting to gear an entire course around it. I'm using the book Understanding Analysis by Stephen Abbott. It's a Springer UTM book.

I also liked Counterexamples in Topology, which had all sorts of ingenious examples of topological perversities.

Teh Intertubes need you. Someone must respond to Hugo Meynell, retired professor of religious studies, who asks, Is atheism really the most rational option?

Not only is material-ism not a necessary consequence of science; but apparently it is not even compatible with it. Why are we right to believe scientists when they tell us about the aspects of the world in which they specialize? We do so on the assumption that they have been thoroughly rational in relation to the matters in question; that, in Lonergan's terms, they have been unrestrictedly attentive to the relevant data; intelligent in envisaging an adequate range of possible explanations; and reasonable in preferring as true the judgments which do best explain the data. If, as a consistent materialist must claim, our thoughts, words, actions and writings are determined only by the physical and chemical laws operating within our brains, then independent thought regarding the state of the universe becomes unattainable.
Thus scientists who believe in materialism are placed in the odd position of proving by their own principles that science is impossible.

How can you resist crazy like that?

By Trin Tragula (not verified) on 09 Apr 2009 #permalink

1. Organisms persistently plagued by delusions tend to die.

2. Matter can be arranged to perform computations. A computer built on one material substrate can emulate in software the behaviour of a different type of matter. Meynell's claim about "independent thought regarding the state of the universe" is a non sequitur.

We could discuss this at great length, but really, is Meynell going to listen?

"If, as a consistent materialist must claim, our thoughts, words, actions and writings are determined only by the physical and chemical laws operating within our brains, then independent thought regarding the state of the universe becomes unattainable."

Sweet Isis, this is stupid. We have plenty of examples of computer programs thinking independently about the state of the universe. Machine learning, automated theorem provers, etc. Nothing in action except chemistry, physics and entirely non-magical computation.

I think the best mathematics professor I had was the guy I had for Applied Mathematical Analysis (Green, Gauss and Stokes theorems, mostly).

He really had a talent for explaining things concisely and clearly. The material wasn't terribly difficult, but that was the only math class I got an A in (not so good at math- I'm one of those people that had to bust my chops just for Bs). I attribute that mostly to him.

And his colored chalk. His diagrams and hand-writing were downright beautiful. I know the aesthetics of diagrams isn't the most important thing, but it did make it more enjoyable. It was even more impressive because English was not his first language. He was from India, and his nearly perfect handwriting always impressed me. It looked like comic sans.

It made it a lot easier to follow and take notes. Looking back, it doesn't seem so trivial. I still have a lot of my notes. They are five years old now, but I just can't bring myself to throw them away. When I compare the notes from this class to the ones from the Fourier Transforms class, it is like night and day.

The FT professor's handwriting was so bad you couldn't even read what the hell he was writing half the time. He wrote furiously fast and I remember there were times I just gave up on taking notes and figured I could at least try to follow along and get something out of it, even if I wouldn't remember it later. It was too hard to puzzle out the chicken scratch and still keep up. Seriously. My notes look like absolute crap. They are many "WTF??"'s and long, underlined blanks filled with angry question marks. There are some insults and profanity in the margins.

LOL. I can tell there were times I wasn't even looking at the page when I was writing because the lines are all crooked and wavy. They start out on one line and curve downward and finish 2 lines down or sometimes go right off the page. Jesus christ. No wonder I got a C-. In contrast, my notes from the other class are neat enough that I probably could use them to give a lecture.

So maybe there is something to be said for tidy handwriting and nice diagrams. In any case, your writing style is usually very clear and concise, Jason. You seem to have a pretty tidy mind and I don't doubt that you are a lot more like my favorite professor than the crappy one. But if your handwriting is unreadably crappy please just give your students handouts!

Also, yay about the second book! I couldn't get too excited about the Monty Hall book, but I am really looking forward to the creationism one.

Jason -
I came across your blog about a month or two ago, while I was sort of practicing my creationist spiel trying to build some right-wing credibility for a personal project I was working on (er... see Charles Rayney from Familiar Insanity From UD...).
Er... I am still a bit sorry for that one...
That said, I'm glad I stumbled across this blog. It is very informative and a thought provoking - at the end of the day, I'm always glad to see mathematics and science promoted. It sounds as though you have been quite busy this semester but it is also certainly nice to see that you've been able to find the time to update everyone on how you're doing.
Keep up the good work and I look forward to seeing what you write when you actually find some spare time!

Jason - don't give up on blogging forever. Your site was one of my absolute favourites. You may think you're a mathematician, but believe me, you have an ability to write as well.

Oh, and I have two masters degrees in numerate disciplines, but I never came across an epsiolon. Must be way beyond my level.