Susan: #ProfPF

The reason David Failing invited me to join the list of contributors for this blog is because he saw I had written “#profpf blog?” on a to do list I was keeping during the Active Learning Symposium held before the most recent MathFest.  He kindly asked if I had a blog home where I could write this and when I didn’t, he thought it might be a good fit for the Novice IBL Blog.

So what in the world is #profpf ?  Well, first I need to explain #pf which I first learned about from Dana Ernst.  #pf came from the idea that the math world (and really, the world at large) needs to celebrate and encourage productive failure.  Dana was encouraging people to tweet or facebook productive failures and tag them with #pf.

In my math life, I have learned that failure is not only acceptable, but often required to make progress.  I tell my students in Intro Proofs that to pass the class, they are required to fail – often to fail lots!  We spend a lot of time talking about why failure is scary (embarrassment, the idea that someone else can do it better, imposter syndrome!, etc) and what we can do to break those things down.  Often, a lot of that stigma goes away by facing it head on and naming it.  A wonderful professor I had in graduate school used to respond to students asking for clarification or stopping him because they were confused who phrased the question as “This is probably a dumb question, but…” or “Sorry for asking, but….” by saying “That’s right, Mr. SoandSo. You’re definitely the ONLY student in here who didn’t completely understand that as soon as I wrote it.”  His class really helped me realize that I wasn’t the only who had questions and that there is no shame in having questions.  It means I’m trying to learn!  Confusion is often the first step to understanding.

I show my students the picture below from Adventure Time because I love the sentiment.


We often watch the following clip from the Big Bang Theory to see what doing real math looks like – not so many Eureka moments as there are “I got it!!!!  ….. No, wait, I don’t got it.” moments.

I have become very forgiving of myself for failures and mistakes in my math so long as I reflect on them. And to be totally honest, sometimes that reflection consists of “Wow, I really failed hard at that. It was embarrassing. I am embarrassed. I shouldn’t be. I was trying to learn and play with math. It happens. Let’s laugh at it and then let it go and move on.”  It’s not always a life changing reflection, but it works. So, as far as #pf goes, I’m making some strides.

Where I am not making strides and I would like some help is in what I’m terming “#profpf” – those failures that occur in my professorial life.  The times that I am really excited about a new activity that I worked hard on and it just falls flat during class.  The times that I thought we were all doing wonderfully, chugging along, making good insights and understanding, then find out that the majority of the class is lost.  The journals that I thought they were really reflecting on until one student tells me they’re just writing what they think I want to hear, not what they actually think.  I’m still really hard on myself about these failures.  I know they happen to even the best professors, but I still berate myself over them.  If I try a new activity that flops, sometimes it takes me many classes to be willing to try something new again.  One bad student evaluation comment (even a constructive one) can throw me for a loop for weeks.  Well meaning constructive criticism from a colleague who sat in on a class can ruin my confidence in a class.

I do not like this about myself, but by forcing myself to recognize it, I hope I’m on the path to becoming better about it.  I want this feedback. I want improve myself as a professor. I want to be effective and I want to help my students learn and love math like I do.  To do that, I have to be willing to try new things and to accept feedback on what went well and what didn’t.  I have to reflect on failures, make them productive, and move on without feeling paralyzed and embarrassed.  I’ve more than once heard another professor say they tried IBL in a class once, but it didn’t work so they haven’t tried again.  We all need to be more forgiving and encouraging of ourselves in the classroom. So, to that end, I’m hoping you all will join me in sharing and embracing our #profpf s.  Here’s mine for this week.

I am starting to freak out that we aren’t as far through the material as we need to be and I’m getting frustrated by students continuously asking why they can’t just use shortcuts without first deriving them.  As a result, this past week, I just gave them some formulas and did some lectures on material that with my help they could have discovered on their own.  I cheated them out of the ownership of that material and I regret it. I will look over the remaining classes and try to find places where I can do mini lectures if needed so that I do not steal learning opportunities from them. #profpf

I would love to see your #profpf s on Facebook (tag me!) or Twitter (@sbcrook)!


Susan: My Back Story

Susan Crook is an assistant professor at Loras College.

Hi everyone! I’m Susan Crook and I’m delighted to be joining my esteemed colleagues as a contributor to the novice IBL blog.  I’m in my 5th year as an assistant professor at Loras College in scenic Dubuque, IA.  Before I delve into the IBL things, both new and old, I’m doing in my current courses this semester, I want to introduce myself.

I was born and raised in Oak Ridge, TN, a town created to help build the atomic bomb during WWII, a counterpart to Los Alamos, so to say that I grew up steeped in a community that loved and prioritized math and science would be an understatement.  My dad had an MD and a PhD in pharmacokinetics and my mom had a degree in art education.  My high school offered myriad Advanced Placement and for college credit courses.  When I began my undergraduate education at the University of South Carolina, my first math class was Math 574: Discrete Mathematics.

I tell you this not to brag about my family, though I am proud of them and my hometown, but to give you a context for me.  I grew up knowing that I would go to graduate school for something because it was expected. I never doubted that women could be just as good and better than men in math and science fields because I saw it all around me.  The thought that women didn’t do math and science never crossed my radar.  I never saw myself as an outstanding math student.  I was good among the best, but I wasn’t the best by any means.  In the long run, I think this helped me in graduate school because I had no illusions to be broken.  As a professor, I think it helps me to understand my students because I struggled with math and had doubts in my ability too.

After completing degrees in Math and French at USC (the South Carolina one!), I went on to North Carolina State University for my MS and PhD in Applied Mathematics.  In all of this education, I’ve had some wonderful teachers, many of them interactive lecturers, but somehow it took me until my junior year of college to have my math epiphany.  USC didn’t offer an intro proofs course, so my first introduction to proofs was the fall semester I took honors Real Analysis and honors Abstract Algebra.  After struggling with both courses for half a semester, I was studying for a test in Real Analysis when it finally hit me that it would be much easier to just understand the proof I was working on rather than memorize the steps.  It was like a switch in my brain flipped!  I started thinking about math as wholly understanding rather than a little understanding with memorization.  It changed my entire attitude toward math and likely why I pursued math grad school.

When I started teaching as a TA at NCSU, I was frustrated that I could not figure out an effective way to get my students to see that math is about problem solving and that understanding why a method works and how it was developed is more useful than just memorizing the algorithm.  Not only does it make things easier, it makes them more fun! Math changes from something we have to do into something that we want to do.  I started talking about this with other TAs, but none of us had a good solution.

The spring of my third year at NCSU, a friend forwarded me an email invitation to an IBL Workshop to be held before The Legacy of R.L. Moore Conference in Austin that summer. My friend couldn’t go due to an internship, but encouraged me to consider going.  The application was short enough, I’d never been to Austin, and the idea of a workshop and conference on teaching intrigued me, so I applied and was happy to be accepted.  I went thinking I’d learn some new teaching skills, but left having had the most transformative and influential experience in my teaching life.  This method proposed a solution to my quandary.  I still struggle to break students of their feeling that math is algorithms to be memorized, but IBL provides me with tools to help. I met so many IBL rockstars who have become mentors and friends to me.  I left that conference (and every IBL conference I’ve attended since) feeling excited and knowing that I could make a change in how my students view mathematics.

That spring as part of a fellowship at NCSU I had the opportunity to teach my own section of their intro proofs course.   During the IBL workshop, I decided I was going to teach it IBL style and since I wasn’t sure I could get approval from the course director to do this, I was going to fly under the radar and hope no one got mad at me.  That class turned out better than I could ever have imagined.  I was randomly assigned to an active learning classroom on campus with wheelie chairs with desks and white boards galore (thanks, classroom assignment gods!).  The moment that I decided that I was team IBL for life occurred in the math tutoring center which was staffed by grad students.  A few of my students were in there studying for an upcoming test.  They commandeered the whiteboard and each had a marker in hand.  They were arguing and debating over a proof and obviously enjoying the process. I had gone over once or twice to see if I could help and was shooed away as they assured me they could do it on their own.  A student I often helped asked me why there were graduate students working in the lab.  Seeing their enjoyment and confidence, so similar to mine when I worked on math, I knew IBL was for me.

Since that initial course, I have taught Real Analysis, Discrete/Intro Proofs (twice), and Calculus (twice) IBL at Loras.  These classes have had varying success and I’ve adjusted them as I’ve gone.  This semester I have two sections of Calculus I (4 credits each) and I’m using an IBL variant for the course.  I wouldn’t say it’s full IBL, but there are definitely heavy components in the course.  I’m excited to tell you about the things I’m doing in that course and to hear your advice and suggestions on how to make it better!