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)!