Northfield & St. Paul

I was in Northfield last week. I came back there late last Sunday after the Highway 61 adventure. I seriously underestimated the traveling time. The country is so big. The GPS is exact to the minute. It has a womens’ voice – somewhat mechanical though, as if it is put together from bits of pieces of speech, as it probably is, but personal and reassuring all the same. Amazingly – and you won’t believe this – one morning when I opened the car it greeted me with “Hi, how are you today?”. I was so stunned that I decided to greet it (or her) with “Hi Honey” every morning. Anyway, she’s exact to the minute. If she says 2 hours and 53 minutes, then it is precisely that. It’s not like when you’re downloading from the Internet when it starts out with two hours or so but then quickly goes down to a few minutes. No way – this is reality – not virtuality.

But luckily I didn’t have to look for a motel – I had booked myself into the same as I stayed in for the first night. I called Karen Saxe on route, somewhat embarrased for running late,  and we decided that I should go to Carleton College first thing on Monday morning and meet with Deanna Haunsperger. Together they had set up a tough schedule for the week. But that was fine – it was time to address the questions I try to answer in earnest.

I spent Monday on Carleton, Tuesday and Wednesday at Macalester in St. Paul (went there with Karen), and then Carleton again on Thursday. I went to quite a few classes, not just calculus, which would perhaps be the most appropriate, but also to Combinatorics, Number Theory, Statistical Modelling to name a few.

But what can you actually learn from sitting in on a class? It’s like dropping down arbitrarily in the middle of a process of teaching and learning. Here are some general observations. It is interesting to see how different the teaching styles are. But a general impression is that the pace in the courses are quite unhurried – almost leisurely. Often there is a natural dialogue with the students – they do answer questions and ask questions – they seem active, though I saw one or two sleeping! Some teachers have very nice handwriting – the formulas comes out as artwork on the blackboard, some teachers have the formulas on-screen and work the examples on the board. I would characterize this as “classical” teaching of good quality.

In Sweden we have no tradition of sitting in one each others classes. I understand it is not that unusual in the US – and it is a part of the tenure track process. I think we should start to do this in Sweden. That would undoubtedely improve teaching. I’ve been teaching for thirty years, but still I mostly carry away one small bit of inspiration from every class I go to.

I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to talk to so many people at these two colleges. In particular to Karen and Deanna and Stephen Kennedy, and to Dave Bressoud and Paul Zorn (former and present presidents of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and to Ted Vessey. What I learned, I will try to sort out in another post.

Because, I kept asking one question to people I met. It ran something like this:

“In what way does the Liberal Arts context – or environment – influence the way mathematics is taught at Liberal Arts colleges as compared to other colleges?”

This is my Key Question.  An answer to this question that would perhaps provide a clue to the corresponding question on how to incorporate the European concept of “Bildung” into the very structure of mathematics courses and teaching.

I also enjoyed the social events: Dinner out with Karen and Deanna and their families on Monday night, a downtown beer with Paul on Tuesday night and a dinner out on Wednesday with Ted and his wife Margie.

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