On Uninspired Calculus Teaching, the Two-body Problem

December 13, 2011

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

I was one of the many students who left mathematics early in college, turned off by a sequence of dreary calculus courses. Although I changed majors and graduated with a BA in English literature, I did continue to take some mathematics courses once freed from the specific requirements of the major; and eventually, I found my way back to mathematics. Now, as I teach my own crop of calculus students, I think back to my unhappy experiences with those courses. Am I doing any better than the adequate but uninspiring teaching that I experienced? Am I letting potential mathematicians and scientists leak away?

There are significant constraints on the calculus sequence, not without good reason, that make it difficult to change or include significant innovation. The syllabus has been ironed out by committees to meet the requirements not just of the math department, but also of engineering, physics, chemistry, and other departments. This coordination is necessary, but the crowded syllabus and emphasis on technique leave little room for discussion of ideas, and little room for individual faculty to tailor the course to their strengths and interests.

Perhaps one way to inspire early undergraduates more effectively is to inspire their professors to bring more of their interests and their excitement, more of themselves, to these courses. But it is a difficult balance to open up the calculus syllabus without forfeiting the positive aspects of a well-coordinated sequence.

Victoria Howle
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Texas Tech University


*****

To the Editor:
Have you heard of the two-body problem? Not the one in physics---here I mean the difficulty for an academic to maintain a healthy and ideal relationship.

An academic often faces the inevitable need to keep moving around. It is extremely rare that the position best for your career is also best for your family. Does it necessarily have to be a choice between career and family?

Happy exceptions are when your partner is also an academic and you are both offered a position at the same university. But such exceptions are rare. This problem is especially serious for young researchers who have no idea when and where they will settle down, or even where they might be next year.

A colleague suggested that perhaps we could help young researchers make more temporary visits. Would this be a good solution? Another opinion was that being able to stay in academia is lucky enough, and one should ask for no more, or at least wait until getting tenured. Is this true?

Fundamentally this should be dealt with on an individual basis, but is there anything we can do as a community to improve the situation?

Yuji Nakatsukasa
University of Manchester

yuji.nakatsukasa@manchester.ac.uk




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