35% Contained

When we listen to news of forest fires being fought in California or Montana (or wherever), it seems that there is a running assessment of the containment of the fire. It’s 5% contained, or 35%, and then about the time I am thinking “but that’s only a third,” the fire is resolved and the news moves on to the next crisis.

I have a feeling that semesters run much the same way. I set up and manage all of the instructional technology applications that we use in our math classes, and these all—web homework, student information forms, databases, etc.—need to be set up and updated (daily) at the beginning of the semester. The result of this is that I spend a lot of time, as I describe it, “putting out fires.” Dealing with what has to be done, then finding that class needs to be taught, and then on return from class disappearing under the pile of new e-mail that came in while I was teaching. It’s a state that makes getting much more done than what must be completed this afternoon (or, if I am lucky, tomorrow) all but impossible, but I have this sense that at some point in the semester the fires should be contained or put out and there will be time to stop and think and maybe get some other things done.

That point of containment always occurs much later than I think it should, of course, and even when (if) it does there is never the expanse of time I expect—the news cycle moves on to other crises, after all. But each semester I still think that in about a month I should suddenly be able to work on Other Projects, only to have the expectation dashed by a frenetic onslaught that just keeps coming. But at the end of the day having all of these things to do, that need to be done, is part of what makes working in this environment so much fun.

Our web homework server is providing on-line homework for on the order of, in the fall semester, 5000 students in over 160 web homework “courses” (classes, or class-sections). (We also support some 45 courses for the University of Michigan Dearborn’s math department). And our courses have multiple schedules for the deadlines for the homework—the calculus I sections that meet MWF have different due dates than those that meet TThF, and so on. Throughout our drop/add period we are seeing hundreds of students adding and dropping different courses and class-sections. Even with some degree of automation, perhaps it is no surprise that the fires start as fast as I can put them out. On the other hand, it’s amazing that it all seems to work as smoothly as it does.

And I think that this is part of what is so much fun about this part of our program. We actually are able to administer 160 homework assignments (or, if you count the different schedules, about 660 assignments) and give over 11,000 proctored skills tests to those 5000 students in the course of the semester! Equally amazingly, this piece is only one of the many moving parts present in these courses. And all of those parts are held together at the center of our instructional program by the students and instructors in those courses, with whom we all get to work as we put out the fires and keep it all running. It’s a lot of fun to get to manage all of the technology, but even more fun to work with all the people involved in using it in pursuit of learning.

And student learning is, of course, the important part. On a personal level, this comes to the surface when I leave the on-line systems behind and walk into the classroom. Peculiarly, it’s also a bigger job, in some respects, to teach those 26 students than it is to manage the on-line homework for the 162 courses and all of their instructors. I have always thought that teaching one class could be a full-time job if one let it be. There are worksheets to write or modify, material to figure out so that what’s difficult is explained, logical progressions through the material to bring into focus. And then we walk into the space where the students are working on all of these things. I feel as if that’s where we all get away from the fire-line. I leave the e-mail disasters behind, students leave their deadlines to queue up at the door with my e-mail and smoldering fires, and we get to play with orthogonal projections. Or inner products, or whatever the topic of the day is. We think about the pictures behind them, stop to marvel at their application, start a problem only to discover that it actually isn’t straightforward. And we work it out. At least until the class-hour ends, at which point we go back out to see what the queues of homework deadlines or crises at the door looks like. We check the containment status of our many fires, and go back to the line.

Until next class.