I have not been blogging much lately, a state of affairs likely to persist until the end of the semester at the start of May. This is partly a consequence of blogger burn-out; I just flat haven’t felt like blogging. Mainly, though, it is because this semester has been an unusually busy and stressful one. The reason I have not felt like blogging is that I have been inundated with other work, some self-inflicted, some inflicted from without.
EvolutionBlog will make a triumphant return, but until then I thought I would unburden myself by telling you what I have been up to this term. What, exactly, do professors spend their time doing?
As in every semester, my biggest responsibility is to my students. JMU generally has a three-three teaching load, which means that I teach three courses every semester. This is fairly typical, and puts us somewhere in the middle of universities generally. Research-focused schools will generally have two-two teaching loads, or perhaps even lighter than that. Of course, such schools also expect substantial research output, which quickly devours the time savings of the lighter teaching load. On the other hand, many teaching-focused schools, including many large state schools, have three-four and even four-four teaching loads. This leaves little time for serious research, at least during the semester.
JMU is somewhere in the middle. We are mostly an undergraduate school, and therefore tend to focus on teaching. But we are also expected to be active scholars in our field. Consequently a three-three load. That’s heavy enough to eat up a lot of time, but is not so burdensome that there is no time for other activities.
One of my courses this term is the second semester of a year-long course in real analysis. I have never taught this course before, and have not looked at this material since I passed my analysis qualifying exam as a first-year graduate student, more than a decade ago. Real analysis is, by its nature, a fairly technical subject. The proofs have lots of deltas and epsiolons and, as one of my undergraduate professors put it, you have to work your ass off to prove anything. They are not the sort of thing where you can simply remember the main idea of the proof, and then recreate it from scratch at the chalkboard.
When I teach something like abstract algebra or discrete mathematics (not to mention calculus) I can mostly go in cold and deliver a good lecture. Sadly, not so here. This course has required some serious preparation time. In previous semesters that time might have been spent blogging.
My other two courses are two sections of calculus. We have several versions of introductory calculus, and I am teaching the version intended for people with weak math backgrounds. This can get a bit frustrating, since no matter how clear you think you are being you can be certain that it will be a funhouse mirror version of calculus that comes back to you on the quizzes and tests. Inevitably, in classes such as this, you have a fair number of students who lack motivation. I don’t really have a problem with them, as long as they don’t come to me the day before the final and blame me for the giant hole they have dug for themselves. The bigger frustrations are the students who really are working hard, but are still not getting it. Someday I will find the perfect way of explaining calculus, but until that day the frustration will ensue.
At any rate, since I have not yet mastered the art of shutting my door when I don’t have office hours, I have had a steady flow of students coming to talk to me outside of class. There are only so many u-substitutions you can carry out and trig functions you can differentiate before anything more complex than slinking on home and watching reruns of House is off the table. Explaining calculus for the better part of an afternoon has its satisfactions, but it does tend to leave you a bit whipped.
The other stress-producer this term was the big Monty Hall book. It is now in the hands of the printer, and should be available for sale in May. I have no doubt that upon receiving the finished book I shall open it to a random page and immediately spot a typo. Such is life. Anyway, a good part of the term has involved sending drafts back and forth with my editor, making the index, and other assorted tasks. The last bit of excitement was when I noticed, the day before the book left for the printer, that the dedication had been left out. Ugh! The problem was solved by joining the Preface and Acknowledgements into one section, thereby freeing up a page for the dedication. Still, more excitement than I wanted.
Having finished the big Monty Hall book, I decided it was time to get started on the big evolution/creationism book. Roughly, the book would be a memoir of my experiences at various creationist conferences and gatherings (and museums). Inevitably it will have some of the “Creationists say X, but the reality is Y” sort of writing so typical of the genre, but it will also be heavy on anecdotes and human drama.
Alas, every book begins with a proposal, and since the proposal is supposed to include sample chapters it takes quite a big chunk of time to produce. I wrote the first fifty pages of the book, but since it takes me forever to write anything this representes a depressingly large chunk of time. I’m one of those writers who can’t bear to go on to sentence two until sentence one is just perfect, which it never is, which leads to many frustrated hours of self-flagellation (think of Nicolas Cage in Adaptation.)
Finally got the proposal finished, and it has now been sent off to my editor at Oxford. It goes without saying that as soon as I submitted it I thought of a hundred things I should have done differently. Too late now. Will the proposal be accepted? Probably not. (Did I mention that I also tend to be pessimistic by nature?)
Okay, whatever it’s eventual fate, the proposal is finished. Time to move on. I’m currently working on three papers with my research collaborator, and all have been in my court at various times during the term. One of them, an amusing little ditty about estimating the Cheeger constants of certain arithmetic, hyperbolic three-manifolds, has now been sent off. It’s likely fate is that eight months from now we will get a three-line referree’s report explaining that while the paper is correct and well-written, it just isn’t quite up to the general standard of the journal. So sorry.
Paper two is about the isoperimetric numbers of Cayley graphs of matrix groups. Putting the finishing touches on that one has been my main project for this week. Paper three had something to do with Hamilton cycles and Hadwiger numbers. I don’t even remember anymore. Whatever. It still has a way to go before it is ready to be submitted. Guess that will be a summer project.
It’s not all bad news. An expository paper about the Monty Hall problem that I wrote with two coauthors was accepted for publication in one of the MAA journals. Yay! The editor wanted some pretty subtantial revisions, though. Boo! But what can you do? The editor gets what the editor wants. Sadly, making revisions takes quite a bit of time, since much is wasted hurling profanity at the computer screen over the idea of having to make the changes in the first place.
Meanwhile, I am also slowly working on a proposal for a book about the mathematical aspects of Sudoku puzzles, to be written with one of my JMU colleagues. Sudoku puzzles are really her niche, and she is quite well-known among people interested in this. Oxford University Press has been on her for some time to write a book on the subject. My badgering her about it backfired when she said she would only do the book if I would cowrite it with her. How could I say no? The trouble is, I don’t actually know anything about the mathematics of Sudoku puzzles, though I have now acquired a large file of papers about them. Working my way through them has been another little project for the term. Who knows? I might find myself writing two books this summer.
Then there have been the other niggling little things, I am serving on a subcommittee of the MAA, a fact that will be featured prominently on my acitivity report at the end of the year, have no doubt about that. This has not been a huge responsibility, but it does involve combing through some exceedingly boring documents, while making suggestions for how to revise them.
There are also the normal little stresses that inevitably come up when large numbers of mathematicians must come to an agreement on something. This term the big fracas has been over the calculus text we should use in our standard introductory courses. Do we go with Early Transcendentals, or Late Transcendantals? In the early version you introduce logarithms and exponentials early in the term, even though this means treating them, at least initially, in a non-rigorous way. Late transcendentals means, well, not doing that. For example, the natural logarithm function is typically defined as the integral of one over x. But you can’t define it that way until you have introduced integration. But that doesn’t happen until you have done a whole pile of other stuff. Which means it gets put off to the second semester. Which means that people who only take the first semester never get to see them. Quite a void in their lives, I’m sure you will agree. Intorducing them early avoids this calamity.
Suffice it to say, this is the sort of thing that arouses great passions in many people. Not my passions, mind you, since I think calculus eductaion is largely futile regardless of when you bring up logarithms. But it seems like every term there has to be some great controversy for the department to fight over.
Which reminds me of a joke. What’s a logarithm? It’s a birth control method for lumberjacks. Hahahaha!
There have been other things. Visits from job candidates that require large investments of tiem from the faculty. Stacks of papers in need of grading. Colloquium talks to attend. New episodes of House that don’t get watched on their own. Cats that are always meowing about something.
So, a busy and occasionally frustrating term. I wouldn’t have it any other way. (Which doesn’t mean I’m not going to seriously enjoy the relative calm of the summer). Unfortunatly, there are only so many hours in a day, and something had to give. This term it was blogging.
Sorry about that.