Grant Me Strength

One of my goals for this year is to apply for some grants: two for conference travel and one internal grant for research at least. My position has no explicit expectations for external funding, and even if a massive grant to buy research leave fell in my lap, my department would not be happy if they had to scramble to cover my classes. So I have the luxury of keeping my expectations manageable.

Street sign reading

“Grant” by Benson Kua on Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I have written a few small grants before, and even had some funded, but I’m still a rank amateur. To bring my game up a notch, I’ve been reading a lot about good grantsmanship. But I’ve overshot: now I have far more information about grant writing than I can possibly read, much less implement, before my due dates hit. So I’m trying to focus on three major points.

  1. “Chase the idea, not the money.” If you’ve seen Lee Zia from the NSF speak at the joint meetings about grants, you’ve heard him say this. And he said it again at a panel here at Hood last week. After the panel, I realized I still hadn’t internalized it – I was still thinking about applying for grants because I thought I should be applying for grants. Even though I have plenty of ideas for worthwhile, potentially fundable projects, my mental process was still putting the cart before the horse. How do you avoid this? Zia gives some advice: identify a problem that you care about. Identify other people who care about it too. What will you (and the funding agency) learn from your investigation of, and solution to, this problem? Write a one-page summary of all this, and then write your application.
  2. The government is not the only source of money. Three-letter-agencies are the most obvious place to look for money, but not the only ones. Your school may have a foundation office separate from the grants office to help with private funding, so ask around. Also provides information on grantsmanship and funding sources, much of it open to the public. Your institution may have a membership to allow you access to even more resources. Advice we were given at our panel: build a relationship with the program officers, and if a foundation states that they are not accepting unsolicited applications, you can still send your one-page summary and invite them to contact you if they want more information.
  3. Put yourself in the reviewers’ shoes, either literally or figuratively. I just signed up to review for the NSF’s Department of Undergraduate Education, but the rest of the NSF and the NIH are also soliciting reviewers. If you can’t manage the time commitment of reviewing, at least solicit outside feedback on your application from experienced colleagues. If your grant is for a general audience, your grants office can make sure your application is accessible to a non-mathematician. Ultimately, be respectful of the reviewers’ time – if you make them slog through your whole proposal before you get to the point in the last paragraph, don’t expect them to look kindly upon you.

There’s a much longer list of what not to do. The NSF provides one in their presentations called “10 Ways to Write A Good Proposal…That Won’t Get Funded.” Highlights include the obvious (spellcheck!) and the non-obvious (assume a project website is sufficient for dissemination). Your grants office may even have this as a nice glossy brochure. How to Fail in Grant Writing from The Chronicle of Higher Education is another great list of don’ts. Personal favorite: “Remember the old axiom: The longer the equation, the better. Panelists will be afraid to acknowledge in front of others that they don’t understand it, so they will be more likely to recommend you receive a grant.”

Any more tips? Please leave them in the comments. If you’re a reviewer, you might end up saving us both some work.

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The Doctor is In–Office Hours Makeover

How can the students possibly stay away when art like this is on display in my office?

How can the students possibly stay away when art like this is on display in my office?

This week I decided it was time to entirely overhaul my office hours. I did this after several years of increasing frustration with my (dare I say) former office hour method. You see, office hours have always been a dilemma for me. I currently have 5 office hours a week and I love doing them because I get to interact with my students one-on-one and really talk with them about math and how they think. I also enjoy meeting them as people, hearing about their lives, making human connections. The problem is that most of my students come to the same time slot (right before the assignment is due, of course), so my office fills up with students and I don’t get to spend time working one-on-one with any of them. Often people are struggling with the same problems and so I decide to talk to several people at once about something. This turns into a sort of mini lecture, where I tell them how to get started. A few people are off and running then, and start working the rest of the problem right in my office, while others are still confused, so they ask more questions, prodding me to outline the next steps. Sometimes, before I know it, we’ve worked the whole problem “together” in my office. I always ask questions, so the students are forced to give me direction, but at times there are students who aren’t catching on, and everyone is waiting for me to work the next problem, and the atmosphere in the room strays far from my student-centered, conversational, growth-oriented vision.

Some students like coming to office hours anyway, some because they are comfortable speaking up in groups and get the attention they need in this atmosphere, some because they have realized that I will basically hold their hands through the entire problem. It can turn into a dynamic that I really dislike. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about math. That may be the problem, and why my office hours have turned out this way: there is (ahem) perhaps something personally rewarding about having the attention of a room focused on me while I play the expert and talk about what I love. I talk, they listen. And it’s not like in lecture–the homework is due, and students are ready to really pay attention!  They look at me like I’m giving them gifts! But I can feel that there are other possibilities, where the students take more responsibility for their learning and get proportionally greater rewards.


Marlow Anderson, expertly scuba diving in a sea of student questions, or maybe just the sea.

So what did I decide to try? The new method was inspired by Marlow Anderson, a truly excellent teacher and my former colleague at Colorado College. I observed that on many afternoons when Marlow has office hours, there are somewhere from 2 to 10 students sitting in the hall outside Marlow’s office. There is probably room in his office for all of them, but he only admits one or maybe two at a time. The students wait their turn in the hall, sometimes talking math with each other and working out problems there. When it’s their turn, each person gets to ask questions and talk with him one-on-one. They then leave and work the actual problems outside the office. When I worked at CC, my office was a couple doors down from Marlow’s. I sort of waded through his students on my way in and out of my office. At the time, I was running my office hours in a classroom, as a sort of problem session, and they seemed to be going okay. But I was always impressed with how he managed to engage more closely in office hours and wondered if it would work for me.

My first office hour this week was very busy because the homework was due that afternoon at 5. I started the office hour as usual, with several students in my office, and shortly I was at the board explaining something. The students who mostly knew what they were doing told me how to work each of the early steps of a problem, and the students who didn’t know nodded and followed along, writing every step down. One really cool student who has struggled on the last couple assignments was in my office, and I was really pleased, because wow, this meant the student had made the decision to seek help and so everything would go better, yay! But as I stood at the board, I suddenly realized that I was missing this amazing opportunity to actually connect with that student. We were in a small room together, but they were still being placed in a passive role. Coming in to office hours was a great step, but I wasn’t getting to know them at all. I was never going to uncover what misconceptions or confusions were at the base of their mathematical struggles because I wasn’t making them talk to me. But I couldn’t put them on the spot in front of the rest of the students, who I could imagine appeared to already know everything. So I decided to change everything right then. It was a little awkward at first, but I just told the whole room, “Okay, we’re going to try something different in the office hours. If you’re working on a problem, go out in the hall. I will see you guys one at a time. You explain where you are on a problem, I will help you work out some ideas and get on track, and then you go in the hall. You can come back and ask more questions later if you need to.”

For the first few minutes it was awkward, because I had to basically tell the students to get out of my office and go to the hall. I am constantly trying to get them in my office, and now I’m kicking them out? But with some jokes and repeated explaining we all seemed to get comfortable with the idea. And it worked! It worked so well! Immediately, the atmosphere changed. The student who seemed passive and dutiful when everyone else was in the room was curious and engaged when we talked one-on-one. Some force of polite instinct kicked in, perhaps, and each student had to talk to me like a real person when we were the only people in the room. They seemed to feel like they had more of a stake in the problem, because I told them right off that I would only give ideas, not tell them how to do the whole problem. It was more efficient, even though I said the same things about the same problems many times, because I could start where each person was stuck and often had to say much less to any one person than I had before. They were working hard in the hall, talking with each other and solving problems without my help.  But they each got personal attention, I felt better connections with them, and they all said thank you when they left.

I asked Marlow about my take on his office hours, and he made the following comment: “I actually structure some assignments to facilitate this.  What you saw was mostly small group (2 or 3) assignments, where by the honor code they are precluded from seeking any assistance from anyone except me (and their group members) – not even the paraprofessional.  This is my effort at the calculus level to ensure that most students do end up in my office in a setting where I can really get to know them.” This makes me wonder how I could actually engineer my assignments to encourage the interactions I want. So of course there is more to work on, but my office hours makeover feels like a major improvement. Let me know in the comments if you have my next great improvement idea, for office hours or building good professor/student relationships.

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Fake It Till You Make It, Then Fake It Some More

I hope my previous column didn’t give the impression that this blog would be full of life-changing professional pro tips. I have, at best, two or three of those, and I already used the really good one.

We’re starting our fourth week here at Hood, and the roller coaster of the beginning of the semester is starting to level off a bit. But every new semester brings a new set of challenges, and that goes double at a new school. While things are going ok, I still don’t quite feel like I’ve got my feet under me yet. And that sense of destabilization feels utterly un-professorial.

Stack of Papers

“Stack of Papers” by Jenni C on Flickr, reminiscent of my grading pile, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It took until my second semester of college before I got an inkling that professors might be actual people. My physics professor at UW-Madison, the impossibly kind Don Cox, started his first lecture by admitting that he always gets a little nervous before the first day of a new course. A well-established full professor still got jittery before teaching an intro physics class he’d taught a thousand times to a lecture hall half-full of 18-year-olds? It was like seeing your kindergarten teacher in the grocery store and realizing she was a person with a life who didn’t just sleep in the pile of nap mats in your classroom.

Glimpses of human frailty like that were few and far between though. Overheard discussions about professors’ problems with classes usually focused on the limitations of the students, which were no fault of the instructor. So when I started teaching in graduate school and got nervous, or made one of hundreds of little mistakes, I didn’t feel like an academic. I felt like a dingbat.

That’s why I’m so thankful to every single person who ever confessed a mishap in the classroom to me over the years. From fellow graduate students facepalming over a massive mistake in lecture to senior faculty admitting to forgetting a proof in the middle of class, your cringiest moments are a great comfort. This is also why I love the mathematical twitter community. Something about that medium seems to encourage every Great and Powerful Oz to permit a glimpse at the man behind the curtain.

All of those voices were a big help last week when I felt like a class wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. This insecurity about my class was compounded by my choice of teaching method. When you’re lecturing, you can at least pretend like the class is completely under your control, spellbound by your elegant transmission of the truth and beauty of the mathematical content. If you’re lucky, they’ll even laugh at your jokes and increasingly dated (excuse me, vintage) pop culture references.

If you’re like me, that lasts until exam time, when you wonder what the hell these students were doing when you thought they were listening to your beautiful, beautiful words.

In this semester’s linear algebra class, I planned to assign a giant mish-mash of reading guides, in-class activities, MATLAB labs, presentations, and homework assignments, with a few mini-lectures that are as discussion-heavy as I can make them. Once I realized just how much grading and prep this maelstrom of assignments required, I started getting anxious. Then an assignment fell flat. Some mild tech issues followed. My reach had clearly exceeded my grasp, and what’s worse, I knew my students were feeling a bit at-sea too. While some amount of that is unavoidable (and, in my opinion, desirable) in a math class, things were getting unwieldy. I was in dingbat country.

So I reset a little. I turned my several-page-long reading guides – each one graded before each class so I knew what they were having trouble with – into short Blackboard assignments. I’m not getting the same depth of feedback from the students, but I can see at a glance what didn’t make sense from the reading, and they still have an essay question to explain what they want to spend time on in class. I’ve given myself a breather on grading a couple of assignments by making them in-class. If I can see if that they’re participating and doing the assignment, and their discussion tells me they got the point, they get the grade. I decided to spend an extra half a class on some material they’re struggling with, and they seem more comfortable now. I don’t know where I’ll steal that half a class from later, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

Once I catch up on this last stack of grading, I’ll call myself stabilized. And then I’ll pat myself on the back and maybe check twitter before the next mishap starts. To quote @AcademicsSay, “I’m not procrastinating. I’m actively engaging in the disruption of traditional academic narratives via social media.” And I think that’s only half a joke.

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