Saturday, September 8, 2012

Big (?) Ideas for 2012

With the start of the school year (for some people :-)), Aurelie Thiele is back and blogging again, starting with a post about some of the themes from the annual “big ideas” issue of "The Atlantic". I'm not sure exactly how big these ideas are, and the meritocrat in me disagrees with the third one (lotteries for college admissions), but the first two certainly resonate, as does the fourth (hire introverts -- believe it or not, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I'm one). The first two resonate in part due to person experiences.

The right to be forgotten: This pertains to the ability of an individual to insist that old elements of their Internet "footprint" be deleted. There's no easy answer here: the right to privacy, free speech, censorship, domestic and international law are all tangled up in this. There is, however, one fairly straightforward partial answer: assume that anything you put out on the Internet is out there permanently. Hence, if something strikes you as potentially embarrassing, don't do it.

Case in point: quite a few years ago I taught a course in business use of the Internet, which included the basics of creating and maintaining a web site, including HTML and producing dynamic pages (using Cold Fusion). During the course, students did a series of homework assignments that created a personal web site (hosted on a university server). I warned them, day one, that anything they posted was visible to the networked portion of the planet, and that they should accordingly avoid anything embarrassing. One of the assignments was to a create a web form. The context of the form was up to them, so long as it met reasonable standards of decency, but the form had to have at least one of every HTML form element (radio buttons, text fields, a password field, ...).

One young lady created a form that I think had something to do with how the respondent spent his/her free time. One of the questions was "How many people have you murdered lately?" It was obviously intended to be humorous. I cringed internally a bit, but it met the standards of the assignment, and so I accepted it.

Not too long after the student graduated, I got a somewhat frantic message from her. She was interviewing for a position with a company, and as part of their vetting process they routinely looked people up on search engines. So she did a Google search for her own name and found her old course web site ... including the aforementioned form. Her immediate concern was how to get the site taken down from the university server, but as I pointed out to her, search index entries can outlive the sites they index, and back then Google kept cached copies of sites. (I'm not sure if they still do.) I explained the general mechanics of getting a site deleted from a search index -- the specifics vary from one engine to the next -- and wished her luck. I'm pretty sure at that point she was regretting her choice of questions for the form.

Boot camp for teachers: The gist of this idea is that practice teaching, in a simulated classroom environment (including simulated students), is the best way to prepare for the unpredictability of an actual classroom.

I was a graduate teaching assistant in mathematics during my doctoral program. Our department scheduled an orientation for new TAs prior to the start of fall term. As part of it, each of us had to prepare a lesson (for the freshman pre-calculus algebra course) and deliver it to a room full of professors, senior doctoral students and our fellow new fish. The professors and senior doctoral students played the roles of freshmen attending the course, and the senior doctoral students took particular pleasure in simulating undergraduate student behavior to the best of their ability. (Happily, this was before smart phones existed.)

I recall one new TA running through an algebra lesson when a simulated student (one of the older doctoral candidates) interrupted him: "Why?" The teacher-to-be launched into some calculations, which the "student" promptly interrupted with another "Why?"  As the new TA broke the calculation down into smaller and smaller steps, his tormentor questioned each one with that same three letter interrogative ... until finally a clearly exasperated TA blurted out "Because that's how God made the real numbers!"

Possible theological concerns aside, that is not likely to be an answer that would satisfy a real student. Moreover, as we new people eventually learned, part of teaching is classroom management -- you can't drop too much time on one question, unless perhaps the entire class is stuck on it, and if you focus too much on one student the others may tune out. A carefully worded variant of "see me after class" may be the best response to the situation being simulated, a very realistic albeit slightly exaggerated scenario.

Having sat through that, and looking back on my own teaching career, I can definitely say that a healthy dose of simulated teaching can head off some potentially significant classroom problems. In fact, I would have benefited from more than that one session, although at the time I doubt I would have appreciated the extra training.

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