A day of work in honor of MLKjr's legacy

You know I’m an academic because my first instinct was block out space for an abstract for this blog post.

Abstract: On MLK day, I, a white mathematics professor, consciously and intentionally dedicated myself to working only in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. That is, all of my professional activities were focused on social equity, especially along the axes of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. I’m writing this post for accountability, transparency, invitations for collaboration on any of these ideas, and for constructive feedback for those feeling generous. The content? A break down of my day, starting at 9am.

Book Club!

I have lots of thoughts to jot down about the end of the semester, but first: would anyone like to join a virtual book club?

Wrapping up the remote semester - a scratchpad of thoughts

Last day of classes! Finals, and then we're finished up.

A couple links to helpful things that I didn't get a chance to share earlier
Questions for an exam: https://www.francissu.com/post/7-exam-questions-for-a-pandemic-or-any-other-time

Tools that have been invaluable for teaching remotely
Gradescope (for grading)
Slack (for project-based learning)
Piazza (for asynchronous class discussions that support LaTeX)
Overleaf (for collaborative document editing, especially with the track changes panel!)
Explain Everything (for explainer videos)
Zoom (yeah yeah, privacy stuff aside: can't imagine teaching without some face-to-face)
Google Apps Suite (for all sorts of things but especially forms)
Google Calendar with Zoom integration
Boomerang for Gmail for the "Pause Inbox" function (helpful for focus)

To be continued, I'm sure!

Mentoring Undergraduate Research

I wrote a short piece for the Early Career section of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and you can read it online:  https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/202005/rnoti-p663.pdf

Working at odd hours

Due to a combination of too much screen-time and an out-of-date glasses prescription, I get really bad headaches if I work for too long in front of the computer. (I know, right?) 

To compensate for the breaks I take during the day, I've been finding myself up at 1 or 2 am trying to catch up. I used to do this before This Happened, but not as often: I intentionally left work physically at work so I would break the habit.

Anyway, a few weeks into this habit confirms for me that it's not actually worth the tiredness the next day even if I do get caught up. But I can't seem to shake the feeling that I am falling behind. Maybe a better way to say it is that I can't seem to make peace with falling behind.

Hamilton's Spring 2020 Grading Policies

Last night, faculty voted to make Hamilton's Spring 2020 grade policy universal Credit/No Credit/Incomplete (Cr/NC).

The faculty's formal process for making decisions is (surprise!) complicated, so the purpose of this blog post is to give a little more information: how it worked and some things I considered while voting on policies.


The process began with a proposed policy that a committee created based on faculty and student input. The committee's proposal was opt-in Cr/NC, and grades earned would be included on the transcript but no semester GPA would be calculated.

The process for moving from this policy to others we considered required proposing changes to the policy, voting on those changes, or substituting in a new policy and voting on which one we wanted to move forward. There were several rounds, and it took an extra long time because we were also adapting to the technical challenges of conducting what is supposed to be an in-person meeting online.

My Thoughts

For students trying to understand some of the things faculty were weighing, here are some of the elements of my own decision-making. It's not exhaustive; I'm listing only those things that I think might not already be evident to students.

  • What happens to students if their professor(s) get sick?
    The numbers and projections for Oneida County scare me.
    Writing with my own grade book in mind, if I were incapacitated by COVID19, my students would probably be forced to take their courses Cr/NC. Because I teach one section of a multi section class, it seems extra unfair that the other section might be able to elect grades because of something that happened to me. My own back-of-the-envelope estimate for faculty with elevated risk factors and comorbidities reinforced this point.

  • Hamilton's faculty had only 2 weeks to figure out how to adapt courses to remote instruction.
    I had to revise how I'm going to assess my students' progress using new types of assignments (including plenty of Professor-introduced-error!), and each of the policies we considered have consequences not just at Hamilton, but for employment and post-bac degree programs.

  • Many schools have already elected Cr/NC.
    Employers, graduate programs, and med schools are already figuring out how to make that Cr/NC work. Some graduate and medical schools will accept Cr/NC grades only if it is a universal policy, which means that any policy intended to provide students with flexibility ironically left many students without choice.
    There were nuanced and unique proposals that came up during the meeting that weren't as simple as "grades with optional Cr/NC" or "universal Cr/NC." By last night, I thought that if we enacted something unique among colleges, it would come back to bite us. The work that grad schools and employers are doing to adapt to college grading policies is based on what the most prevalent policies are. This is one time we don't want to stand out from the pack.
    Here's an incomplete list of colleges with universal Cr/NC policies:

    • Harvard
    • Yale
    • Columbia
    • Dartmouth
    • Stanford
    • Johns Hopkins
    • Duke
    • MIT
    • Williams
    • Smith
    • Wellesley
  • Hamilton needs a policy now that's still a good policy at the end of the semester when the true toll of COVID19 on our community is more evident. That's not an unambiguous point in favor of Cr/NC, but it was compelling to me combined with the points above and with the perspectives of students who were initially in favor of opt-in policies and changed their minds as they faced unexpected challenges.

Workflows: "live" Office Hours

As I’m figuring this out, here’s what works for me.
  1. Have course materials (weekly assignments, textbook with bookmarked pages, a blank Overleaf document) to hand.
    I have the luxury of a second monitor at home, so I pull up the assignments, etc. and tile that monitor with them so I can more easily share them on Zoom.
  2. Have a way of sharing a view of what I’m writing with students.
    I have the luxury of an iPad that I can use with a stylus to create a digital document while sharing its screen on Zoom.
  3. Post a summary of questions and answers to our online course space.
    Piazza is what I’m using – I was already using it before the online adventure to allow for asynchronous office hours, which I really like. Definitely going to use the iPad in regular office hours and keep this part of the workflow going.
  4. Record and (selectively) share the recordings with students.
    I feel weird about this part, so I have been editing the recordings down to just me to share with them. I need to get better at rephrasing their questions if I I plan to continue doing this.
    At times, I stop the recording to do a more personal check-in with students if there are only a few of us there. And then I forget to record again. A nice hack: put a post-it on your computer screen/keyboard/mouse to remind you to start recording again when it’s business time.
Written with StackEdit.


Remote Semester Orientation

Advice from Abbi Jutkowitz, Film Editor, who has worked from home on and off for 5+ years, and worked from home exclusively for the past 8 m...