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:

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:

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Due to a combination of too much screen-time and an out-of-date glasses prescription, I get really bad headaches if I work for too long in front of the computer.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


So far, the technologies I’m using for the remote semester are working pretty well (relative to expectations). Now I’m looking at pedagogy and (a) trying to abandon principles that are noble but irrelevant in the face of a global pandemic while (b) trying to maximize the joyful opportunities to engage with mathematics.

A few ideas so far at various stages of implementation:

  • Mathematics for Human Flourishing: an invitation to read, reflect, and write about the value of mathematics independent of its applications. This seems to be a particularly timely opportunity for students, especially math majors, to reconnect with the joy of mathematics. The only hurdle right now is finding a way for students to access Francis Su’s book remotely. I’m honestly tempted to just buy and ship this book to students interested in this option.
  • Student designed exam (thanks to @katemath on Twitter!):
    • Choose/create 4 problems whose complete and correct solutions show mastery of the big ideas in the course
    • Justify your choices
    • Submit complete and correct solutions
  • Choose Your Own Adventure:
    • Select from a series of predefined Adventures
    • Adventure materials include YouTube playlists, books that can be accessed online through Hamilton’s library, and additional content created or curated by me for the students
    • For the interested: topics include…
      • Applied Cryptography. Extra stuff comes from a very nice Udacity course,
      • Elliptic Curves and Lenstra’s Algorithm. Additional content created by me that gives a very, very brief introduction to elliptic curves over finite fields and projective space.
      • Continued Fractions and Convergence. Additional content from a fair-use selection from one of my favorite texts, Hardy and Wright’s Introduction to Number Theory. I’ve also selected a portion of an MIT open courseware Number Theory course for undergraduates.
      • Quadratic Reciprocity and Polynomial Congruences. Content follows Number Theory through Inquiry. Still curating fun resources on the internet – send me your suggestions?
      • Pythagorean Triples to Pell Equations. Ditto the previous.
    • Students are also free to pitch me their own adventure and I will help as much as possible.

Written with StackEdit.

Doing a bad job and being okay with it

The whole "lower your expectations" thing is really hard to do.

First day of remote instruction: done. It was weird. I don't know if it was good or bad or just weird.  I'm not used to being bad at my job, and I feel really bad at my job right now.  I'm sure this is a universal feeling among faculty and students, but it's also very personal for each of us.  I want to help students find the joyful parts of math, and it seems extra impossible right now.

On the "life" front, I've got a lot happening that's also making it hard to focus on doing the job.

The question I keep coming back to is, "How long can I sustain 'all hands on deck' without getting sick?"

Sorry -- no cheerful updates here.  Just wishing things could go back to normal.  I miss the feeling of community and I didn't realize how hard it would be to do class remotely without it.

Exponential Growth - activity for kiddos

Do you have a bag of dried beans and a watch/phone that can time seconds?  Then you can talk to your kids about exponential growth as you talk about why COVID-19 is so frightening.

128 (at least) dried beans in a pile, bowl, stash, or whatever.
1 plate or bowl.
Timing device

One player is the shouter (keeps track of time) and one player is the doubler (counts beans).
Discuss in advance how often your beans will double (I recommend 5 seconds to start).

The doubler puts one bean from the stash on the plate. The shouter starts keeping track of time; when time has elapsed, shouter shouts, "Double!"

For the doubler:
Round 0.
Put one bean from the stash on the plate. (Plate: 1 bean)

Round 1.
Put another bean from the stash on the plate, count the beans. (Plate: 2 beans)

Round 2.
Put 2 more beans from the stash on the plate. (Plate: 4 beans)

Round 3.
Put 4 more beans from the stash on the plate. (Plate: 8 beans)
[this should have been pretty leisurely so far]

Round 4.
Put 8 more beans from the stash on the plate. (Plate: 16 beans)

Round 5.
Put 16 more beans from the stash on the plate. (Plate: 32 beans)

Round 6.
Put 32 more beans from the stash on the plate. (Plate: 64 beans)


Round \(n\).
Put \(2^{n-1}\) beans from the stash on the plate. (Plate: \(2^n\) beans)

You get the idea.  This game gets frantic pretty quickly, and that is the kind of overwhelmed state exponential growth should invoke: "this is getting really big really fast!"

To compare to other modes of growth, you can do growth rates like Round \(n\): put \(n\) [or \(n^2\) if you have a fast counting doubler] beans on the plate -- see how much longer it takes for this type of growth to get frantic.


(This is an activity I developed as part of my Project FULCRUM fellowship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when I was a graduate student.)

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 months (, in collaboration with Courtney Gibbons, Math Professor, who has worked from home for the last week (  To download this advice: RemoteSemesterOrientation.pdf

Womp womp!

I managed to put a sad trombone sound effect (royalty-free) into a video.

That's it, that's the whole news.

Principles in conflict?

Last summer, I taught in a correctional facility. There were no iPads, no smart boards or projectors or computers. No internet at all and no smart devices. If I wanted a box of chalk with a few colors, I had to get permission to bring it in and was required to bring it out.

The students in my class didn't have computers. They had a textbook (it had to be approved by the facility), access to a small library of books contingent on a bunch of circumstances, one or two pencils, and paper they mostly had to purchase for themselves unless I got permission to bring some in.

That summer made me rethink my reliance on the bells and whistles: online videos, fancy animations, etc. I made a pledge in my teaching log (yep, still have a paper and pencil teaching log!) to make sure that whatever class stuff I develop is doable with pencil, paper, and discussion. I also pledged to keep my courses as self-contained as possible: between the class and the textbook, students would have the necessary tools (physical, like pencil and paper, and intellectual, like strategies, outlines, examples, and suggested steps for starting problems) to complete assignments -- or at least make progress until the next class meeting.

I have been just okay at keeping those pledges (better than if I hadn't made them), and I find that it's hard to keep them with the shift to remote instruction. My litmus test is, "Could I teach this course at a correctional facility with minimal changes?" and suddenly the answer has shifted from "kinda" to "not even close."

I'm trying to figure out how to bring my principles into alignment. Suggestions welcome.

Learning curves

There's nothing like looking at a finished video and thinking: "Wow. What a piece of sh*t."

Between driving 8 hours in the past two days (with another 4-5 tomorrow), trying to work with a delightful baby demanding more dancing around and being held upside down, telling my parents to take COVID-19 seriously (Mom, that's you: 6 feet from other people, no handing over your phone or taking someone else's, no matter how cute the baby pictures are), etc etc -- not exactly a highly productive time.

But! Some small victories: our campus has a license for Adobe Premiere Rush and I worked through the quick tutorial. I made another few minutes of content. I'm ready for a remote meeting later today. We made french fries for breakfast. I scripted a few really awful math jokes to intersperse in my course video playlists. When I say really bad, I mean: "Why couldn't the base field have puppies? Because it was fixed." (A little Galois humor! Like gallows humor, but French.)

Unfinished business: I've written about 5 drafts of an email to my advisees. I hope to finish it and send it soon. Probably a faux pas to start with, "What the actual eff?!" but it's the most honest opener I've got at the moment.

Challenges and silver linings

We're all facing challenges as we adapt to CDC guidelines and their implications for our work and social lives.  As I put together my plans for my courses, I'm reminding myself this applies to my students and me.

The Twitter math scene is a really supportive place.  I've found some video lectures appropriate for my modern algebra classes and I'll make some to fill gaps.  Best practices, ideas, remote workshops -- all of these and more are happening as people come together.  I'm glad my social media use has led me to this wonderful community.  I'll add some folks to follow in my next post!

Setting up a home workspace

It seems unlikely that we'll be allowed to work in our offices for the rest of the semester (which is good, as far as the CDC recommendations go).  But that means carting home a bunch of stuff and setting up a comfortable (and cat-proof, and mostly partner-proof) workspace.

It will take some time to figure out how to rig up all the things I will be using -- microphone, webcam, iPad, dual monitors, possibly a really old pen-tablet, chalk board.  And then it will take time to fix up a few issues in my office (I need to hang up curtains so I can see my screens midday).

Meanwhile, in another reality, I would have been on a flight to Turkey right now, heading off to a vacation with a goal of flying back to the US with my sister and my niece.  With everything going on, I'm obviously not on a plane right now, but my sister and niece will be back in the US on Wednesday.  I'll head back to my hometown on Tuesday and help get her house ready for her, then pick her up Wednesday and help her get settled back in, and then Friday I'll head back to Clinton to keep prepping for remote classes.

Class Preferences

Today in our in-person Modern Algebra class, my students and I talked about our concerns moving forward and I solicited some student preferences that I found useful to rethink my delivery of course material in the coming weeks.

First, my students expressed a preference for lecture-length [50 minute] videos.  Color me surprised!  I (naively) thought the TikTok generation would prefer short videos.  I predict I will get overwhelmed with the creation and editing of 50 minute videos, so I'll do short edits. But I will probably use the YouTube playlist feature to put together 50 minutes of content that will autoplay for students.

The apps I'm most familiar with for pencasting (creating digital whiteboard lecture that you speak on top of, either as you create it or as you play back the penstrokes or both) are Doceri (, fairly simple to learn, direct post-to-YouTube option that's easy to use) and ExplainEverything (, more [maybe too many?] features, a steeper for me learning curve, but it has an infinite canvas!) on an iPad.

I've also dug out my 2013 Wacom Intuos tablet, which still works with the latest Mac OS, for the Zoom whiteboard feature.  I know you can theoretically connect yourself and your iPad to Zoom, but I think the old-skool approach -- a specific pen-tablet that you plug into your computer as an additional input device -- will be easier to manage as I get used to Zoom.  I'm already familiar with how to use a pen-tablet from my math cartoonist days (ha!), so I'm feeling better about online office hours via Zoom than I was when I imagined figuring out how to manage multiple connections, etc.

I'm also cooking up a low-tech solution (h/t to @benblumsmith on Twitter, who seems to have a similar low-tech problem-solving strategy) of mounting a (physical) blackboard to my office bookshelves using pulleys so I can raise and lower it and still be in my "recording zone" with the current configuration of the old mic and webcams I dug out for better quality recording.

Okay -- time to draft out a first attempt at a plan for Modern Algebra done online!

Nothing ever happens on Mars

I woke up with the weird earworm "Nothing Every Happens on Mars" from the equally weird (and charming) Waiting for Guffman.

Why? I don't know, but in the cold light of day (literally -- it's cold and rainy here) it seems relevant.  Both for its contrast to the state of things: everything is happening all at once! and for its looming, stark relevance: social distancing is going to be, well, boring.*  I'm kind of a master of boredom that comes from not having a whole lot going on (as are many residents of more rural areas).** But I feel for those of you in (or about to be in) big cities who are (a) way more likely to be dealing with COVID-19 firsthand (a topic that's heavy on my mind but that I have no capacity to write about yet) and (b) further frustrated by the lack of normalcy.  No sports.  No concerts.  No museums.  Yikes.  At least here in Clinton I have a hill I can walk to, alone and without seeing anyone else, and from its top I can see the beautiful sunrise and sunset.

More thoughts more closely related to the challenge of changing to online courses with a widely dispersed audience later.  In the meantime, I'll be thinking about that poor Martian looking for a little excitement.  Right now, we have a little extra to share.

*And at the same time, absolutely necessary to save lives.  The latest UCSF report forecasts 1 to 1.5 million COVID-19 deaths.  Take all of this seriously, okay?  Even if you will be okay, you inevitably know lots of people who might not be.

*That's not totally fair to Clinton, NY, and the Utica area: there is a bunch happening, but it's not the same as living in a big city where there's a lot of stuff happening and you can just step outside and find it.

LaTeX in Blogger? Q.E.Done! \(\square\)

I think, my dudes, that I properly configured MathJax.  Let's see: \(\displaystyle \sum_{n=1}^\infty 2^{-n}\)

And Now for Something Completely Different!

There's no time like a global pandemic to (re)start a blog, right?

Hi! I'm Courtney Gibbons.  I'm an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Hamilton College, and I'm writing from within my own personal cloud of panic about the shift from traditional classes to remotely delivered content to students spread across multiple time zones.  When I glimpse a view of the horizon through the panic, though, I have to admit I'm a little bit excited by the challenge.

This blog, whatever it becomes, will be a place for me to record what I'm trying, how it's going, and -- inevitably -- some of the math we're doing along the way.


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...