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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

2011 Year in Review

It would be easy to oversimplify the past year. After all, most people would find the life of a full-time graduate student to be relatively dull: reading, attending class, reading, writing, reading, teaching, and reading. Maybe I'm exaggerating the amount of reading I've done, but maybe I'm not -- I added up the cost of all the books I ordered from Amazon in 2011 and came up with a total of just short of $1200. And that doesn't include all the pages from journal articles, blogs, and other websites that I've read.

But it's not just about reading. It's about engaging with ideas, and therein lies many of my favorite moments of the year: time spent with fellow students and professors, talking and debating. There are pros and cons to the cohort system in the School of Education at CU-Boulder, but when your cohort-mates are as good as mine, it's a plus. So special thanks to (in no particular order) Ben, Sara, Alaina, Ashley, Katie, Clara, Karla, Ryan, Antonio, Joanna, Cristin, Ruhan, Tori, David, Chad, both Jackies, all four Michaels, and especially to Susan, who partnered with me for research and lent support in times of both ambition and apathy. I also have some great officemates: Ryan, Louisa, Michael, Bill, and Vinny have provided hours of great conversation. I'd also like to thank the professors I've had this year: Ken Howe, Greg Camilli, Susan Jurow, David Webb (twice), Henk van der Kooij, Sonja Palha, Derek Briggs, and Linda Mizell. There are many more people to thank, but I'll get to them as I run through a few of the year's highlights.

Finbarr (Barry) Sloane
As a master's student I was advised by David Webb, who is almost singly responsible for me being at CU. But upon being accepted into the PhD program, I was assigned to a new advisor, Barry Sloane. It wasn't by my choice, but David assured me it would be okay. He was right.

As a first-year doctoral student, being advised by Barry was a real treat and I think more than a couple of my classmates were a bit jealous. It isn't just that Barry is wicked smart and hugely likable with his Irish charm, although that was part of it. What made me feel most comfortable about Barry was his commitment to supporting graduate students. While many of us break down the mission of School of Education into teaching vs. research, as if the two are disjoint and in opposition, Barry's focus on supporting me as a student, teacher, and as a researcher was comforting and confidence-inspiring. Unfortunately, external and completely understandable factors led Barry to the difficult choice to leave CU-Boulder, so my time under Barry's direct tutelage wrapped up early in the summer. Thankfully, David Webb again took over as my advisor, a position I feel like he never really left.

Conference Presentations
Some people like conferences because it gives them a chance to travel and explore different cities. Some like conferences because it gives them time to socialize with colleagues from long ago or far away. Call me crazy, but for me the best thing about a conference is the conference itself. Until this year I'd only been an attendee, but this fall I had two opportunities to be a presenter.

Shortly after attending the NCTM Regional Conference in Denver in the fall of 2010, I submitted a proposal to present at the Regional in Albuquerque in fall of 2011. The amount of time between proposing and presenting is a bit ridiculous, but it gave me time to prepare a 90-minute workshop. This summer, during a class with David Webb, Henk van der Kooij, and Sonia Palha, I gave a very abbreviated version of the presentation as my final class project. It didn't go all that well, but showed enough promise to get me invited as a presenter at the 3rd International Realistic Mathematics Education Conference in September on the CU campus. It's a small conference and I presented during the last session so only about a dozen were there for my workshop, but it went quite well and prepared me for my presentation at the NCTM Regional in Albuquerque about a month later. There my workshop included more than 60 people, and it was nice to share with them some teaching methods that they'd never seen before. I've posted the slides of the presentations at http://mathed.net, and have resolved to write up the presentation soon for those who couldn't attend.

Teaching
There were no opportunities for me to teach at CU as a master's student, and my assistantship as a first-year doctoral student was helping Barry with research. After two years away from the classroom I really wanted to teach a class again. In a true case of "be careful what you wish for," in the fall I was assigned to teach not one but four classes, a heavy (but not unheard of) teaching load for a full-time doctoral student. Three of the classes were for CU Teach, a program designed to recruit and introduce math and science students to teaching. Each one of those classes met for 1.25 hours once a week, and I had the pleasure of working with my co-teachers Kim Bunning, Julie Andrew, and George Ortiz. I taught those courses like I'd never taught them before, which is to say not very well. There are a lot of administrative hurdles in getting students placed into schools that I wish I could have handled better. Thankfully, I'll get a second shot at all of those courses this spring. My fourth class was a 3-hour basic statistics class for non-education undergraduates. That class was a fair amount of work, but things came together pretty well at the end and getting to know those students -- mostly math-phobic upper-division students who had been avoiding taking math elsewhere during their time at CU -- was a great reminder of why I love teaching.

A Typical Summer Day
To some this will sound boring, but I thoroughly enjoyed my average summer days: wake up, read the news and blogs, go running on Boulder's awesome trail system, do some reading/blogging/social networking, then settle in for an afternoon or evening of watching the Cubs. In 2011 I ran 200 miles (not a lot for a dedicated runner, but by far the most ever for me) and watched all 162 Cubs games. Both took dedication, stamina, and a tolerance for mediocrity.

Best of 2011
I didn't want to turn the post entirely into a "best of" list, but some deserve mention:

Favorite book: After reading so much it's not easy for a book to stand out, but if one single book summarizes a lot of what I've studied it's Richard Rothstein's Class and Schools. It would be a good primer to many of the current debates in education.

Favorite article: I haven't summarized it yet at http://mathed.net, but one article that stands out as truly brilliant is Anna Sfard's 1991 article On the Dual Nature of Mathematical Conceptions: Reflections on Processes and Objects as Different Sides of the Same Coin. Brilliant.

Favorite show: Other than Cubs games and video podcasts from TWiT.tv, I don't watch much TV. But all fall I was glued to the TV on Sunday nights for Breaking Bad. Incredible show.

Favorite album: In a pleasant surprise, I really liked Tori Amos's Night of Hunters. It's not that I doubted that I'd like a Tori Amos album -- I've been a fan since her early days -- but I wasn't sure on the album's concept: Tori's reinterpretation of classical music with her (sometimes just plain weird) lyrics. Instead, the album's concept is its greatest strength, and many long-time fans admit that it was the album she was born to make.

Favorite tech hardware: This is a bit of an upset, but edging out my first smartphone (a Droid X) and tablet (an ASUS Transformer) are my Sennheiser HD 595 headphones. The price has risen dramatically due to them no longer being produced, but I wore them for hundreds of satisfying hours as I read, wrote, and relaxed. I still get a little happy feeling every single time I put them on, and I can honestly say I might not have enjoyed Night of Hunters and a lot of other music as much without them.

Favorite tech software: Keeping journal articles and citations organized is a major task for an academic, and it's made more difficult when you use multiple computers with multiple operating systems. Fortunately, I found Mendeley and have been serving as a Mendeley Advisor this past year, giving presentations in the School of Ed and at the CU library. Sadly, it's not open source, but it is free and has a great community around it.

Favorite tech service: This one is simple: Google+. For the first time I feel like I've found a social network that allows for the right mixture of features, sharing, and privacy. If you're not already using it I bet you will be by the end of 2012.

Have a great 2012, everyone!