CLAS Acts February 2017

FROM THE DEAN'S DESK

This month I wanted to talk about what we really mean when we talk about student success.  But in the last two weeks it struck me that we also need to say something about faculty success in a climate in which the continued funding of some of our federal funding sources seems less than assured.  Some of you have shared with me proposals–in-progress for agencies now frozen.  To you I want to say that your work is greatly appreciated, and no matter what happens will not be in vain.  Try not to be stressed over those things out of our hands and remind yourself that your consolidated thought is never wasted and often is useful in multiple ways that will see rewards.  Meanwhile, we will work to keep the stories of your good work out there.

And always before us are our students to remind us of limitless potential and why we get up each day.

What do we talk about when we talk about “student success”? When we in the academy discuss “student success” with each other, we can mean a range of things associated with students living and learning well in college.  We hope that they can thrive and go through their time with us without unnecessary interruptions, frustration or debt.  We want them to find a path that works for them on many levels, and readies them to work on behalf of others in our society.  We want them to become confident learners in their discipline and more generally. So it’s a holistic if not razor-sharp definition.

But if faculty and administrators share something like that holistic sense of the unthwarted blossoming of student success, not all of our students (or other constituents) do.  If you have happened upon the “Overheard at GVSU” Facebook thread, you will from time to time see reported there a student complaint that the grade for which they paid their tuition was not forthcoming, or some other conflation of the idea that college success is a sort of financial transaction, that somehow $ucce$$ is spelled with dollar signs that should translate into not only a great fit in that first job after college, but also an impressive first salary.  But maybe not anything more personal, nor anything that informs and enlivens a public life.

As a rhetorician it’s one of my occupational hazards to examine the way one talks to different audiences.  So while student success means to us that students are using their college time in ways that are significant to them as complete human beings, when we use that same word “success” to some students, they may hear the promise that their rewards will be rich in the literal sense--and the sooner, the better.  Those prone to such reductions may also take it further and see the grade or the degree—even the physical diploma—as the real goal, to be purchased by tuition dollars and seat time. 

Of course the student who comes to your office hours to discuss their triple major (and how that could lead to the seat at the UN from which they can help save the world) is not the student who needs a talk on seeking significance as well as material comfort.  In fact the students taking “return on investment” too literally may be less likely to cross your threshold much at all.  So here’s the skinny on making student success mean significant success: we need to be more creative about reaching these particular students in other ways--through what we embed in our classes, our club meetings, our departmental events, our department bulletin boards and our Facebook group posts.  We may need to find a moment to explain what we mean, from a disciplinary point of view, by the role of significance in student success.

And that may be easier than it seems.  Faculty--in their myriad interests, range of civic participation, and profound intellectual investment in their students and in their disciplines--embody this kind of success.  So we reach the biggest majority of our students best when they have opportunities to engage with you.  I’ll bet you can remember an ungraded, unguarded remark or observation made by one of your professors back when you were an undergrad that will always stick with you as an unexpected nugget of wisdom that is to you more precious than gold, a kind of success that far outlasted $ucce$$ and became of formative personal significance to you.  It’s true that none of the metrics of student success are likely to capture that, but when we talk to each other in coming months about student success, let’s remember we are talking at least in part about opening up a kind of human significance that sets goals and drives conscious effort not only for a transcript AND a start on a career, but a longer term vision of a significant life.

Ted Sundstrom’s Path to Where You Want to Go

 

       One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
      “Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “
       I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat “it doesn’t matter.”
      ~ Lewis Carroll

You get the sense from the door to Ted Sundstrom’s office in the Mathematic Department that while you are waiting for him to return from teaching, he’d like you to take that opportunity to think.  He has posted a quotation from Alice in Wonderland that suggests that he is not only providing a hint to students, but also making a case for the happy occurrences he has found along his own career path.

Professor Sundstrom retires at the end of this term and is also to be celebrated by the Mathematics Association of America with its newest award, the Daniel Solow Author's Award, in honor of his textbook Mathematical Reasoning: Writing and Proof.   

As the department website proudly proclaims, this text “has been adopted by 47 universities in the U.S., and the current electronic version of the text has been downloaded more than 50,000 times.”

And we should all care a great deal.  The findings of the National Center for Education Statistics insist that mathematical reasoning is a strong predictor of success:

…college mathematics placement tests are valid and reliable predictors of grades, retention, and persistence to graduation—regardless of major.  …High school and college mathematics courses should require students to engage in making connections, representing mathematical relationships, applying reasoning, and solving problems.  These strategies are more important than specific content knowledge.[i]

Ted notes that he began the journey toward this textbook long before the concept of open education was part of the conversation.  He was motivated to design a text for MTH 210 as a sabbatical leave project.  The course is SWS and he had found no text that was supportive of the writing goal.  This first post-calculus course in the major was more theoretical and conceptual and introduced students to the mathematical proof as mathematicians’ measure for truth. 

The competing forces of teaching process—how to approach a new idea, to gather information and become convinced that it is true—and the goal of content (that would be useful in upper level courses) led most of the available textbook to concentrate on content.  There was one exception, How to Read and Do Proofs by none other than Daniel Solow.

Ted liked and used that book for process, but still found himself needing to cover the content and writing which were also goals of the course.

“Active learning was getting traction at that time,” Ted explains.  He decided he’d attack the challenge as his sabbatical project and found his colleagues very supportive, “especially Matt Boelkins and Karen Novotny.”

In the sabbatical proposal, he never mentioned a textbook, but rather indicated he would be preparing course materials.  He was only thinking about Grand Valley at that point.  The committee pushed back suggesting that perhaps this was only curricular development and asked him pointedly if he intended to write a book.  “Yes,” came the fateful answer.

He was a bit skeptical about finding a publisher because of the non-traditional nature of the undertaking, but an editor at Prentice Hall was willing to take a chance.  The reviews were uneven, but Ted remembers one comment verbatim, “obviously written by somebody who has been in the trenches.”  The first edition appeared in 2003.  The publishing world shifted so the second edition in 2006 came out from Pearson Education.  This edition had significant differences from the first reflecting ideas that Ted had hatched over the intervening years.  An editor left and the new editor was in talks with Ted about a 3rd edition in approximately 2009, the edition was written and then in 2013 came the word that they would not publish it due to cut backs.

As the Cheshire cat knows, you can’t count on knowing which road you are on.

Retrieving the copyright, the timing was right for the idea of an open textbook to take hold.  Matt Boelkins was on sabbatical writing an open source text for calculus.  “That sounded interesting,” Ted notes.

“My book had already been reviewed, and that does have its advantages, so I made it available.  Scholarworks at Grand Valley is a really nice resource.  Then I looked into how to produce a printed copy.  Create Space (an Amazon subsidiary) prints on demand, has its own store or you can use amazon.com and you can have the printed copy in 2-3 days!”

“January is big for sales,” Ted observes, “and also August into September.  $20.50 a copy,” he notes with pride engendered by saving students money.

Scholarworks provides the statistic that there have been 60,000 downloads all over the world.  Ted has a website for the book and is happy to email extra instructional resources. He also uses the website as an opportunity to thank his colleagues, especially Robert Talbert for the department’s video resources.   Ted enjoys that people get in contact via the website.  Some are instructors, some are college students, and some are self-taught.

As Ted talks about the project, he can’t help but enthuse over the GV Mathematics Department YouTube channel and the many screencasts that his colleagues have contributed which support MTH 210.

As delighted as he is to be presented with the Daniel Solow Award in his last term of teaching at Grand Valley, he is quick to springboard into even more appreciation for his colleagues, such as Boelkins who wrote on his behalf and helped arrange for other letters of support from other universities.  “Really nice.”

“It is really hard to make the career a narrative, but textbook writing has been a feature.”  He describes a career that began in the Kirkhof College with teaching beginning and intermediate algebra in the 1970s.  He recalls the incorporation of the scientific calculator and arguing with editors about whether it should be merely optional in his book.  He stood his ground and cancelled the contract rather than fight the direction he saw his field moving.  He notes that he worked with Charlene Beckmann on exploring calculus with a graphing calculator.  He also fondly recalls working with Jon Hodge and Steven Schlicker on Abstract Algebra: and Inquiry Based Approach.  Even in phased retirement he agreed to write a trigonometry text with Schlicker—that too is available on Scholarworks.

“That one is ready for use, but not yet publicized,” Ted explains.

The story of the career that emerges is that success came from embracing the changes in his field, collaborating productively with his colleagues, and making the quality resources that his students needed, and having an uncommon openness to all who would learn from him.

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[i] Findings of the National Center for Education Statistics as described in “Essential Knowledge, Skills, and Culture for Student Success in College Readiness, Transition, and Retention” by Alan Zollman (Academic Leader, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp6-7)  



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