Calculus as performance art

that little dot in front of the middle screen is me... 

that little dot in front of the middle screen is me... 

I volunteered to do this, you know.  The department found itself in a bind when the lecturer who had been teaching this class (and coordinating all of Calc I and its 1,800 students) quit abruptly over the summer.  Now I know why, and all I do is lecture. 

The odd thing about "teaching" such a large class is that the workload is relatively light.  I have a phalanx of TAs to do the exam proctoring and grading.  There's an online homework system (it's got lots of problems, but it exists).  So really, all I have to do is show up three days a week and be awesome at talking about calculus.  I've been doing that for years, so no problem. 

Except there's all these bizarre technical issues.  Like, "WebAssign says I'm not signed up, but I paid for access weeks ago," or "My clicker doesn't show up on the screen."  This has made me a manager more than a professor, and frankly I don't have much patience for faulty technology and troubleshooting.  I've got derivatives to talk about, dammit.   

What's been most interesting for me, though, is the opportunity to reflect on the idea of the "lecture" and whether or not it works.  When you have an audience, er, I mean class, of 643 I'm not sure "lecturing" is the proper term.  I wear one of those boy band hands-free microphones (it's even flesh-colored) and harness a pile of technology to pull it off.  Here's a picture of everything I need to make the class go: 

tools of the trade

tools of the trade

Well, that's not even everything.  I also need the classroom computer and the document camera (a modern-day overhead projector) to really do everything.  The only thing missing is pyrotechnics.

We use these clicker devices to do in-class quizzes, but really they're just a way to take attendance.  The receiver is about the size of a small wireless router, and in a room that size it's difficult for everyone to have the responses counted.  And don't get me started on the software for them--I'll just say this about it:  it is not possible to search for a name in the class roster. 

Does it work?  Well, I don't know.  There is a constant low hum in the room, and I don't even say anything about it.  I think maybe a third of them are really paying attention.  It's hard to say since I'm looking at a sea of faces and it's effectively impossible to make any sort of human connection.  Add to that the fact that more than 90% of them have taken calculus before and you have a perfect opportunity for inattention.  There hasn't been any crowdsurfing yet, though, so maybe they're more engaged than I think.   

Mostly I think we're missing a real opportunity.  Most of them have seen the material before and yet we still just run through the course like it's the first time for them.  And, frankly, we have to do it that way because of the 60 or so for whom it is the first time.  That's the mistake.  We could have a section for those students.  Why not take the 600 and use the fact that they already know how to calculate derivatives to really get a better conceptual understanding of the material?  I'm thinking here of the approach Rob Ghrist takes in his Calculus MOOC (which I passed, yay!) in which it really gets emphasized that the derivative is the first-order variation of a function, and that the functions we use most of the time have Taylor expansions and that's how we really calculate things.  You know, the really interesting stuff.  And I really think this would help them in their engineering studies since it would inculcate the idea that approximation is extremely important in practice.

But that's for another time.  For now I'll just keep practicing my dance moves and snake oil pitches.  As Billy Flynn would say, "Razzle dazzle 'em."