Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Back Up Your Cron jobs Automatically

February 12, 2020

I learned about cron jobs a couple of years ago, and I fell in love with them. Basically, they are a way to schedule your computer to do something in the future. Here are some things that I use cron jobs for:

  • Update my to-do list each day with recurring tasks.
  • Schedule recurring emails to be sent (reminders to my class about assignments, notifications of missing assignments, reminders of events, checking in with students and advisees, etc).
  • Text compliments to my wife.

I estimate that cron jobs save me at least two hours of work each week.

One drawback, though, is that cron jobs are not stored as a text file. If your computer is updated, your cron jobs will sometimes be erased. Then I need to recreate my cron jobs from my most recent back up, which might be pretty old (this may or may not have happened to me this week).

However, our wonderful IT person gave me a delicious bit of advice: set up a cron job to back up your cron jobs! I just added a line to my cron list (which you access by typing “crontab -e” in a Linux terminal):

0 1 * * 6 crontab -l > Python/CronTabBackUp.txt

The “0 1” means to run at 1:00 am, the “* *” means that it doesn’t matter what day of the month or month it is, and the “6” means to run every Saturday (0 is Sunday, 1 is Monday, etc).

Now my cron jobs back up weekly without me having to think about it!

Time-Blocking Again

February 3, 2020

I told you that I wanted to try time blocking again this semester after failing at it last semester. I am succeeding, thanks to a very slight modification.

The way time blocking was initially explained to me, I should move all of my to-do items from my to-do list to my calendar. This is a big reason why I failed. I love working in my to-do list, which is a text file that I can easily edit via vim and python scripts, and I don’t like working in Google Calendar (I like working in Outlook Calendar even less). My problem with Google Calendar is that it is too constraining—I have to keep clicking that stupid mouse to get things to happen.

So now, after my script updates my to-do list for the day, I just add times to all of my items in the morning. I can just delete the times as I complete the tasks. If I don’t finish the task in the allotted time, I can easily move it later in the day or in my electronic tickler file.

Lessons Learned from Fall 2019

January 28, 2020

Fall 2019 was an interesting semester for me. I taught two classes, and one was the best course I have ever taught, and the other was my worst.

My best class ever was my capstone class. I basically gave the students an open research question, and they went to town. I got to see them successfully get through all parts of the mathematical process, and it was a joy to see them succeed. I am thrilled I get to teach this course again this semester since it went so well.

My worst class ever was my statistics class. It was bad for a whole bunch of reasons, including but not limited to: I lectured way too much, the students had really bad attendance, some of the main technology we used just wouldn’t work (I had to switch at midsemester), the students did not submit assignments, I didn’t provide enough support on how to study, etc. There were some awesome students in the class whom I loved working with, and I liked working with all of the students. The class just didn’t, well, click for some reason. This wasn’t a terrible experience—I still liked teaching the course—but it just fell flat. I am thrilled I get to teach this course again this semester since it went so poorly.

Here is my takeaway: I am at my best when give the students more leash to explore. I have a tendency to over-construct my class, which restricts what students can do. I am going to work on letting students explore more.

Here are some specific examples: last semester, I had the students use real-world data. They collected data for one project, and I handed them the data for the other three. I gave them the types of data sets they had available, they set up a hypothesis test about the data, and then I handed them the data to simulate them collecting it. This isn’t a horrible idea, but the students didn’t get too excited about my data sets (the life span of ball bearings is less exciting to college students than one might think).

Instead, I am going to have the students collect the data for all of the projects. The project where they collected the data was easily the best one last semester, so I am hoping all of the projects will be improved. I am removing the constraint of “Bret has to give you the data, and the data must be excellent.” I really think that was a barrier to learning.

We will see how it goes this semester!

Time Boxing

January 20, 2020

One of my goals this semester is to figure out how to successfully use time boxing. I tried it last semester, but largely failed.

Thanks (as usual) to Robert Talbert,, who linked to an article that helped me understand why I failed. The key sentence from that article is

Timeboxing is different because it encourages you to focus on time instead of tasks.

This is probably obvious, but part of the reason that I failed last semester is that I still approached everything by focusing on getting the task done. What I think that I need to do is to more the time more important than the task.

Here are a couple of things that I need to keep in mind.

  1. I should probably estimate the amount of time each task will take, and then double it. I know that I regularly underestimate how long tasks take.
  2. On a related note, I need to build in time when I can just clean up any tasks that are not yet completed.
  3. I need to specifically have time where I am just “available” to other people.” As chair, people have a lot of questions, and I need to be available to them.
  4. Talbert has said this before, but I need to figure out ways that I can make myself unavailable so that I can get work done.

I am excited about this, because I am certain that it is going to work. There is nothing like a deadline to make yourself get stuff done.

Math Circle for Elementary School Children

January 15, 2020

Hi all,

I ran a Math Circle for four- to eight-year olds a couple of years ago. It was a lot of fun, but it was tricky to find good activities.

My friend (IRL) has set up an awesome blog that details what she has been doing with her Math Circle for such kids. Please check it out if you are interested!

Advice for Job Seekers

January 6, 2020

The Joint Meetings are next week, and the job process becomes serious. We aren’t hiring this year (not yet, anyway—there is a chance that we may need to scramble and hire someone in a month or two), so I thought that I might be able to post a non-self serving post on what I am hoping for from JMM interviews when I am hiring.

Some background: I haven’t been on a hiring committee for a while now. However, I have loved hiring in the past—it is a service job that I genuinely enjoy. Because I haven’t done this in a while, this post will not be as thoughtful as I would like. However, I think that I can offer a perspective that I was missing when I was on the market.

So: here is advice based on what I wish I would have known when I was on the market. We are not in a major metropolitan area, and one thing that we are concerned about is whether you will stay. The more you can show that you aren’t just using us as a springboard to “something better,” the more we will like you. Here are the tips:

  • You should do internet research on schools you will interview with. You should generally know what courses are offered: do they have an algebraic geometry course? Probably not if they are a small liberal arts college. You don’t want to talk in the interview about how you are excited to teach a course that they do not have (and likely won’t ever have).
  • You should generally know if anyone in the department does research related to what you do. Mention them in the interview.
  • You should learn a little about the general education curriculum if you are interviewing at a smaller school.
  • You should read the mission statement of the school if it is a smaller school. Be prepared to answer how you are prepared to support the mission. Be honest: I am at a Catholic school, so don’t say that you are Catholic if you are not. If you cannot meet some portion of the mission, highlight the parts of the mission that you can meet.
  • If this is a tenure track position, ask what the tenure expectations are, particularly about research. Rules of thumb are fine, like “generally one paper per year in a good journal is enough for tenure” or “two peer-reviewed papers total before tenure” are enough to give you a generally idea.
  • You should be presentable, but I don’t particularly care if you are in a suit or nice dress.
  • Ask about the culture of the department. You should try to figure out if the department gets along. You should try to figure out if it makes decision by consensus, or if the department chair decides everything on his/her own. You should figure out if the classes are coordinated, or if each instructor gets to make decisions about textbook/exams/policies etc. I would recommend that you simply as, “How would you describe the culture of the department?” and just listen.
  • This might be part of the previous question about culture, but I would find out if people “own” classes or if people rotate.
  • Try not to ask questions that could easily be found on the website. This is not a good use of your time, and it indicates that you did not do your homework.
  • Make note of how the interviewer(s) behave. Are these people you would like to work with? Do they seem to like each other? Do they seem to even know each other?
  • Ask about the amount of “service” (e.g. committee-work) that is expected of faculty members, and ask about what some of the interesting service opportunities are.
  • The major parts of my job are (in order) teaching, service, advising, undergraduate research, and research. If you are applying to a school like mine (liberal arts and/or teaching-centered school), be prepared to give stories about how you are thoughtful in as many of these as possible. If you are a graduate student who hasn’t had an opportunity for, say, service, you might just try to think of what sorts of service work might appeal to you.
  • On a related note: we definitely take your experience into account. If you just out of graduate school and have exactly one paper published, my school would think that you are going to be an awesome researcher (relative to other faculty at my school). If you have twenty years experience and have exactly one paper published, you will not seem so impressive (although it wouldn’t necessarily be a knock against you—it just wouldn’t be a strength).
  • Not all of us are good at everything. We have faculty members who do a ton of service but little research. We have faculty members who are great at teaching 100-level courses, but not upper division courses. Highlight what you are good at. You don’t need to be perfect, but you should definitely have some strengths to make you stand out.
  • Feel free to cancel interviews. If you know you aren’t going to take a job at my school, don’t waste our time (both yours and mine). However, if you are doubtful but still think that it is possible that you would take a job, feel free to show up and interview. I would love a chance to try to sell you on our school (again, if I were actually interviewing this year).

It is useful to know that the department is almost as anxious to get their candidate (hopefully, you) as you are to get your job. Clearly, we don’t have the problem of not having an income if no one accepts our job, so the stakes are a lot lower for departments (especially in this job market). However, we want our department to be as awesome as possible, so we get really invested in the people we make offers to. This means that you have more leverage than you think, even though this isn’t a great market.

One unexpected outcome of my interview process is that I made a ton of contacts. Every person you interview with is a potential contact. I met a ton of interesting people because I applied to schools that were interested in the same things that I am. Consider keeping a list on your computer of interesting people from this process.

Finally: this is only my opinion. Other people who have hired in the should feel free to add to my list/contradict an item in my list/whatever in the comments. If you are interviewing, feel free to leave questions in the comments.

Desktop Versus Laptop

December 18, 2019

From 2008 to 2019, I had a desktop at work and a laptop at home. In 2019, my desktop at work was replaced with a laptop. This was the right move. I have a docking station and monitors, so my office time is as productive as on a desktop. I can now also take my computer to meetings.

My home laptop broke this weekend. At my wife’s brilliant suggestion, we decided to replace it with a desktop. I loved this idea because our family is spending too much time on screens, and having to go downstairs to use the desktop (instead of just having the laptop by the couch) should be just enough of a deterrent that I think that we will be on screens a lot less.

So I now have a laptop at work and a desktop at home. That seems more right.

Happy grading, and happy holidays!! I will be back at some point in January.

Invented Algorithms

December 10, 2019

I have been focused on elementary education for the past twenty years. I love teaching pre-service teachers, and I love teaching the surprisingly-rich mathematics behind much elementary school mathematics. I regularly also teach statistics and calculus as courses for first year students, and I easily think that my courses for pre-service elementary education majors are the most honest to what mathematics really is. We look at a lot of definitions (what is the definition of division?), and then apply those definitions to see what we can learn.

I have been talking a lot about the merits of teaching the “standard” algorithms for addition/subtraction/multiplication/division (i.e. “carrying,” “borrowing,” “long division,” etc). In particular, I have been advocating for having students use invented algorithms rather than learning the standard algorithms. This blog post is just a parking lot for some of the evidence I found for having students use invented algorithms:

Advice I Should Give My Students

December 7, 2019

Cal Newport recently wrote about advice he would give his students. I definitely think this is good advice.

Here is advice that I think I need to regularly give my students for next semester: schedule when you are going to study. I might even make this into an assignment.

The federal definition of a credit hour basically says that students should study for two hours outside of class for every hour inside of class. I know that the average student is not doing that (about 15 hours instead of 30 hours).

I might make it a regular assignment that students map out when they are going to study (for my class, at least). I might ask them how well they followed last week’s schedule, grading on completion. I would also ask that they not use their phones while studying so as to make it a quality study session.

The other thing is this: I have not been deliberately making sure that I am giving them two hours of work outside class for every hour in class. I think that I might be under. So that is what I need to do—I don’t want to sell them short.

Chair: Registration

November 25, 2019

This post is about being a chair at a MLAC (Medium-Sized Liberal Arts College). We just got done with registration, which is a lot of work for a chair. The main issue is that it is impossible to predict with 100% accuracy what students will register for. Here are some of the most common problems.

  1. We have a low number of Math majors right now, so we have some under-enrolled upper division courses. When should we cancel these courses, and—if we do cancel them—what should we do with that instructor? This is ultimately the Academic Dean’s call, but my job is to negotiate and inform the Dean of the consequences to the students and department if we cancel a course.
  2. We have a Math requirement at my school (for now). Thus, every students needs to take some sort of 100-level Math class (unless they came in with AP credit, or something similar). The registration patterns are similar from semester-to-semester, but not exactly. Thus, I need to figure out what to do with students who “need” a class that has reached its enrollment limit. In particular, I need to figure out how much they “need” the course by looking at their records and schedule. If there are enough students who need a filled class, I need to negotiate with the Academic Dean to get another section opened.
  3. Some students have not met the prerequisite for a course, and I need to work with them so that they can meet the prerequisite (and understand that they need the prerequisite).

This requires me to work a decent amount with the Academic Dean. Fortunately, I have been working with her for years (prior to when she became Dean), and she is generally awesome. I could imagine that this could be more painful with a less cooperative administration.

Registration started at the beginning of the month, and officially closed about 1.5 weeks ago. However, I am still working on it. In particular, I am working on getting one more section of a course opened. Basically, I need to get several more students to request the course (I delegated this task). I have probably spent 25–30 hours on it this month. Fortunately, I kind of enjoy this, in part because I can usually figure out a way to make the students (mostly) happy.