Coffee with Oscar

At the beginning of the 2016-20 semester (August 2016) I decided to weekly devote an hour to coffee and conversation with students about whatever they want to share, with the single condition for it not to be directly related to class issues. Grades, pending exercises, upcoming exams, questions about textbook examples, all of that was off the table.

My goal was to break regular procedures in basic university courses: the idea of students and teacher meeting in a classroom, all arriving in a hurry, greeting with a plain “Good morning” and burning oxygen together for a certain period of time in that classroom, then each person leaving his/her own way and waiting for the next class session to repeat the process, with the rare addition of office hours to discuss specific classroom issues being those either the topic of the class or the grades.

I understand that is a comfortable routine for most people, including me, the teacher is an object to aid students activity with the same importance and relevance as the textbook or the Learning Management System, the student is just another chair in use during classroom and one more test every time there is grading in progress. Easy, zero engagement, just going with the flow as it should be. Teachers, in their professor role, engage with doctoral students, sometimes a master’s student is blessed with the attention of the professor; undergrads, emphasis on freshmen, are just there to feed university’s bank accounts. On the other side students have a lot in mind to take the time to engage beyond getting the subject to penetrate their minds and be regurgitated on tests, their schedule is so full of broad shallow content to take the time to stop and think about it.

Sure, the image is dark and depressive, but it works. It works to the point that my experience as Ph.D. student in the US faced me with full-time professors devoting their time to meetings and “research” (quote marks intended) and avoiding class time as much as possible, emphasis set on avoiding, only two of my full-time professors taught undergrads regularly (thank you Jasmine, that was the most amazing experience from the point of view of someone in class thinking about the teaching happening there).

Well, if you have ever heard the things I say about my own teaching, you have probably heard about my interest in teaching undergrads, first-year if possible, and those who don’t see math as central subject in their career path above all. My reasons are simple and may sound weak, because I have to acknowledge my preference to be more of a feeling and not exactly the result of rational thinking.

I like teaching the kind of students I described above because I think there is need for math teachers/professors to allow them to take a look at math, and I think I can help in that process. Using an algorithm, like quadratic formula just to mention a popular one, is not looking at math, and most toolkit courses completely miss the math while thinking the algorithm is the math they need to explore. Using an algorithm like the quadratic formula is as close to math as going to the supermarket for detergent and choosing the cheapest one: there is math involved, sure, as both adding/subtracting/multiplying/dividing are math operations the same way comparing values is a math procedure, but there is no understanding of the math there. Understanding the reason for the formula to do the work it is supposed to do, that’s math; understanding the value of an algorithm to automatize a process that may be otherwise time consuming and may not reach solutions at all, that’s math; highlighting the meaning of the value inside the square root and the implications of it being positive/zero/negative, that’s math; sadly, toolkit courses tend to miss a lot of that just to provide students with time for repeated drilling on 50+ clone exercises.

I like teaching those students because I think mathematicians need to improve their ability to explore opposition, to take comments as “I don’t want to be in your class because there is no use of it for me” with a smile and think about an answer that goes beyond the usual “you’ll get the value of it later” or the dictatorial “you have to learn it because I’m going to test it”. I was trained as mathematician in different ways, and my training includes the ability to see the value of math for the sake of math. But if we are to back the traditional argument of math being everywhere, we need to understand the value of math for the “users” and the value of “users” for math. And with “users” I’m not trying to diminish the position of the people looking for answers in math without getting their hands dirty, I’m actually trying to highlight the importance of them as members of the community and a huge part of the significance (and spread) of math.

I like teaching them because I think making an effort to reach the students is important, more so if the students have the preconception of math to be a burden in their academic life. Students, no matter what their position towards my subject is, deserve respect, the same kind of respect I could demand from them to math or to me. It is not only the respect of polite or at least decent words, nor the respect of behaving in class and submitting on time; I take those for granted and whenever those are somehow broken I expect for those breaks to be consensual and meaningful. I’m talking about the respect based on real interest, on mutual understanding of the role each one (student, teacher, and subject) is playing in the teaching-learning process, and acknowledgement of each one’s existence beyond the limits of the teacher-student interaction.

These “reasons”, if their emotional component allows me to use that word, are behind the idea of the “Coffee with Oscar” decision. I want my students to have the opportunity to take a look at the math, and sometimes it requires not only showing them the math, but also to explicitly point to the math and to create spaces for the contrast of pedagogical moves and everyday decisions to be distinguished and questioned. I want my students to get from me the idea of math being important and rich, and I want them to be able to ask about my views on math and life outside of the classroom, the same way I want to ask about theirs, an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations and of course respectful dissent if the situation requires it. I want my students to get an image of my respect for their existence as human beings, their needs and desires beyond the hundreds of textbook pages we have to share over the semester, respect for their moments of relaxation and non-academic thinking. And, clever or naive, that’s for the reader to decide, I think devoting an hour each week just to be available for human interaction, quick conversation that may evolve and last for weeks, sharing topics from deep political views to seemingly inconsequential movie recommendations, from educational concepts to jokes about the latest results in sports, I think it really helps.

Sadly for me, at least up to today (this semester I’m trying again), very few students attend “Coffee with Oscar”. I agree that one of the reasons, at least probably, is for me to be seen as extremely boring, and who wants to have a conversation with someone that is extremely boring? But let me try to think of myself as someone that may look slightly interesting, at least in the conversational level for one hour, and place the responsibility of this apparent lack of interest in my idea somewhere else. I think, with no other support than a few conversations with students, that this kind of spaces are too strange for them; students may feel they are invited to attend something that lies more on the side of a lecture, just not a math one, and not a real conversation; the offer of interacting with a teacher with the minimum possible power relation derived from the classroom involved (if any) is not exactly the way “conversation with a teacher” is traditionally understood.

Anyway, I’ll keep my hope for “Coffee with Oscar” to be successful, may be not successful in amount of students, but at least in the way the few attending see me (and themselves if possible) as part of the learning implied in living. In that sense, from my point of view, “Coffee with Oscar” is still far from critical mass, but is for sure successful every time someone attends.

 
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