Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Teaching issues: Back Then ™

One problem I keep running into in the classroom is my students' vague sense of history.

In a way, they're not at fault. There is no history prerequisite for my class, and high school history tends to focus on wars and various dudes seizing power rather than the way people lived, worked, ate, or amused themselves.

On the other hand, when my students this semester wrote a paper on "Cinderella," which specifically marks its historical vagueness with "once upon a time" (or in the translation they used, "once"), over half of them wanted to refer to a "back then" with no there there. Back Then™, women had to get married. Back Then™, beauty was really important (unlike, apparently, Today™). Back Then™, the prince had lots of power.

A fairy tale makes itself historically indeterminate: "il était une fois." But because of my students' lack of historical background, the performed indeterminacy of the story was not distinguishable from their own fuzzy grasp of history.

I'm working on ways to counter this. Of course I gave a spiel about the "Since the dawn of time" introductory paragraph and its Badness. Also, my students often use "back then" and "at the time" as markers of historical distance. I am trying to replace these terms with more specific markers, like "among servants in mid-eighteenth-century Britain." Finally, I try to give historical context to the things we read in class.

But it's an uphill battle, when they've been trained in presentism for years. I wonder if there's any pedagogical literature out there on bringing a historical mindset to the classroom.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hardy and Ramanujan

Gilbert and Gubar open The Madwoman in the Attic provocatively with the question, "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?" Their aim is to show how literary creativity has historically been figured as specifically masculine. It's a nice opening, because it makes you think, "oh, those crazy 70's feminists!" And then they go on to quote male author after male author who makes it clear that he thinks the pen is a metaphorical penis.

I recently ran across an article [.pdf] by Moon Duchin that touches on the same subject, only with respect to the idea of mathematical genius. Moon's language is, of course, much more measured than Gilbert and Gubar's, but it's a fascinating read even sans provocative introductions.

A more substantial difference is the way that Moon addresses mathematical genius in particular. Mathematical genius and any other kind of genius were once pretty much the same (masculine) idea, but mathematical genius has since branched off and become a special creature on its own, due in part, I suspect, to the redistribution of cultural capital that attended industrialization. The article gestures toward some reasons why mathematics as a field has become the location of genius par excellence, which is in itself an interesting question.

One of Moon's examples of the mythologizing of mathematical genius is the biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan (the Wikipedia entry, as of this writing, reproduces many of the features Moon identifies--and his "genius" is brought up in the very first sentence). I didn't know much about Ramanujan before reading Moon's article; I'd always thought of him as "guy whose name is attached to theorems I don't understand."

This week the New York Times has a review of David Leavitt's novel The Indian Clerk, a fictionalized account of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan. I'm almost tempted to read it to see what it does to the genius paradigm. Predictably, the review contains some howlers, to wit:
Class, like mathematics, consists of complex equations that may shift with the substitution of different values for X and Y, but the equations themselves remain rigid and fixed.
I'd be interested to see what, exactly, Leavitt does with class (surely he doesn't evaluate some equations).

I've long been contemplating a "poetry for physicists" syllabus, but I'd never considered using a novel (it would ruin the poetry gimmick, don't you know). I guess The Indian Clerk goes somewhere at the bottom of my reading list.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Lit notes

1. Mark Twain is being produced on Broadway:
Twain returns to Broadway after, ahem, almost a century of death with a “new” play called, oddly enough, “Is He Dead?” A mixture of farce and satire, the comedy centers on a group of artists who plot to drive up the price of a friend’s paintings by faking his demise.
If I'm not mistaken, Shelley Fisher Fishkin unearthed this play from the archive at Cal and had it adapted.

2. Madeleine L'Engle died a few days ago, of natural causes, aged 88.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

New blog, fewer rants about my obnoxious neighbor

The time has come to delete my old blog, which was getting woefully Googleable, and create a new one, a fresh one, a more professional one. You will not find out here what kind of Springer-Verlag Graduate Text in Mathematics I am. You will not hear about my downstairs neighbor's lamentable and unneighborly habits. You will not see pictures of my relatives. On the other hand, I may write some more substantive things about research and pedagogy.

More to come.