3.2 Letter Two: 1950

File Copy

January 1950

At long last during the Christmas vacation I have a chance to tell you a little bit about my work. And it’s hard to know where to begin. A professor’s job at a big university is rather sharply divided into two categories: teaching and research. Teaching, of course, is the immediate, day-by-day work which must go on, so I’ll start with that.

This semester I have three courses, each course meeting three hours a week. Two of them are “lower division” courses designed primarily for freshmen and sophomores, although I have some upperclass students from fields other than math. I am very fortunate in that both classes are small, having only 15 to 20 students, while most lower division sections range between 30 and 50.

I use the word “sections,” since I have one out of six sections of analytic geometry, and one out of five sections of differential calculus. Each course covers the same material during the semester, and a lecture-by-lecture outline is prepared by the department. However, these detailed outlines are primaily for the advantage of the teaching assistants (graduate students who teach one or two courses a semester) and there is no obligation to follow them precisely. As long as I cover the total material, so that each section ends up at the same point, I can adjust the course to suit myself. Also, I have complete autonomy as to homework assignments, tests, and final grades.

I am not entirely happy about the freedom given in teaching these lower division courses. After all, I was hired here because my research record, list of publications, and academic grades were all considered good. In addition, I was recommended by men whose right to recommend is in turn based upon research and publications and upon the success of other men they have recommended in research and publications. In other words, absolutely nowhere along the line is there expressed or implied any ability to teach lower division courses. Furthermore, nobody seems to care very much. At least I have yet to hear any discussion in department meetings or informally about good and bad ways of teaching. Once, when I was quite discouraged about the results of a quiz I had given, I did go to one of the older men for advice. And essentially all the advice I got was that I was expecting too much of the class. Which was probably true. And yet, I didn’t really get any positive suggestions as to how to put across what I could expect.

Well, I’m not as discouraged about it as the above sounds. Judging by what my students have done in their previous math courses, I feel that I have done as well as the previous teachers they’ve had. And I believe I’ve learned a great deal by trial and error, and that next semester I’ll be able to do a better job.

My third course, analytic mechanics, is an upper division course with only one small section. There I am completely on my own, having to guide me only the title of the course, and a half page outline of the course as taught last year — which I am under no obligation to follow. As a result, I’ve had lots of fun teaching it. I got off to much too rapid a start, leaving everyone behind after two lectures. However, the class had enough sense to tell me so, and I slowed down a bit. I think that most of the students have gotten quite a lot from the course, and I’ve enjoyed teaching it.

The above activities usually take up my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. My classes are at 8, 12, and 3 (all unpopular hours with the students, which accounts for my small sections) and in between I have office hours, plan lectures, and grade quizzes, etc. I do have some help grading the lower division courses, but not really enough. The result is that not enough homework gets assigned. Sometimes these activities overlap into Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, but I try to keep these days free for the other part of my job — research.
In this respect I keenly feel the lack of the GDAM. There I could always find three or four people with whom I could talk about my problems and from whom I got helpful ideas, giving the same in return. Here there is really no one interested in the particular things I am. I’m solving the problem somewhat by correspondence with some of the men at Brown. And I am hopeful of getting some graduate students interested in the field. However, that plus the fact that I only have part time to spend on it, has slowed down my research quite a bit.

In addition to my two main activities, there are various meetings and other odds and ends. There is a department meeting once a month which is time-consuming and not very interesting. Every other week there is a department seminar which is rather interesting. Many of the talks are over my head and some are outside my interest, but on the whole I enjoy them. I was invited to give the first talk last October, and feel I acquitted myself not too badly. Then once a month there is a “peripatetic seminar” which rotates between UCLA, USC, and Cal Tech. Some of the talks there have been very enjoyable. Last month I was invited to speak before the Pi Mu Epsilon (honorary math society) at UCLA. It’s primarily composed of graduate students, with a few undergrads and some faculty sitting in. I gave a rather elementary and descriptive talk about applied math and plasticity, and thought that it went over rather well. I hope I interested some of the young graduate students in the field.

And that about describes what I do for a living. It’s fun. Next semester I’ll have three different courses to teach, with the same ratio of two lower and one upper division. However, the upper division course will be a required engineering course and not quite as free and easy as the analytic mechanics. This will be more than made up for next year, when one of my courses will be a new graduate course in plasticity.

To close on an entirely optimistic note: the Board of Regents has just voted a salary raise of $300. a year, retroactive to last July 1. Since I thought I was already being paid what I was worth, it’s nice to get a raise!

Sent to    T. Drell
J. Frantz
M. Hodge
P. Hodge
M. Miller
M. Astrachan