Fostering Intellectual Community: Mentoring Triplets, Tuesday Lunch Bunch for All Weapons of Math Instruction, and Graduate Students Departmental Guests at Colloquium Dinners

An Exemplary Snapshot

Department of Mathematics, University of Southern California

Tuesday Lunch Bunch
Tuesday Lunch Bunch

Description of the exemplary element

In the spring and fall 2004 semesters, the USC Department of Mathematics introduced several new activities into its graduate program.

The Mentoring Triplets program triples up a faculty member, senior graduate student, and new graduate student and has them meet on an informal basis approximately once a month to discuss mathematics, their degree progress, teaching, or whatever else might come up. The idea is for the faculty member to mentor both students and for the senior graduate student to mentor the new graduate student and to help them to integrate into the department.

The Tuesday Lunch Bunch for all Weapons of Math Instruction works this way. Every Tuesday, all interested faculty, graduate students, and staff have a bring-or-buy-your-own-lunch in one of the University's cafeterias. We use it as an informal opportunity to discuss mathematics, teaching, students, departmental business and politics, national politics (at least this fall), sports (this fall it was the Red Sox; our Chairman is from Boston), etc..

Finally, the department has devoted a portion of its Departmental Colloquium funds to sponsor two or three graduate students at our regular colloquium dinner on Wednesday evening with that week's Colloquium speaker.

Details of the exemplary element

Mentoring Triplets: At the beginning of the academic year, the Graduate Vice-Chair uses his knowledge of the personalities and interests of his faculty colleagues and graduate students to make the triple assignments. It is the faculty member's responsibility to call the approximately monthly meetings. The meetings can take place in the faculty member's office or, preferably, in a more comfortable setting such as a lounge, university dining facility, snack bar or coffeeshop.

Tuesday Lunch Bunch: At 11:30 every Tuesday, all those interested gather in the lobby of the Department of Mathematics and head over to the University's Cafe 84 for a 60 to 90 minute lunch. A department-wide email is sent out Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning to remind people. We go early enough so as to be able to secure enough large tables so that we can all sit together as a group. Some people are unable to meet in the lobby at 11:30 (teaching responsibilities, etc.) so they join us at Cafe 84 as soon as they are able.

Colloquium Dinner: Based on the subject matter of the week's Colloquium and the identity of the speaker, the graduate Vice-Chair, together with the relevant faculty and the department's Colloquium Chair, invite two or three graduate students to attend as the department's guests at the Colloquium dinner on Wednesday evening at a local restaurant.

  • Educational purpose of this element

    The primary purpose of all of these activities is to foster intellectual community. They are intended to provide an opportunity for informal discussion between faculty and students, and they are probably the only opportunities we as faculty have to pass on to our students the culture of our discipline, rather than just the substance. It is an opportunity for us to make the students feel that they are a part of something larger than simply attending class, taking exams, and doing research; in particular, it is an opportunity to share in and belong to a departmental "family" and the mathematics community as a whole. These activities give faculty, students, and staff a chance to get know each other and to engage in intellectual exchange in a setting other than the classroom and office.

    Evidence of the element's efficacy

    We have no quantitative measures of how well this is working, but anecdotally all faculty and students who participate regularly appear to be enjoying these activities and return week after week.

    Reflection from a faculty member

    by Gary Rosen, Professor and Graduate Vice-Chair

    These "non-academic" activities have filled a long standing gap in the way in which we interact as a department.

    Being a large urban university where come 6 o'clock faculty and students scatter to the four winds, there is very little opportunity for informal gathering of faculty and students. Like any department, we have periodic social gatherings for faculty at the chairman's home or at dinners with speakers and job candidates. Other than the annual Christmas Party, however, there has never been an opportunity for faculty and students to get together somewhere other than the classroom and office. These activities have met this need. It has been good for the students, the faculty, and the department as a whole.

    Reflections from a student

    by Nathan Glatt-Holtz

    For many graduate students like myself, it can be hard to approach professors. Finding advisors and mentors can be similar to establishing a professional relationship, so it has been nice to have the opportunity to get to know and interact with the faculty in an informal setting. Being treated to dinner has made many of us feel like valued members of the department (rather than peons, which can happen in some departments c.f. my unnamed undergraduate institution). It has also been a valued opportunity to meet leaders in research from other institutions.

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