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200 Days in the Life of the College

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Monday, February 28

A seminar where you write your own textbook

By Ayebea Darko ’13

Math at Hamilton is not just about numbers. Yes, there is multiplication, and the department has in fact tripled its number of majors in the past 20 years, to about 50 today. But that expansion also led to the creation of a senior seminar program, in which Professor Richard Bedient and Associate Professor Sally Cockburn not only challenge students with interesting problems but also teach them to write about mathematics and to present their work orally.

For 15 years, Bedient has taught a topology seminar in which students literally create their own course “textbook” by filling blank pages with proofs and theorems. Students are graded on their individual ability to tackle the problems and on the communal quality of the final text produced.

Inspired by Bedient, Cockburn created a senior seminar that combines mathematics, philosophy and other perspectives. The students learn advanced set theory, also by writing their textbook, but the course becomes “more like a philosophy seminar” in which students sit “around a table often getting into very heated arguments,” Cockburn says. “The students become the ones driving the class.”

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Bedient believes that the senior seminar program hones students’ abilities to argue and articulate more issues than mathematical proofs and discoveries. The seminars, typically small in size, create more discussion and greater involvement — and allow the group to bond. They’re “an encouraging place for many students who think, ‘I can’t get up and talk about that,’” he says. Cockburn adds that the end result is a stronger set of writing and speaking skills, serving one of Hamilton’s central missions: The seminars help students “precisely organize an argument when presenting assumptions and making conclusions.”

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