How a mathematician teaches "Little Brother" to a first-year seminar

Derek Bruff teaches a first-year college writing seminar in mathematics, an unusual kind of course that covers a lot of ground, and uses a novel as some of its instructional material — specifically, my novel Little Brother.

Bruff's written up an excellent and fascinating description of the unit that uses the novel, which he's just taught again. After students read the novel and blog brief reactions to the book, they come to class where they participate in an exercise in comparing arguments for surveillance and for privacy, using post-it notes that are annotated with chalk lines (full-size image).

The result is a rich "debate map" that summarizes a discussion that has taken place at the individual, small group and whole group level. It's a brilliant way to teach a novel and a complex social subject, and to connect it to mathematics and crypto besides. Bravo!

That was phase one. For phase two, I had the groups take turns sharing an argument they identified with the class and posting it to the chalkboard. I asked students to place more practically focused arguments ("Is all this surveillance really catching terrorists?") at one end of the board and more principled arguments ("It's life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in that order.") at the other. I also asked them to connect their argument to one or more other arguments already on the board (this argument supports that one, this argument counters that one, and so on), drawing an arrow in chalk to represent those connections.

Groups made their contributions one at a time, with each group sending a representative to the board to place a Post-it note and summarize the argument it represented. The first couple of contributions were a bit hesitant, as it wasn't entirely clear to students which arguments were more practical in nature and which were more about principles, nor was it clear how one argument might connect to another. I stepped in and made some suggestions ("That sounds like a fairly practical argument" or "Your argument seems to support this other argument"), and soon enough the students got the hang of it and were adding their arguments to the board in sensible ways.

[Derek Bruff]