Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


I swear this happens with every single test I give

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 5:08 pm.

Student (waving me over): Miss, I have a question about this problem. (Points to question that reads One of the sides of a pentagon has length 10. The lengths of the other four sides are each equal to a sixth of its perimeter. What is the perimeter of the pentagon?). How many sides does a pentagon have?

Me (reading aloud): Well, let’s see - ONE of the sides of a pentagon has length 10. The lengths of the OTHER FOUR SIDES are each equal to a sixth of its perimeter.

Student (pauses for a second, and then looks up): Oh, okay, cool, thanks, I get it now!


This is negligence.

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:01 pm.

We have the technology, I’m sure, to design an inexpensive, hand-held device that sounds out phonemes for us. Type in - or scan, or whatever - a word, and it’ll tell you that the letter b makes the buh sound, and that a t and an h together make that sound that you get by biting gently on your tongue and breathing out. “This thing does your reading for you!” users would rave. “As long as you know the meaning of sounds of words, you don’t need to read or anything!” And elementary schools would begin hiring illiterate teachers who were well-versed in the operation of the reader. “I could never read,” they’d say with nonchalance, “but you never need to read in real life - you can get your reader to do that for you. And my six-year-olds, they understand what words sound like, and with the reader, that’s enough.”

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

One of my finite math students came to my office the other day, sat down, and announced that she didn’t get matrices. So I walked her through one of the examples, assuring her that row reduction was the exact same thing as solving a system of equations by elimination, but with different notation. “So here, for example,” I said, “You multiply the second row by three. So the coefficient of the y term is now three times eight.”

“Right,” she said slowly.

“Which is…?” I prompted.

She stared blankly at me. “I left my calculator in my car.”

There are aspects of this job that could - should - earn me Academy Awards. For instance, at the news that computing three times eight was not only something that couldn’t be done instantaneously, but was in fact something that could not even be done with a minute to think about it - I did not weep, or choke. I did not tear my hair, rent my clothes, or curse the heavens. I merely stared ahead for a second.

Or perhaps more than a second, because my student then giggled - ostensibly to lighten the mood - “Seriously, it’s really bad, I use my calculator to do five times one.”

The staring ahead on my part must have continued, because my student went on: “Like, my niece is six years old, and comes home from school showing us what she can do on her calculator. It’s terrible!” she declared righteously.

It really is.

My student was resigned to never learning her times tables; she’s too old for that, she informed me unapologetically, and besides, she’s in university now.

The rest of the day’s events included - but were not limited to - an adult student taking issue with the line “5/2+5/2=5″ on the blackboard - “isn’t that 5+5 over 2+2?”

Again with the poker face on my part, followed by, “What’s a half plus a half?”

She narrowed her eyes at me, the simple question a distraction from the real issue, the serious and difficult matter of adding 5/2 to itself . “A whole,” she replied.

“So five halves plus five halves?”

A pause. “Oh. Five wholes.”

(This, by the way, is the job at which I’m merely temping, as I lack a Ph.D. Exactly how that additional qualification would enable me to educate students who can’t add fractions or multiply single digit integers is beyond me.)

These are two of my students. There are others, many others, students who cling desperately to their calculators, those little black boxes.

These students were promoted through grade three, and then grade four, and then grade five, and then grade six, and all the way up to grade twelve lacking the ability to assimilate the simplest of numerical data on their own. All manner of quantitative data must be mediated through a machine before they can deal with it in even the most basic of terms. If apples are two for a dollar, and they want to buy seven of them, they have no concept of how much they’ll end up paying. If they need to double a recipe that calls for a third of a cup of sugar and a half a cup of flour, they’ll end up wasting their time with quarter-cups and sixth-cups (do those exist?) only to wonder why their cake is so small, given that they used two sixths of a cup of sugar and two quarters of a cup of flour - twice what the recipe called for.

Promoting those students through eight, ten years of math classes is absolute negligence, and I point my finger at every teacher, parent, and school administrator who didn’t notice or didn’t care that the children they were charged with educating could not deal with numbers in any sense whatsoever. Being unable to multiply eight by three without a calculator is like being unable to understand a Japanese movie without subtitles. But I never passed a Japanese class.

And, alas, there are those other four fingers pointing back at myself, as protocol here is to pass virtually everyone who puts in an effort. But again, I’m temping, and the insufferable cynic in me is tempted to assign everyone a grade of 40%, and explain - yes, that’s 10% for quizzes, 60% for tests and 30% for the final, and your grades were 70%, 65%, and 55% respectively, so that’s 40%. I submit that students who don’t argue don’t deserve to pass.


‘I will wait and see if we get any instructions from Washington on that one’

File under: Character Writ Large, Sound And Fury, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:50 pm.

Dear Mr. Cellucci,

OUR brave men and women in uniform gave their lives so that we wouldn’t have to bend to the will of yours. Has it occurred to you that we take “our values and our freedoms” pretty seriously, too?


The part where you try to teach them math is the easy part of the job.

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:07 pm.

Can anyone think of a tactful way to say, “Listen, I’m happy to help you out whenever you want during my office hours, but for crying out loud, could you please have some consideration and not roll around in cigarette smoke before entering my poorly-ventilated little space here?”

This isn’t a case of “dude smoked a cigarette before coming in here”. This is a case of “dude smoked god knows how many cigarettes, and never rinsed his mouth out or brushed his teeth EVER, and never washed the outfit that he’s wearing.” He was in here for ten minutes, and I’m feeling seriously ill.



File under: Know Thyself, I Like To Ride My Bicycle. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:14 am.

My last bicycle cost me $150. It did the job - it got me from A to B, for most pertinent values of A and B in Vancouver - and didn’t do much else. It was rusty, and some of the gears didn’t shift too smoothly, and pedalling uphill was more of an ordeal than it would have been on a more expensive bike. However, spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars, can you imagine? - on something like a bicycle is irresponsible, plain and simple. It’s just not necessary. There are better uses for that sort of money.

That said: since I live in a town with formidable hills, no supermarket within a 1.5-hour walk, and an anemic public transit system, I feel no guilt whatsoever over having spent that sort of money on my new car.


Jobs are for the little people.

File under: Righteous Indignation, No More Pencils, No More Books, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 1:53 pm.

Heading back from lunch from the cafeteria the other day, I remembered that university is not job training.

I know for a fact that university is not job training, because lots of people said as much over the past several years, and they’d know: high school teachers, parents, parents of friends, friends of parents, university professors, ministers of education, yadda. University is a place to learn! to enrich yourself! to grow as a person! Which was fine with me, because I liked to learn and I was all about enriching myself and growing as a person. And sure enough, after however many years of postsecondary education, there was no earthly way I could have mistaken my abstract meanderings in pure mathematics or my readings in philosophy for any sort of job training. I had jobs during university, to be sure, and I earned procured those jobs through the co-op program at my alma mater, and I would not have been hired if I hadn’t been enrolled in The Very Best Place To Study Math In Canada, but it’s not like the actual classes I was taking at TVBPTSMIC were in any way preparing me for those jobs. They weren’t. I credit the stars and the planets for my good fortune: I turned 19, and then 20, and then 21 before the high-tech industry crashed and burned, way way back when every company with a computer was lining up to pay some inexperienced student to design a database or to document the database that the last student designed.

University was not job training, we were told by our elders, baby boomers and their parents who - by choice or by fate - may or may not have enriched themselves or learned for the sake of learning or grown as people, but who in any case could safely extol the virtues of above because they had jobs. Not to mention job security, that elusive prize that those of us born in the 70’s and after have virtually no concept of. We might, if we could find employment in our own fields - another concept foreign to us.

I’m employed in my own field, but I don’t expect to be indefinitely, in part because I bore easily and anticipate that I’ll be looking for a change sometime soon. Virtually no one my age I know is employed in their field of study. Why should they be? University, after all, is not job training. The notion of being employed in one’s field of study is practically a contradiction in terms.

Around halfway through graduate school I found myself thinking that it would be nice if one day I could actually have a job. I mentioned this to my officemate, who looked at me askance as only graduate students can when confronted with the possibility of one day having a job. Academic jobs are hard to come by, but that’s ok, because no one at my grad school expected to ever graduate. (One former classmate, a chap in his mid-thirties, has been around for the past seven years. I ran into him last week; he was in a coffee shop, writing up his thesis. Writing up your thesis? I said, because this guy had never indicated that he would ever have a thesis to write up. “[My advisor] got frustrated,” he told me, “so he just told me the answer to my problem. So I’m writing it up.” Then he paused, and continued, “I have no idea what I’ll be doing next year.”)

There’s something preposterously elitist about spending ten, fifteen, twenty years of one’s life in classrooms for its own sake. And the high end of that scale - grade school, high school, four years of university, Masters, Ph.D. - is unfathomable as a course of action to people who actually need to, like, earn money. There’s something almost deliciously ironic about the fact that it’s trust-fund kids who wake up one day when they’re thirty years old and wonder dear God, what am I going to do with my life? Kids from working class families have their own issues, and I’m not romanticizing poverty and its attendant lack of opportunities here, but one issue kids from low-income kids don’t have is feeling aimless at thirty. They’re not wondering what they’re going to do with their life, because they’re actually been doing it for the last ten or more years.

I say that [above] is almost deliciously ironic, because even though university is not job training, it is, increasingly, a prerequisite to finding decent employment of virtually any kind. Not because university teaches skills that are valuable to securing employment and working successfully (see, “university is not job training”, above), but because many employers won’t look past an applicant’s CV if the applicant hasn’t been to university. Which is a big part of why aimless kids of all income levels, fresh out of high school, assume as a given that they’ll have to go to university. (”Either that, or they’re just so gung-ho on enriching themselves and growing as people and learning for the sake of learning,” I was about to write, but even my penchant for dark humour extends so far.)

I teach at a university in which most of my students are local, around a third have been in the workforce, and a lot of them have children. In other words, my students are, on balance, mercenary and practical types who are more concerned with paying their bills than with enriching themselves or growing as people, the damned philistines. As a math teacher, I’m constantly called upon to account for “what is this useful for in real life?” Back in the day, I bought into the elitist “Jobs? Who cares about jobs?” line wholesale, and gave the stock answer about learning for the sake of learning, and interpreted my students’ queries most uncharitably - they were dissing math, the ungrateful and uncultured little snots! They had no respect for learning for the sake of learning! Why, when I was their age we didn’t even HAVE universities and we would have done anything for the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning and…

After I finished my thesis, I interviewed for two teaching jobs. Both times, my interviewers asked, “How do you deal with students who ask you why they’ll need to know this stuff in real life?”

Both times, I began my answer with, “I tell them.”

At the place where I was hired, my soon-to-be-employers were impressed. At the other place - my grad school - my not-to-be-employers were taken aback. You tell them? You mean you don’t tell them that it’s for their own good (”whether they know it or not,” was the unspoken implication) and that some things are interesting for their own sake?

“Obviously they’re not finding it interesting, though,” I replied. “They’re not going to start enjoying factoring quadratics for its own sake just because I tell them they should. So it’s more helpful if instead I give them a list of real-life models that give rise to quadratics. And, I try to design my classes around practical uses.”

I didn’t get that job. For a variety of reasons, including [above], I didn’t want it.

Anyway, I got to thinking about university, and to the extent that it is not job training, while walking back from the cafeteria the other day. The university where I teach, see, has a culinary arts program. And a cafeteria. And they’re integrated - the culinary arts students run the caf. I give the students a B for their work - there’s not much by way of vegetarian and vegan food, but what they have there is good and inexpensive - but I give the university an A+ for recognizing that they could usefully and cost-effectively employ their own students in their own field. This is the first university I’ve ever been to that served up healthy, inexpensive, tasty food, and they deserve big props for that. My alma mater didn’t have a culinary arts program, but they had a damned good computer science program and a damned good computer engineering program. Halfway through my time there, it came to pass that they needed their webpage redesigned, so they…contracted the job out to professionals to the tune of $1 million, and unveiled a website that didn’t display properly on the browsers in the computer labs in the math building. Ten grand would have kept the job in-house and resulted in a better website. If my alma mater had had a culinary arts program, it would have paid the franchising fee to bring McDonald’s onto campus, and hired the culinary arts students to serve fries for $6.75/h.

University isn’t job training, because universities are adamant about university not being job training. And it’s not because they’re too busy enriching students’ lives and fostering a love of learning. Underneath all of the cheap idealism about learning for the sake of learning (trumpeted by gainfully employed people, many of whom haven’t learned how to play a musical insturment, how to speak a foreign language, or how to play a new sport because none of those things are related to their jobs and because they’re too old to be doing that sort of thing) is a willful inability to confront the fact that students are not at universities to learn for the sake of learning. They’re there because although they have no idea what they hell they’ll be doing four years later, they know that it won’t be much if they don’t have a degree. And they, by and large, leave with little more self-knowledge or direction, because it’s not the purpose of universities to provide it.

I like learning for the sake of learning. But dammit - I could really use some job training, too.

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