Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Cluelessness: A Study in Three Parts

File under: Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 5:31 pm.

Part I: The Student Who REALLY doesn’t get math: As in, the one who asked me last week, in all earnestness, “to what extent” she would “have to use equations” in my class. I managed, in a feat that should surely mark me as a force to be reckoned with in the domain of improvisational theatre, to eke out a coherent yet tactful reply in which I succedeed (I think) in gently pointing out that this is a math class and that it we would do math things in it, and math things tend to involve equations of some form. (At least, math things at this level do. I’m sure that she didn’t want to hear “Oh, no, this class is ALL PROOFS.”) Worried that she would break if I in any way made light of the situation, I did not add that if she could come up with equation-free means of solving for unknowns then she was certainly welcome to use them. She seemed disppointed and scared.

Part II: The Student Whose Attempt to Enter the Classroom in the Most Respectful Way Imaginable Achieves Precisely the Opposite Effect: I can block out most types of distractions in class when I so choose, and it is not unusual for students to enter the classroom late. In general, I don’t mind; if they enter through the side without fanfare, I often barely notice them at all.

Last class, fifteen minutes into the lesson, I was in the middle of a long explanation when I heard a knocking sound. It was loud enough to distract me for a few moments, but I figured that it probably had nothing to do with me, and, accordingly, I continued with the topic. (It’s hard to distinguish knocking from ordinary chalk-on-board sounds and various other things going on in the hallway or outdoors, particularly when I’m teaching.) Half a minute later, the knocking began again, briefly. This time it sounded like a knock at the door. I moved toward the door, but the knocking stopped before I got there, and I wondered if I had misheard anything. With a bit more difficulty this time, I resumed the lesson; as soon as I did, the knocking resumed as well. Finally, I opened the door; it was a student of mine.

“I had an appointment today,” she explained, as though I cared. “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t want to interrupt anything.”

My students seemed as aghast as I; I don’t think any of them had ever seen this before. “Next time just walk in, through the side door,” I mumbled with an ire that was certainly discernable.

Part III: The Student Who For Some Reason Thinks That it is Acceptable to Sit in the Front Row and Assemble, in Class, a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich From its Constituent Parts and Then Consume it: No, really. What the hell was this one all about? And he wasn’t using those little tiny packets of peanut butter and jam that you get in cafeterias, either. This kid had, in his bookbag beside his textbook and binder, a JAR OF PEANUT BUTTER. And a jar of jam. And an ENTIRE LOAF OF BREAD, which he opened and from which he proceeded to extract and place on the table two slices for assembly.

He was hungry, he explained when this activity drew attention from his classmates.

I’ve often observed that there’s a nontrivial overlap between the job of college instructor and that of a parent. Never before last class had I noticed similarities between my job and that of a field primatologist. I envision Jane Goodall observing her subjects and thinking, “They are like us in certain ways, and yet, they are quite different.”Though presumably Goodall’s studies could contribute to a better understanding of human behaviour, whereas - a peanut butter sandwich? In class? The HELL?

(This kid is #1, by the way, for those following what will quite possibly blossom into an entire novella with him as a key character.)

The mind boggles. Anyway, I drew him aside after class and told him not to do that in class again, EVER (none of this wussy “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that, if it’s at all possible” stuff, which I figured he’d take advantage of; even if the kid has a medical condition that requires him to eat in class, he can do so more discreetly). He interpreted this instruction as an invitation to explain why he had eaten a sandwich in class: “I have FOUR HOURS of class, straight,” he said, “And I get hungry.”

I teach four and a HALF hours straight, kid.


  1. I guess I’m not really sure what’s socially objectionable about making a sandwich in class. It’s unusual, sure, but it doesn’t follow from that that it should be disruptive to anyone.

    - Kirsten — 1/20/2005 @ 6:24 pm

  2. have you ever read goodall’s in the shadow of man ? it’s really good.

    - wes — 1/20/2005 @ 6:57 pm

  3. I find I spend a lot of time explaining “college etiquette” to my students, especially the first years. I just stop what I’m doing and say in a matter-of-voice, “Oh, another college etiquette tip for you: If you miss a class, find another student and figure out what you missed. Do this outside of class. Don’t ask the teacher at the beginning of class, “Did we do anything on Wednesday?”

    I used to be more hesistant about it, thinking I’d make a student feel bad, but I’ve come to realized they don’t know these unspoken rules and it’s better for me to be really specific about what behaviors I expect.

    - jo(e) — 1/20/2005 @ 8:53 pm

  4. Kirsten - among other things, the smell. I actually like peanut butter, and I don’t have a good sense of smell, but the smell was very distracting and overwhelming. Also, the fact that his sandwich-making took up a lot of space, and the students sit at tables in a rather cramped classroom. The students to his immediate left and right were giving him “you’re invading my personal space” looks. Opening the bag of bread also was far from a silent affair; ditto for the removing of the food from his bag, as well as the unscrewing of the jars of peanut butter. other than that, nothing disruptive about it.

    wes - no; I should look into it.

    jo(e) - I do stuff like that, too, but there are some things (like the sandwich) that just catch me totally off guard. (Regarding the “did we do anything on Wednesday”: last term, I had a problem with chronic Friday absences in one of my classes. Once, on the Monday following a class in which well under 50% attendance, I announced that for the rest of the week, I would not answer questions from anyone who had been absent on Friday. (I made exceptions for the students who had convinced me they’d been absent for legitimate reasons; it’s not like their absent classmates knew who else was away that day.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 1/20/2005 @ 9:51 pm

  5. As far as making sandwiches in class, I think the rule should be: as long as there’s enough for everyone. This was how we operated the Algebra Timbits Syndicate back when I was a frosh, at least.

    - Dr. Matt — 1/20/2005 @ 10:15 pm

  6. We have linked this post in our Latest Extra Credit Assignement. It may be found here:

    Thanks :)

    - EdWonk — 1/21/2005 @ 1:25 am

  7. Well, this explains the frequent requests I get from at least junior level students who want to know what grade they will have to make on the final to get a (”C” or a “B” or whatever target grade). I have all grades posted and their percentage value on the final clearly posted on my website and syllabus. I have responded to many students “do the algebra” and they look at me blankly. One student I wrote this to in an email said, “That’s very funny, Dr. W.” I guess they don’t think I use math when I calculate their final grades?

    - MarketingProf — 1/21/2005 @ 5:47 pm

  8. Forget algebra; I am constantly astounded by how many of my students cannot work with fractions. It’s unbelieveable. I’ve considered creating a new category for this blog just to tell all of those stories.

    Today one of my stats students came to my office and asked me how to enter the fraction “one third” into her calculator. You see, her calculator didn’t have a fraction button. When I pointed out that 1/3 is “one divided by three”, she looked at me as though I’d just told her that the earth was flat.

    - Moebius Stripper — 1/21/2005 @ 7:21 pm

  9. Yes, fractions are the great unknown to too many of our students. In my pre-algebra class this morning, the information that division by 2 is the same as multiplying by 1/2 was received as revelatory. People were shocked.

    - TonyB — 1/21/2005 @ 11:15 pm

  10. My brain ate my homework. A student informed me this week that she had been unable to do the assigned homework. The syllabus said that the homework problems were on p. 7. “I didn’t know that page 7 referred to the textbook.”

    Maybe she searched desperately for problems on page 7 of a four-page syllabus.

    - TonyB — 1/22/2005 @ 3:08 pm

  11. One other reason a peanut butter sandwich is inappropriate: food allergies. Someone with a peanut allergy should be able to reasonably expect that the lecture hall is not where lunch is consumed.

    - Thom — 1/26/2005 @ 11:44 am

  12. “The equations are coming to get you, Barbara!”

    Also, had anyone been rash enough to bring in an entire jar of peanut butter when I was a graduate TA, they would have seen it rapidly confiscated, as I much enjoy peanut butter but couldn’t afford to buy it back then on my tiny stipend.

    - Kimberly — 1/26/2005 @ 5:45 pm

  13. My last act in academia was to give a Calculus Ii make up exam to a student who [claimed he] had been in an automobile accident the day of the final exam. After he turned in his exam book, he got up to leave the room. I waved him back to his seat, looked at the exam, and told him that he’d get between 25% and 40% on the exam.

    I then asked him what he had done with his extra week of study. “I dunno.” i then asked him what he wanted to do with his education. “I want to become a teacher.” My screams echoed up and down the halls.

    - Eric jablow — 1/26/2005 @ 7:14 pm

  14. I’m quite familiar with horror stories about people who can’t apply simple arithmetic to the real world (I run into enough of them IRL and on-line), but the tale about the student who didn’t know what one third was is a new low.

    Part of this is probably clueless teaching, delivered by clueless teachers.  One way to get rid of this is to make certain that all ed-school students know it before being allowed to enter:  apply a comprehensive test on all basic skills, and make passage a requirement for admission.  Regardless of what happened to them as teachers, at least we could be assured that there was at least one person in every K-12 classroom who understood fractions.

    - Engineer-Poet — 1/26/2005 @ 11:47 pm

  15. The lack of classroom etiquette (like the lack of comprehension of fractions at the college level) is appalling.

    I’ve already had MORE cell phones ring in my class this semester (two and a half weeks into it) than I can remember in all previous semesters. This is despite my asking (and my putting it in the syllabus) that students turn off their cell phones before class. I’m seriously tempted to start pricing brass screening so I could build a Faraday cage (or whatever it’s called) around my classrooms so I can block the incoming calls.

    And as for the peanut butter sandwiches in class, my response would have been an arch “Oh, did you bring enough for everyone?”

    Although I have to say, after observing the tobacco-chewers in the class using their “spit cups” (I teach in the rural South and they’ve not yet gotten around to banning ALL forms of tobacco in the class buildings), I’d much rather watch someone make a sandwich than spit tobacco goo in a cup.

    - ricki — 1/27/2005 @ 9:41 am

  16. Ricki, I used to get cell phone ringing nonstop during class. The next semester, I put “turn off your cell phones” in the syllabus, which cut down the ringing a fair bit. I also started answering any cell phone that rang, which put an end to it really quickly. (It’s sometimes hard to get to the phone before the student turns it off, so I’ve taken to just asking students to leave the classroom when I hear a phone, and I wait patiently until they do. Yes, I know they just forgot to turn their phones off; I don’t care.) In addition, I have a policy that a ringing cell phone during a test gets counted as cheating.

    I almost hear cell phones anymore.

    - Moebius Stripper — 1/27/2005 @ 10:34 am

  17. I’ve been looking for a “Tales from the Front Line” blog - looks like this is it.

    About the peanut butter sandwich: “let’s all share” is pretty good. “You have to make it outside”, and “If you’re going to eat it here, sit in the back row” would be good alternatives.

    For ringing cellphones, “We’ll all wait quietly while you answer your phone. To make it easier for all of us, just come up here to the front of the room while you’re talking.”

    ““I dunno.” i then asked him what he wanted to do with his education. “I want to become a teacher.” ”

    There are teachers Out There who seem to have followed his example. Like the teachers in the East Coast school who threw a girl out for wearing a red, white, and blue bead necklace “because they’re gang colors” - indeed, that’s probably in the Book of Rules somewhere. Somebody pointed out that those are the country’s colors, and indeed, even the school’s, but that probably drew a blank stare.

    - Mike — 1/27/2005 @ 11:59 am

  18. […] morrow when I’m less tired; I’ve got a really doozy of a #5 for you (starring the hungry hungry student), #2’s good to go, prett […]

  19. […] p for eight classes (down to six, at last check of the database) - perhaps better known as the kid with the sandwich - has come to an abrupt and pr […]

  20. I would have asked him to make me a PBJ and eaten it after I gave them a problem to think about…but that’s just me.

    - Joan — 3/3/2005 @ 5:44 am

  21. […] y I have in a pretty tight curriculum. Last week, the equations finally got the better of

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