Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


New and improved, yet again

File under: Meta-Meta. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:49 pm.

You can now trackback posts here. Fixing this was a lot more of an ordeal than it should have been. Tip for people using the same version of WP as me: Don’t bother with the trackback bug fixes, which did nothing for me; instead just go to Options -> Permalinks and change the structure of your permalinks. The problem then takes care of itself, plus you get nicer URLs for your posts.

The time I asked one of my students if I should fondle her breasts, and I’d do it again

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:13 am.

It took three comments for my post about students’ excuses to devolve into a conversation about boobs (thanks, Daniel Lemire and TonyB), so here’s my story about students and cleavage:

One day, back at my grad school, I was subbing for another teacher’s calculus class. At the end of the lesson, one girl approached me after class to ask me a question. I didn’t hear her question the first time, because I was too busy staring at her chest.

She was wearing a tight shirt across which was written - right on the breasts - “DON’T LOOK…TOUCH!”

Swear to God.

“Do you want me to touch your breasts?” I asked her.

She stared at me, stunned.

“Your shirt,” I explained. “It’s instructing me to stop looking - which is odd, given that when one sees text, one is inclined to look at it to read it, and how else am I supposed to see what it’s saying? - and touch your chest.”

“No,” said the girl. She backed away slowly.

“Then perhaps you should wear a different shirt,” I suggested, “because the one you’re wearing explicitly instructs everyone who reads it to touch your breasts.”

At this point she was getting visibly uncomfortable, and explained that she hadn’t said that she wanted me to touch her, and that if I did, then that would be sexual harrassment. “No means no,” she explained.

“But your shirt says YES,” I responded.

She seemed seriously confused about this.

Eventually I gave up and she asked me her original question pertaining to the concavity of some function, but I was having trouble concentrating. And I’m not the type that often gets distracted by breasts.

Anyway, I guess this is one reason it’s good to have more women in math: if I were a man, she’d have interpreted my comments as sexual harrassment. I’d still have been in the right to make them, but it’d've been a pain in the ass to go through the rigamarole to prove that.


Excuses, excuses

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:13 pm.

Jo(e) is playing a game with a list of ten excuses her students have given her and other teachers over the years:

Rules for the game: Replace any that you feel like replacing. Add excuses that your students have given you. Try to stick to ones that you know to be real. Put an asterisk by all the ones you’ve added.

That has the potential to be fun, and jo(e)’s students are a fantastically creative (if not necessarily hardworking or honest) bunch. But I can do better: I’m going to provide a list of ten excuses that a single student has offered me over two two-week periods (the first, a few weeks into last term; the second, a few weeks into this term for the same course, which, surprisingly, she didn’t complete the first time around):

  1. My three month old daughter is sick.
  2. My two year old won’t stop crying.
  3. My five year old broke his arm and I need to take him to the hospital to get it set.
  4. My six year old’s appendix burst so I was in the ER during the last class.
  5. My uncle died and I had to fly to [town in Alberta] for the funeral.
  6. My aunt from [village in BC] died and the funeral is next week and there’s no airport within 200 km of there so it’s kind of hard to get to so I’ll be away until Monday.
  7. My car broke down.
  8. We were supposed to move to a new house but the deal fell through at the last minute and now all of our stuff is in boxes and we have to be out of the old house soon so things are pretty hectic.
  9. The babysitter cancelled at the last minute.
  10. I’m not feeling very well.

I swear on the graves of the dead aunt and uncle that I received all of these from the same woman, via phone and via email. The kicker: “But I’m keeping up with all of the homework.”

On the plane to the funerals and in the ER, I guess.


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.


And yet, the poll is strangely conclusive

File under: Character Writ Large, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:19 pm.

So, what, is CNN getting its stories from The Onion these days? I hope that this is the work of a bored journalist as opposed to one who actually missed the irony, because this is one of the funniest headlines I’ve seen ever. (Via Ernie’s 3D Pancakes.)


Oh, I do believe I’ve already addressed this.

File under: Righteous Indignation, XX Marks the Spot. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:55 pm.

I had a long and only vaguely coherent post about the President of Harvard’s comments about the relative number of men and women in the mathematical and physical sciences, but then I realized that I’d already posted about it. Three months ago:

…no meaningful or productive discussion of [low ratio of males to females in the mathematical and physical sciences] can take place without acknowledging that there are far, far fewer women than men who are both interested in, and qualified to do, higher mathematics. Unfortunately, no discussion of that fact can take place - at least not in my presence - without someone pointing that the likely culprit is socialization, not biology - as though this is some profound insight that only those enlightened, self-proclaimed gender experts have ever considered - and one that renders any further discussion on the topic of women in mathematics completely moot. Social problem, not biological, the absence of women in math is a result of sexism, not hormones, nothing to see here.

What else did I say back then - oh, yeah, this:

‘“[W]e must increase the numbers of women in math!” has become the dominant battle cry of mathematicians and career feminists alike - the former of whom (mostly men, mostly older) typically have limited understanding of the life experiences of girls, and the latter of whom typically know next to nothing about math. The former accept the latter’s simplistic notion that the women-in-math problem would be solved if only we consciously countered our latent sexist beliefs and actively tried to recruit adult women into math programs and positions.

So I’ll leave the career feminists and male scientists to this one, and resume my role as math-chick-in-fishbowl. Honestly. Because if I don’t, I might have to explain why I can’t get too worked up over the fact that

[t]he president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers… said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

And I might also have to overlook Summers’ dumbass statement about his daughter’s feminine way of playing with toy trucks and how that is apparently related to women’s allegedly poor mathematical abilities, because that’s already been soundly eviscerated - by, among others, people who counter the “biology may be one of several factors” claim with fairytales like this one, cut from whole cloth:

I’ll tell you how much of a role discrimination plays in limiting female professors in so-called “elite” universities: 100%. There is no shortage of brilliant women scientists…but there is a dearth of jobs and we still have bigoted ignoramuses like Summers standing guard over the gateways.

So, there are just as many qualified women with Ph.D.’s in the physical biological sciences as there are men, or close enough? Come again? Can I please see the data on this one, because all I’ve heard on the subject in the last decade or so is that there IS a shortage of women in the above fields? Must be convenient to be able to peg the small number of tenured female scientists on the likes of Summers (who certainly isn’t the person I’d choose to head a top university) rather than doing the work to keep girls studying math and science so that they can BECOME brilliant women scientists.

I said that, too, a few months ago. Or something like it.

I might also have to say something about how it’s a crying shame that the brilliant women scientists listening to Summers’ speech (which he was invited to make by virtue of his qualfications as a leading economist - why, exactly?) walked out on him, rather than countering his claims with the data from the groundbreaking MIT study that rigourously revealed that, all other things being equal, female professors at MIT were paid and promoted less than their male colleagues. It’s a pity that they chose to walk out instead of giving data that backs up the belief they hold so strongly - that women would be men’s equals in the sciences, but for social conditioning to the contrary. It’s a shame that neither Summers nor his critics took the opportunity to outline how one could measure the impact of social conditioning versus the impact of genetics on academic performance; clearly they diverge on this issue, and it’s an interesting one to explore. I’m sure there could have been a lively discussion, had it gone that way. Instead, it became a circus, consisting of specious, deliberately provocative claims, countered not by arguments but by indignation. Welcome to Harvard, where the nation’s greatest minds are challenged, or something.

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