Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

2/7/2005

Any questions?

File under: No More Pencils, No More Books, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:40 pm.

Suresh over at The Geomblog quotes an article about modern academic interactions. To be honest, I didn’t read the whole thing; I got stuck on Suresh’s mention of the “relative lack of questions” at theory talks, and this one part of the column:

At conferences, scholars would stand up and read their papers, one by one. Then the audience would “ask questions,” as the exercise is formally called. What that often meant, in practice, was people standing up to deliver short lectures on the papers they would have liked to have heard, instead — and presumably would have delivered, had they been invited.

…And so the implicit content of many a conference paper is not, as one might think, “Here is my research.” Rather, it is: “Here am I, qualified and capable, performing this role, which all of us here share, and none of us want to question too closely. So let’s get it over with, then go out for a drink afterwards.

Which reminded me of the list of all-purpose questions to ask at any math talk.

1. Can you produce a series of counterexamples to show that if any of the conditions of the main theorem are dropped or weakened, then the theorem no longer holds?…

4. Isn’t there a suggestion of Theorem 3 in an early paper of Gauss?

Anyway, “delivering short lectures on the papers they would have liked to have heard” sounds about right, based on the 1-2% of the average math talk that I understood. (Except for this one time the speaker was talking on my thesis topic, when my comprehension was almost up in the double-digits.) But I disagree with the article’s assessment that this may be avoided by people checking out one another’s papers ahead of time. I think the problem is far deeper: when everyone’s a specialist, it’s common for experts to lack the breadth of knowledge required to understand their colleagues’ work. And so, at a conference, the people who are specialists in almost your field understand your research just enough to segue into a question or comment about their own. My love of big-picture math, coupled with my lack of interest in any particular highfalutin subgenre of the latest hot research area of the subject in which that special case of that open problem was recently generalized, is a big part of what led me to leave grad school.

Well, that, and the fact that I was sick of being the student in Question #8.

Culling someone else’s herd

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:33 pm.

The statistics class I teach is an intro course for humanities and social science students. A good half of my students are majoring in mumbleology, which I knew required its students to take statistics - but only today did I learn that it also required them to obtain B’s or better. B’s! I discovered this not from anyone employed by the Department of Mumbleology, but from a student, who came to my office after obtaining a D on the test, and - well, you know the rest. After carefully pleading her case - complete with tears, calls for mercy, the whole family of explanations (difficulties in personal life, hasn’t taken a math class in a decade, test anxiety), and a solemn oath attesting to the vast effort she’d expended on this course - she laid out her request: could she write the test again?

Ugh. Since, you know, beneath this tough exterior, yadda yadda, I hemmed and hawed out my refusal: well, I said, when I see that a student has a test that’s a real outlier (nota bene: stats terminology, indicating relevance of subject), I’ll count the other tests as well as the final exam for more. But, it’s an awful lot of work to set a test, and I have three preps, so I don’t give makeup tests, and besides, if I gave you one I’d have to give everyone one, and -

Oh, no, she said, I wouldn’t ask you to set a makeup test. Just to let me write the same test again.

I’m not going to share what I said in response, other than to mention that there’s a reason Canadians have a reputation for being polite in the face of absurdity. And, no two ways about it, the request to write the same goddamned test again is absurd.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I do. It must suck to have your entire future rest upon this one class that no amount of effort will get you through in a single term. And, I hate to be so fatalistic, but for this particular student it’s true: my last test was a hair too easy - the class average was a B (and, this being a stats class - standard deviation was around one letter grade) - and it’s just going to get more difficult from here. Intro stats isn’t rocket science by any stretch, but there’s no way that I can do justice to the required material in such a way that a student - no matter how hardworking - who hasn’t done math in a decade can swing a B, unless said student has some nontrivial, latent mathematical talent that I’d likely be at least vaguely acquainted with by now.

That said, I’m more than a mite peeved at the Department of Mumbleology for outsourcing its heartbreaking duties to us. A B? Required in a course that has no relevance to the student’s major as taught by Island U? And - let’s be honest, here - this is Island U, which isn’t known for being a leader in Mumbleology research. I know what I’m talking about here: I actually have a passing interest in mumbleology, to the point that I was even considering the 101 class this semester until I discovered that it conflicted with my schedule, and some knowledge of statistics is extremely useful in the field. But a substantial portion of my students, mumbleology majors all, are in their third or fourth year, and their later-year courses don’t draw upon statistics at all. When I checked out one of the second-year textbooks in the bookstore, it was filled with rousing expositions of its theories: “A groundbreaking study in 1985 revealed that over 78% of…” began one chapter, with nary a mention of the way the sample was chosen, the distribution of the data, whether the study had ever been replicated - all the stuff covered in Chapter 1 of the course I teach. It was left to the reader to trust that a certain trait and a certain childhood trauma were “strongly correlated”, something I’ll be fleshing out in my class in a few weeks. I could go on. I’m not saying that a mumbleology course should get bogged down in the statistical element of its content - to the contrary - just that there’s a clear overlap between my class and it, and there’s no reason that a class full of students who are required to get A’s or B’s in my class can’t apply their knowledge to a discipline whose integrity rests upon well-conducted and -analyzed studies.

Every college math instructor, I’m sure, can relate: we’re the gatekeepers for departments that either can’t, or won’t, offer courses challeging enough to trim their cohorts as much as they’d like. And they can’t give their students any compelling reasons for requiring such stellar performance in math classes, and that has the tendency to produce a lot of anxious, demanding and bitter students - and stressed but sympathetic teachers. I can tell my students why math is interesting, and why statistics is useful in real life; but the instructors for their majors aren’t reinforcing my lessons, and my students aren’t at school to broaden their horizons - they’re here to get degrees, and, eventually, jobs.

And so, when students come crying to my office asking if they can write the same test again, I’ll gently refuse their request. And I won’t feel guilty.

But I will feel bad.