Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Why Needs-a-B is Barely Pulling a D in My Class

File under: Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:31 pm.

Below, the fruits of half an hour of excruciating conversation during office hours. In the interest of fairness, I present two readings of my pupil’s abysmal performance in my class:

Needs-a-B’s take:

  1. The question about the CLT, she really thought she got full marks on that, but she got zero. And she wrote practically the same thing that she wrote when I asked the same question on the quiz last week, and she got three out of four on it that time. Okay, not quite the same thing. She didn’t give the standard deviation this time. Or mention that she was referring to the distribution of the sample means. Oh, and that third sentence she wrote was missing a verb. But still. I knew what she meant, didn’t I? I agreed she basically understood the concept, right?
  2. Maybe it’s the way she’s studying? She’s studying with a friend, and the friend’s doing really well. Maybe the friend is messing her up?
  3. Family issues that I can’t even begin to imagine. (Aside: yes, insinuating that your problems are beyond your interlocutor’s comprehension is a great way to curry favour. “[I] can’t even begin to imagine”? Are you calling me unimaginative? For crying out loud, have you seen my BLOG?)
  4. A bunch of little tiny mistakes adding up, like the one where she did part of a computation, ended up with a huge negative number, divided it by a hundred and got rid of the minus sign to get a number between zero and one, and then said that that was the probability.
  5. Because after the previous quiz I’d told her that the probability had to be a number between zero and one, which was why she’d lost marks for that other tiny mistake, where she’d said that the probability of getting five heads on a series of coin flips was 11.
  6. Dog died.
  7. Oh, so all she had to do was look up the area corresponding to the z-score? And then subtract it from 1? And realize that it corresponded to a probability, and that’s basically what the compalence interval refers to? That’s it? If she had done that she would have gotten three extra marks on that question? That’s a lot of marks, her friend got full marks for doing basically the same thing, but with the looking up of the z-score and interpreting it properly.
  8. Seriously, she hadn’t known that the stuff in the normal tables were probabilities. And areas. And that those are related. It’s confusing when I draw pictures of the bell curve and shade stuff, why have I been doing that for the last two months? Maybe it would make more sense if I stopped doing that?


  1. Because she doesn’t listen when I say that I’d be happy to talk to her about her performance in my class after she looks at her test and the comments I took the time to write. But she doesn’t want to look at her test. Can’t I talk to her now?
  2. Her general insistence that she understands everything that I say in class and in the homework. No, you don’t. I’m the judge of that.
  3. The dead dog and the family shit. Seriously, that’s got to be stressful. Look, I may be an insufferable curmudgeon, but I’m not that coldhearted.
  4. Because she went the past six weeks without knowing why the hell we even used the normal tables, which is one of the most important concepts in this class.
  5. Because when I pointed out what a big problem that was, she replied by pointing out that she knew how to look stuff up in them and that was the most important thing, right?
  6. Because, in general, she interprets everything I say as validation of some form. Maybe she just doesn’t respond to subtlety. Like when I say something subtle like, “Your mistakes indicate a serious lack of understanding of one of the central concepts in this course,” and she replies, “But I’m basically getting it, more or less.”
  7. Because, dammit, she doesn’t respond to feedback, period. I could have replaced myself with a talking doll that said “You’re doing great!” and the results would have been the same. Dammit, woman, haven’t you ever watched any reality TV? Do you not know what happens to the contestants who shrug off Donald or Tyra’s suggestions?
  8. Heredity. Or environment. Which is the one responsible for crippling stupidity?

Long weekend

File under: 1000 Words, Home And Native Land, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:43 am.

There are dozens of islands scattered around the east coast of Vancouver Island. Each is accessible only by boat or by seaplane; no bridges connect them to Vancouver Island or the mainland. That sort of isolation, combined with the small populations of islands, forces islands to run more gently, more slowly than mainland communities, even ones of comparable size. Boats are slow, and small towns can’t operate as efficiently as cities, and no amount of rushing will make either of them any faster; so you might as well slow down, too.

I decided on a whim to spend a few days on one of the smaller of the southern Gulf Islands. The attendant at the harbour gave me an information pamphlet containing a map and a ferry schedule. The map looked like the sort of thing one would draw by hand in giving directions, showing only the relevant streets; but this map was complete. This island was around 12 square kilometers in area, and had a population of 350 at the time of the last census.

Nothing manmade could be seen from the ferry:

All of the local businesses were listed on the pamphlet. There was one store, named simply “Store”, at a marina in the south; a donut shop’s hours were listed as “9:00 am until we run out.” There were a dozen or so bed and breakfasts listed; more surprising was the address of the recycling depot. “We are a small community,” explained the pamplet, “and our garbage collection is not covered by taxes; we must take care of it ourselves. If you are visiting the island, we request that you bring your garbage with your when you leave. If you are staying for too long to make this practical, please consider making a donation to our garbage collection service.”

The exit from the ferry led right into secluded roads:

Soon after was the local elementary school, serving students in kindergarten through grade six:

The door to the school was unlocked, and no one was inside.

Older children, I found out later, go to school on Vancouver Island, commuting by ferry, which makes ten trips a day and is synchronized to the school schedule.

I drove around the island for an hour, stopping to take photos. In that hour, I did not encounter a soul. I stopped at what looked like a camping site on the east side of the island, with roads that looked more like wide trails than streets. Near the beach was a large building; looking inside, I saw that I’d happened upon a Christian retreat. Further inland were a dozen or so smaller cabins, each with bunkbeds and small bathrooms.

None was locked.

The mattresses of the bunkbeds were propped up, off the beds; it was clear that no one was staying in any of them. But they weren’t abandoned: no dust had collected anywhere, and everything looked new. I could, I realized, stay in one of them for the night. I contemplated the possibility for an hour or so as I wandered about the grounds, before finally deciding against it. It wasn’t a matter of being discovered and then kicked out; it was a matter of being discovered some days or weeks later, when someone found that the grounds were not exactly as they’d been left when I arrived at the island. And then people on the tiny island might react by beginning to lock their doors, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that.

I left the campgrounds, and then drove up north, along winding cliffs:

And to a beach at the northmost point:

Around dinnertime, I stopped at the only restaurant that was open, a pub right beside the Store, at the marina at the south. They closed at seven o’clock, I was told; after all, it was a weekend.

As darkness fell, I made my way to a B&B. The hosts, a retired couple from Vancouver, asked me if I’d eaten; “it’s hard to find anything to eat around here, I know,” said the husband. “Hard to find much at all,” he continued. “My truck’s almost out of gas; I’ll have to head over to Vancouver Island to fill up.”

The B&B had a private entrance for guests, and I sat on the balcony overlooking the water and the forest for an hour before darkness completely consumed the landscape. Inside, I found a breakfast menu, and ordered a light meal without thinking too much. By the time I arose at 6:30 the next morning, I was starving, and the meal, which arrived on schedule at 7:00, did not disappoint. Half an hour later, I asked the wife if I may have some more orange juice. “Certainly,” she said. “I was worried you’d ask for more earlier, and we were all out. But my husband just got back from Vancouver Island with more, so we have plenty.” Later, I checked the schedule: he’d taken the earliest ferry, which, round trip, takes an hour and twenty minutes.

As I packed to leave, the hosts asked me what my plans were for the day. “Well,” I said, “it’s Easter, so I don’t expect anything will be open, and I’ll need to eat - I’ll probably head back soon, anyway; I’ve got plenty of work to do.”

“Oh, you don’t have to go back just yet if it’s food you’re worried about,” the husband said, “I talked to Marilyn by the harbour, told her we had guests. She said in that case she’d open up her shop.”

At lunchtime I drove by Marilyn’s, a tiny shack no bigger than my bedroom. The previous day, the CLOSED sign had been visible from the road; that day, Easter Sunday, it was clearly marked as open.

I parked by the side of the road, and entered. A radio was on, tuned to CBC Radio Two, and there were pies and produce on the shelves. There was no cash register, though, and no attendant. Nor was there anyone in back, I knew, because there was no back, just the one room. I stepped out to see if Marilyn or someone else had left for a minute; but the area was isolated, and there was nowhere to leave to. But this wasn’t the first time in the past day that I’d entered unattended, though obviously not abandoned, buildings; I shouldn’t have been surprised, and I was in no rush. It’s impossible to be in a rush on small islands. It was then that I saw the sign on the wall:

I’d wanted to buy a package of spring rolls, but I had no change, only twenties. I picked out the spring rolls, a pie, and three apples, put $20 in the locked box by the door, and recorded my purchases in the ledger. The previous record, I saw, was four days old; but the pie, I could tell, was fresh. Then I set out for the ferry, back to a world thirty minutes and a hundred years away.


A silver lining, I guess

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:49 pm.

I spent all of today grading tests and quizzes, answering student emails (Needs-a-B got a D on the test, and I broke the news to her as gently as I could, though I still anticipate she’ll be in my office crying sometime later this week) and preparing my six and a half hours of classes tomorrow. Consequently, I did not have a chance to set this week’s precalculus test. Since it needs to be at the printers’ by tomorrow in order for me to have it by test day, I’m going to cobble together questions from the tests and exam I gave in the same course last term.

In theory, this gives my former students - the ones who took the same course with me last term, and failed - an unfair advantage.

In practice, however, it doesn’t.

‘And why are there classes like this?’

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:37 am.

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Rudbeckia Hirta was teaching one of the other sections of precalculus at Island U - that’s how applicable this post of hers is to my situation:

I know that in my department we teach THOUSANDS of students each year, and we only have a few dozen majors. Almost all of our teaching is to freshmen in other departments. These other departments tell us which topics they want their students to see and how many semesters we have to cover it (and it’s often too much stuff in too little time). Completing these sequences in math certifies that the student knows some basic facts, can be trusted to be in a certain place at a certain time more often than not, and can follow basic directions.

…as long as intro-level courses continue to be service courses taken by freshmen who haven’t yet learned how to study, think, or learn, nothing is going to change.

It took me six months to figure it out, but I finally realized that teaching precalculus is not merely a challenging task: it is an impossible one. And that’s a big part of the source of my stress over this course - even if you do an impossible task well, it’s still and impossible task and at the end of the day, you’ve still failed. You can’t win. My job description, according to the sample syllabus I was given at the beginning of the term, is to teach thirty students how to factor quadratics, solve simple algebraic equations, solve algebraic inequalities, graph various types of functions, approximate roots of polynomials, and solve exponential and logarithmic equations. That’s certainly tractable with an audience of students who come with the prerequisite knowledge and experience. But students who haven’t learned any of the basics in math, and who haven’t learned to “study, think, or learn” aren’t ready to do what’s required by the syllabus unless I limit myself to showing step-by-step how to do a very limited array of questions, which they will then mimic when they see those exact same questions on the test. But that’s not math, and I refuse to do it. So, my real job - which I have three months to accomplish - is to teach thirty students (most of whom have failed at least one math class before) how to do five years’ worth of math (remember, these are the students who can’t add fractions), how to read mathematics, how to think about and study the subject…and only then can I teach them what I’m technically required to teach them.

They have another test this coming week. They’re going to do poorly. And it’s not because they’re not working hard, and it’s not because I am a bad teacher. It’s because I am not a miracle worker.


I am not a doctor on call, dammit

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:43 pm.

Just returned home after a few days away, and was greeted by an inbox filled with queries from students who apparently don’t appreciate the sanctity of Easter. Among the notes is a polite “reminder” from Needs-a-B, who’d asked me on Thursday to email her the grade from the last test, “you know, no rush or anything, just whenever you have them marked.” Evidently she’d changed her mind; either that, or “no rush or anything” could reasonably be interpreted as “it’s not like I’m rushing you if I still haven’t heard from you by SATURDAY already.” Of course, maybe I’m just being insensitive here; after all, she really wants to know how she did!

You know, I’d really planned to age more gracefully than this, but screw it: back in MY day, our teachers graded our tests when they graded our tests, and we wouldn’t have even thought of contacting them outside of school time, let alone on a holiday weekend, if we thought that they weren’t grading our tests quickly enough. Honestly. And some of my teachers - unlike me - wouldn’t always return our tests the very day that their students got back to class, either. They’d sometimes make us wait, like, a week. So we waited a week, and nobody died. Even though I know this deep down inside, however, and even though I know that this is no big deal - part of me still feels guilty for not arranging my four-day weekend in the way most amenable to my more anxious students’ preferences. Not so guilty, mind you, that I didn’t consider for a moment writing back to Needs-a-B, No, sorry, haven’t gotten to it yet, my whole family died in a fire this weekend and I was busy making funeral arrangements, but as soon as that’s taken care of I’ll grade your test and get back to you right away - but guilty nonetheless.

[At this point, my mom, who’s reading this, is saying, “God forbid! Don’t even joke about something like that!” So I just want to take a moment to assure my mom that I would never joke about something like that. Oh, no: I was very serious about telling this student that my whole family had died.]

My family, of course, is alive, and I didn’t spend the weekend burying them. Nor, so far, did I spend any of it grading tests. On Thursday I realized that I could get away for the weekend, so I did. And it was lovely. I highly recommend small, remote islands for relaxation.

More about that-all sometime this week, after I’m done doing all of the work (grade 50 tests; grade 50 quizzes (done!); set test; plan classes) that I actually need to get done this weekend. I’d started describing my holiday in this space, but the visit to the tiny island deserves a snark-free post of its own, and so it will get it. (The description of how phone psychics work - told to me firsthand by the brother of the brother-in-law of Josie the (Late) Phone Psychic from Quebec! - also deserves its own post, but for that one, I shall permit myself some snark. Honestly, it’s a doozy: it’s a lot more sophisticated than the “oh, they just say sufficiently general stuff that could be true of anyone” that I’d originally believed.) Not putting a timeline on any of this, mind you; in the next four weeks I have two tests and two and a half exams to set; 100+ tests, 150+ quizzes, and 100+ exams to grade; and three comprehensive review sheets to make - so even if I weren’t into preparing classes, this space wouldn’t necessarily be my priority. If you’re looking for something to do in my absence (or, more likely, my sporadic presence), I got three words for ya: Precalculus Bingo Contest.


Precalculus bingo: the multiplayer edition

File under: Those Who Can't, Meta-Meta, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:40 pm.

Of all the snark I’ve posted on the topic of teaching intro college math, none has garnered as much sympathy - and laughter - as precalculus bingo. Everyone who’d ever taught a math class anywhere in the world could relate to my experiences; apparently that’s what this guy is saying, anyway. Grading sad, sad tests is as inevitable as death and taxes for those of us who teach college math, except we see a lot more bad tests than we see of either of those two staples. Even taxes, even me, and I’m Canadian.

Anyway: in the comments to the bingo post and in some of the links leading to it, many of my fellow mathematicians made suggestions for their own squares. There was no shortage of dumbass mistakes that my readers were willing to predict, and to them I say - make your own damned bingo cards, dammit.

And then send them to me.

Three weeks from now, my precalculus students will be writing their final exam, and grading it will surely test my faith in my ability to do my job, and in the high school system’s ability to do its. Grading the final exams will be like grading the tests, except that it will take twice as long as suck three times as much. I’m going to need more than a single bingo card to make it bearable.

So: make up your own precalculus bingo card, and send it over. I’ll accept submissions either as HTML tables, or as .jpg/.gifs that are 500 by 500 pixels. The day that I grade the exams, I will play all of the bingo cards simultaneously. The person with the best card will win a copy of Innumeracy, by John Allen Paulos, or a handmade crocheted Moebius strip, or a crocheted hyperbolic plane, or - if anyone has any other ideas, let me know. Cards will be judged on two criteria weighted equally: success in the bingo game, and precision of your predictions. (This latter one was inspired by the two friends I bounced this idea off of first, who said, “Oh, well, I can just win by making every square read ’student gets question wrong’! Then I’ll win!” Yeah, your card will do well, but you’ll still be a loser, loser.)

My precalculus class this term covered - in theory, anyway - the topics of solving linear and quadratic equations; factoring polynomials; completing the square; graphing polynomials, rational, and exponential functions; and solving logarithmic and exponential equations. You name a mistake on any topic thereto appertaining, they’ve made it at some point during the term. I don’t ask my readers for money - I don’t need to be paid to provide this snark, and I’m happy to do it for free - but right now, precalculus bingo is the only thing keeping me from deciding never to teach another precalculus class again, and if I made good on that decision, you’d get a lot less snark from me. So.

Submissions are due April 13, at 11:59 pm Pacific Time. Send them to moebiusstripper AT talldarkandmysterious DOT ca. And tell your friends! Tell your colleagues! Tell your students! Tell your readers, because the more of these I get, the more fun I’ll have grading exams, and the more fun you’ll have reading about the experience. Because there is a silver lining to the black, black cloud that is teaching completely unsuccessful classes to completely unprepared students.

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