Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Mixed messages

File under: Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:02 pm.

From a letter of recommendation written by my boss:

…I was very pleased with MS’s work in the Discrete Mathematics classes, particularly considering that this was the first time she had taught this course.

…Her evaluations in the precalculus classes were somewhat lower, but I still regard them as very good…Precalculus is a very challenging assignment for any instructor; none of our experienced faculty show an inclination or desire to teach it, despite its importance. In this context, I was pleased that MS was able to get most of the students to work hard and master the material.

In conversations with MS, it has become quite clear that her love of mathematics is what motivates her interest in teaching. Her aim is to create a lasting interest among her students for the material. This is in addition to, and not at the expense of, mastery of the essentials.

In summary, MS has performed her teaching duties in a very professional manner….

MS has been a valuable colleague this year.

It is unfortunate that we will likely not have an opening at Island U next year for her.

From a student’s evaluation (sic):

ABSOLUTELY HORRABLE. Doesnt teach. Gives us test questions that she NEVER TOLD US HOW TO DO. Does not tell us what will be on the tests, expects us to study everything.

In my opinion she is acedemicly unqualafied.


  1. You expect students to study everything? How monstrous!

    Some of my prealgebra students are upset that I don’t give them full credit for finding answers by guessing-and-checking. They don’t appreciate that I am trying to teach them techniques that will stand them in good stead in algebra (if they ever get there). I’m sure that some of them would agree with your disgruntled student over the injustice of being required to learn things and think about them.

    - TonyB — 3/11/2005 @ 9:08 pm

  2. Yeah, I’m pretty unreasonable that way. I should make clearer which parts of the class I want them to learn, and which parts I’m just blathering about for my own entertainment.

    Related - on the precalc test, I’d accidentally told them to study Chapter X (which had been on the previous test) instead of Chapter Y (which hadn’t - we covered it right after they wrote their first test). When two students pointed out the mistake, I emailed the whole class telling them to study Chapter Y, but my email didn’t go through. Of course, this was my mistake, and I handled it by letting them submit corrections (for full credit) on the Chapter Y material (more than generous, as half of them wouldn’t have had a clue anyway). Still, I was…amazed by the fact that no one except for those two particular students seemed to think that it was odd that I would test them on Chapter X twice, and Chapter Y not at all.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/11/2005 @ 9:18 pm

  3. That’s hilarious. I’m glad that your department chair thinks that you are “qualafied”.

    - Hack — 3/12/2005 @ 12:16 am

  4. Students are like customers; you can never satisfy 100%.

    - EdWonk — 3/12/2005 @ 1:17 am

  5. To the contrary, EdWonk - students are NOT like customers. My job isn’t to satisfy them, it’s to educate them. And that’s the problem - they’re evaluating me using the same criteria that they’d use to evaluate a salesperson or a waiter.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/12/2005 @ 8:44 am

  6. This is part of the problem. The students *should* be your clients. It would be a nice model. It is not realistic though.

    The truth is that what you are selling is a statement saying that XYZ knows this particular material.

    The problem is that this statement has value only if it is credible. Hence, if you just give it away against money, it will quickly become worthless. On the other hand, if nobody can get it, nobody will pay tuition and you’ll be out of a job.

    You work for your clients but also for the community at large. You are not a math slut (in that you don’t give grades against money).

    I don’t know how for-profit schools manage. There must be tremendous pressure to give the degree no matter what.

    In all schools I worked at, student evaluations were taken with a grain of salt. This is especially likely to happen since most professors, including those who rose up in the ranks, have had terrible student evaluations at some point.

    Now, we should not disregard student evaluations and they can be valuable. But only as one variable… in a large advanced calculus problem….

    - Daniel Lemire — 3/12/2005 @ 10:54 am

  7. Well that’s awful.

    How do you get such horrible students? Reading your blog makes me feel so fortunate in the students I have. My students, while not always the brightest, have shown desire to learn and improve. Maybe it’s that I T.A. a recitation and not a large lecture. I don’t know.

    Also, it sounds like you’re having a pretty miserable time there, so maybe you should view this as your way to get out.

    - rosona — 3/12/2005 @ 10:06 pm

  8. Daniel Lemire - yeah, thing is, the free market does a bang-up job of delivering quality goods and services if your only metric for measuring quality is efficiency. There’s a lot to be said for efficiency, but in the context of the university, “efficiency” is generally interpreted as “get the maximum mark for the least effort.” The higher the class grade:effort expended ratio, the more satisfied my “customers” are. And contrary to what that student I quoted (and I’m sure there are others) believes, that’s not how to measure my “qualafications” to teach this class.

    Rosona - Actually, I’m not that miserable; it’s mostly precalc that’s causing me grief. (Combination of REALLY REALLY WEAK students, and crappy subject material. My stats students are pretty weak, but the material is relevant enough that I sort of have their interest, and they’re definitely doing the work and learning the material. My calc students are a dream.) As for how I got such horrible students, I have some idea. This is a first-semester calc course for students who never took grade 12 math, or who didn’t achieve grades of C+’s or more in grade 11 math. That right there is a big red flag, because students don’t learn shit in high school math anyway, other than how to use their big fancy calculators. Imagine what the ones who can’t even get C’s learn.

    Another thing is that this is usually a Term 1 course, so I get the students who flunked last term. Not only did they flunk, many of them flunked with the Nice Teacher. (Summary: Nice Teacher taught here last term. He gave “pretests”, which were literally identical to the actual tests, but with a few numbers changed. If someone can’t even get a D under THAT system, God help them in my class.) 24 students failed precalc last term, and many other dropped the class. I have 30 students; you do the math. I can tell which of my anonymous disgruntled students are Nice Teacher’s flunkies from their comments: they’re the ones who tell me that I should give pretests because they “really helped” last term. Yet these students who were supposedly so helped by this abominable teaching method seemed not to have retained even a sliver of the mathematical knowledge that they supposedly gleaned from those pretests. Yeah, the contradiction is obvious to you and me, but just try pointing it out to them.

    I need to stop reading my evals on that bullshit professor rating site, in any case. Apparently my classes are not “interactive” enough. Yeah, I wish they were more interactive too, but in order for that to happen…my students have to interact, rather than sit there like lumps, you know? As it is, even when I pause to ask little questions in the middle of working a problem (”so, how can we tell when the denominator is zero?”), I am met with dead silence. When I give them simple questions to work on, the weakest students either don’t even try, or take forever. The more interactive a class, the lower the material:time ratio. With a class as weak as mine, if I made it as interactive as I’d like, I wouldn’t even get through a quarter of the course.

    In other words, if there’s a way to teach a semester of precalculus to students who can’t do grade 6-level math and have no concept of how to reason logically or even deal with quantities, I sure have no idea what it is.

    Most frustrating, though, is the fact that I taught this course last term, and thought I made a number of mistakes. So I decided to make a concerted effort to correct them this term - and I did. I’m not making the mistakes I made last term. And still it’s a complete disaster.

    Part of why I’m not miserable where I work is that I have the full support, and respect, of my colleagues. Makes all the difference. When I talked to Department Head about the last test, he sighed, and said, “Well, that’s it. You’ll just have to fail them all.” He was confident enough in my abilities, and familiar enough with the makeup of the precalculus class, that he could not believe that it was my fault that they were doing poorly. (He also knows how sucky attendance is.) I’m so grateful, because it’s easy to question your abilities in this situation.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/12/2005 @ 10:37 pm

  9. From my TA evaluations. Marc is extremely laid back guy. For students who prepare their work before recitation he is excellent. For those that show up unprepared, he may seem quite condescending, as he should to the people who expect him to do all their work….

    - marc — 3/13/2005 @ 10:11 am

  10. One of my good friends, a grad student working on a Ph.D. in English, took a summer job as an instructor at one of those for-profit technical colleges. He signed up to teach their “critical thinking” course and was immediately discouraged when the pre-selected textbook turned out to be rife with non-sequiturs and other logical errors. Not a good start. Then he discovered that his students considered attendance optional (hey, they were paying good money for their educations, so why should they also have to put in time?). Then the students who actually showed up and noticed what the assignments were complained to the dean (or principal or whatever they’re called there) that the new teacher was assigning entire chapters to be read. My friend was called on the carpet and asked if he was in fact giving such onerous chores to his students. He replied that he expected his students to go over the chapters before the topics were discussed in class and that even a simple perusal of the material would suffice to allow a student to participate in the class discussion. The dean (or whatever) said in that case he should have told the students which pages or paragraphs to read instead of trying to make them read an entire chapter; after all, some chapters had ten or twelve pages!

    By the end of the summer session, my friend was not surprised to have learned that he was (a) not allowed to drop students and (b) he was not allowed to flunk students. Oh, technically he was allowed to do both, but the reality was quite otherwise. He said he got more of an education than any of his students, but only the school was richer for it.

    - TonyB — 3/13/2005 @ 6:27 pm

  11. Horrable
    Moebius Stripper, who teaches discrete math and pre-calculus at a university in British Columbia, gets a good evaluation from her faculty supervisor, but a student says she’s ABSOLUTELY HORRABLE. Doesnt teach. Gives us test questions that she NEVER TO…

    - joannejacobs.com — 3/15/2005 @ 12:34 am

  12. This is the first time I read your blog (got here from Joanna Jacobs) and reading your experience just reminds me (again) why I decided NOT to continue my teacher education.

    What is distressing…the most distressing, from your post is the part where your boss says they most likely will not have a slot for you….is that true?

    As for the student’s comments: I don’t expect any better. What do colleges expect when we spend more time in public K-12 “teaching” subjects like “How to get along” instead of subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic.

    - Michael Tyson (yes, really) — 3/15/2005 @ 5:43 am

  13. Continuing with the “students as customers” thread…I think there’s an apt analogy between teachers and salespeople here. I’d be interested in knowing what customers think of salespeople who work for me, but would interpret the information with a bag of salt in hand. If the customer says “I can never get Ms Smith when I need her,” that would call for some explanations on Ms Smith’s part. But if the customer whines that Ms Smith doesn’t give them the big unmerited discounts they think they deserve, then I’m just going to smile and think “you go, girl!”

    - David Foster — 3/15/2005 @ 6:35 am

  14. Michael Tyson (and yeah, I believe that, I went to school with a Steven Martin ;) ) - Sadly, it is true. My college is looking for people with Ph.D.’s, and I just have a Master’s. The irony is that I can’t imagine that there’s a single person who has the temperament both to continue their education for 4+ years doing hard-core research in math, and teach students like these, who on average do math at a grade seven level. (Even I, who generally likes teaching math to non-math-geniuses, am struggling mightily with this crew. As my supervisor said, no one teaches this course if they have any say in the matter.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/15/2005 @ 7:10 am

  15. First time visitor to your site - pretty good. I’m a finance prof at a small state school. Since I teach the core finance course, I see a lot of the same problems you mentioned - poorly prepared students that don’t want to put in the work, low expectations, and so on.

    One of the things I’ve done is put a lot of help/remedial material on the web so that I can direct them there. If their question has an answer or a help material, I won’t address it until they check the material. It hasn’t seemed to hurt my evals, and it saves a lot of class time. It also sends the message that learning is THEIR responsibility, and that I’m there to act as a guide, not to do the heavy lifting for them.

    Keep up the good work

    The Unknown Professor

    - The Unknown Professor — 3/15/2005 @ 8:16 am

  16. Moebius, academia is a G.D. racket, and the suckers are the faculty who actually care about whether the students learn something. Get out and never look back. That’s what I did and it was the best decision I ever made.

    - Steve LaBonne — 3/15/2005 @ 8:17 am

  17. The whiner who complained that s/he wasn’t shown how to do the exact problem on the exam shouldn’t be in a university.

    S/he should be in boot camp, with a drill sergeant delivering a lecture on how low maggots are right to the face.  Then s/he might appreciate college enough to be worthy of being there.

    Personally, I wish I’d had someone of the caliber of Möbius Stripper for my DiffEq class.  Instead, I got a bored assistant prof who lectured at breakneck speed to a huge hall of 250, with none of the examples and applications that I (physics-oriented person) need to get a mental handle on things.  As a consequence, that’s pretty much where my math education petered out.

    - Engineer-Poet — 3/15/2005 @ 9:35 am

  18. “He signed up to teach their “critical thinking” course and was immediately discouraged when the pre-selected textbook turned out to be rife with non-sequiturs and other logical errors.”

    This is so typical.

    Educationists constantly pay lip service to this so-called critical thinking but refuse to think.

    I wrote about the source of this mania at my site.

    - instructivist — 3/15/2005 @ 9:44 am

  19. Unknown Professor - I’m just thinking of the departmental embarrassment if it got out that MS posted a tutorial on adding fractions on her webspace at Island U.

    - Jen — 3/15/2005 @ 11:57 am

  20. Jen’s right. Besides, my students need to learn how to do math. It’s not that they’re missing facts about mathematics; a description of how to add fractions will only teach them how to add the particular fractions in the tutorial, and they’ll only retain that information for as long as their short-term memory can hold it. My students’ level of disconnection from the course material is more far profound than a few quick tutorials can correct. (Besides, at the beginning of the term, I gave them a “here’s some stuff you should know by now” worksheet. It contained some very very very simple examples of word problems to set up. As far as I can tell, no one who needed to, took a second look at the worksheet.)

    Engineer-Poet - The whiner who complained that s/he wasn’t shown how to do the exact problem on the exam shouldn’t be in a university. - I’ve told my students as much. I told them that there are very few jobs in this world in which their bosses or clients will give them exact, step-by-step instructions about how to complete a task. More often, they’ll have to apply prior knowledge. The only exceptions are minimum wage jobs that, as you suggest, don’t require college.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/15/2005 @ 12:51 pm

  21. I’ve told my students … that there are very few jobs in this world in which their bosses or clients will give them exact, step-by-step instructions about how to complete a task.

    And that’s why the people who can decompose a problem into detailed requirements can make the big bucks.

    Speaking of which, your anti-spam arithmetic problems are too easy to be any fun. ;-)

    - Engineer-Poet — 3/15/2005 @ 2:22 pm

  22. MS, you have my sympathies. Your “precalc” class sounds like one of those no-credit remedial classes that schools here force students to take when they don’t meet the requirements for unconditional admission. I have seen a stat recently that something like two-thirds of all U.S. freshmen had to take at least one remedial class last year. Likely, in such classes you get a lot of students who were able to slide through high school one way or another, and are having to actually work at schooling for the first time in their lives.

    And, for Engineer-Poet: I’ve heard it said more than once that DE is really just a hazing ritual for engineers. Don’t know if that is true or not, but I do know that when I took DE, the night that I took the final, my car caught fire in the parking lot. Read into that what you will…

    - Cousin Dave — 3/15/2005 @ 4:09 pm

  23. RE: comment #20
    I guess I wasn’t clear regarding what I put in my “guides”. They’re not “cookbooks”. They contain far more text than numbers. What I’m trying to do is give them a number of problems that I then break down step by step, with lots of intuition for each step. They’re almost mini lectures, and are intended to give students the “why” as well as the how.

    And yes, the level of my students’ math competence is somehwere around pathetic. To compound it, I teach at a heavily urban school with an admissions policy that amounts to being able to fog a mirror, and a misguided sense of compassion that discourages hard grading.

    - Unknown Professor — 3/15/2005 @ 4:28 pm

  24. DiffEq is more than a hazing ritual; it’s extremely useful in many areas.  I get a fair amount of use (mostly recreational, but still…) out of integral calc, and I sometimes feel the lack of DiffEq keenly as a feeling of stuff that should make sense but doesn’t, because I don’t know the language.

    - Engineer-Poet — 3/15/2005 @ 8:02 pm

  25. Unknown Professor - I have no idea where I’d find the time to put up mini-lectures on the web, especially since I doubt anyone would look at them. I’ve referred some students of mine to lower-level textbooks (some as low as elementary school-level - for the students who can’t add fractions), which are available from the local library. When I gave out the “here’s the stuff you should know coming into the class, please see me if it’s at all difficult” worksheet, I don’t know if a single person looked at it. After all, I wasn’t going to test them on it, so why bother? (That was a mistake: I should have tested them on it.)

    Cousin Dave, my precalculus course is worse than remedial. Sure, my students can’t add fractions or set up simple equations from basic word problems - but my job isn’t to teach them same. My job is to teach them precalculus. As in, the stuff they will need to know for when they eventually take calculus. Which is why I can’t feel guilty about failing half of them - if they can’t manage a pass on my test, how on earth will they survive CALCULUS?

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/15/2005 @ 11:33 pm

  26. Maybe the solution is to have a quiz on the first day, testing students on the background they require to start in pre-calculus.  If they fail it, you strongly recommend that they drop the course because they will not pass.

    - Engineer-Poet — 3/16/2005 @ 5:29 am

  27. EngineerPoet, I was joking of course about the hazing ritual, but I share with you the experience of having taken DE from a not-very-good instructor. For those who haven’t experienced differential equations, the key thing to know about the subject is, that once you get past the “first order” problems and into the higher-order problems (where most of the interesting stuff is), the bulk of the problems have no currently known method for solving them. My problem was that the instructor came into class without a plan, and tried to make up problems to solve off the top of his head. 45 minutes of algebra-grinding later, he would then realize that the problem he made up had no solution and that the class time had been wasted.

    (BTW: I wasn’t joking about the car. That did happen.)

    - Cousin Dave — 3/16/2005 @ 7:38 am

  28. MS said:My college is looking for people with Ph.D.’s, and I just have a Master’s

    Ah. This is a chronic problem at my old university. We had a fleet of master’s-level educated instructors that the department has been continually trying to downside, instead increasing the number of grad students. I’m guessing grad students are cheaper, and look better on the docket or something. You have my sympathies. I have had several good instructor friends who’ve been constantly in fear of loosing their jobs due to their level of education, even though they are fantastic teachers. One of them being my old Trig teacher, who was an ex-marine drill seargant (sp??). The man knew how to keep you awake.

    Unknown profesor said:”…with an admissions policy that amounts to being able to fog a mirror, and a misguided sense of compassion that discourages hard grading.”

    How do you fight this? This was a problem at my undergrad university and i was anticipating having to deal with that here, and happily don’t. I’m highly encouraged to grade fairly, which translates to as harsh as I feel is just + as consistent as possible.

    - rosona — 3/16/2005 @ 11:24 am

  29. Moebus:

    I’ve been lucky in that I actually like teaching the core course, while many of my colleagues don’t. So, since I teach it often, I saw that I’d get a payoff from making investments in the course (from a business perspective, you could say that I made capital investments to gain a decrease in my marginal costs). So, I can refer students to my website when they have problems. The good students learn pretty quickly that they can get what help they need on their schedule. And the bad ones (the ones that are looking for me to do their work? Well, when they ask a question, I’ll point them to the help materials. If they come to my office without having tried at least looking at what’s available, I’ll say, “Great! I’ll be here until___. Let me print you out a copy, and after you take a at it, we can get together and talk.

    The ones who read it often get their answer. If not, after they’ve read it, the amount of MY time needed to solve the problem is greatly decreased. And the ones who don’t want to do any work on their own? They never come back.

    It’s Machiavellian, but it allows me to spend more time with the students who actually want to learn.

    Also, I have a fairly ideosyncratic teaching ctyle, and I find that I simply don;t like the way a lot of the available texts present the material. So, I started writing more and more of my own material. Someday, I’ll probably write a very unsuccessful book (yeah, right).

    Of course, putting all this time into teaching meant that I didn’t make it past my mid-tenure review at my first school, but them’s the breaks.

    You should have a problem where we have to take a derivative.

    - The Unknown Professor — 3/16/2005 @ 4:31 pm

  30. Ah, I don’t write up review materials, but I do something similar: I have plenty of sources for same at my fingertips, and I’ll refer my students to them, send them to check them out, and then return so we can go over them. Around 5% of the time, my students will actually take my advice, and we can have make some progress.

    The rest of the time, I have experiences like today’s: older student comes to my office, mentioning that she’s never been able to set up word problems and could I please tell her how to do it. I point her to the reference in the notes I gave in class, which give a pretty detailed algorithm of how to approach word problems. She says she’s never really looked at that - she just tries to copy the problems I did in class (never mind that I’ve told the class explicitly that that will only help them if I give identical questions on the test, which I don’t), because the other word problems are too hard.

    So I asked her if she still had the “things you should know by now” handout I’d given at the beginning of the term (along with the instructions “get help from me or someone else, soon, before next week if you’re having trouble). On it were a bunch of prerequisite-level questions, including some VERY SIMPLE word problems that they could practise on. Oh, yeah, she said, she got that worksheet. She did the first few questions, the ones on fractions, but she didn’t try the word problems “because I didn’t know how to do them.” And she’d never looked at them again. Apparently if you ignore something, it will go away.


    - Moebius Stripper — 3/16/2005 @ 6:18 pm

  31. Moebus:

    I do a lot of “attitude readjustment” (mostly getting in their faces. The first day of class, I put up a number of classroom phrases that I tell them will become permanently embedded in their psyches. One of the first ones is “Hope is a wonderful thing, but it’s a lousy grade management strategy”

    Another is that “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”.

    Unfortunately, those that get these have already learned the lessons. At least I get to say “I told you so”. I know that’s not nice, but occasionally my medication runs out…

    - The Unknown Professor — 3/16/2005 @ 7:06 pm

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