Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


All in a day’s work

File under: Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:39 pm.

According to one of my precalculus students, a girl apparently unacquainted with the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy, I “derive pleasure from seeing [my] students fail.” This, I am told, is a consequence of my gross narcissism, which leads me to show off in front of the class and on tests by demonstrating what a mathematical genius I am, instead of giving tests that everyone (even the students who don’t always come to class or do their homework) can do.

Student in question is one of those fresh-out-of-high-school blondes who doesn’t look a day over twelve. When she provided this input, chin raised and eyes narrowed, I was reminded of a pet budgie I’d has a kid, who would raise his head feathers whenever he wanted to appear intimidating. I’d had an altercation with this student before, when she confronted me about not having brought her test to class the week after I’d graded it. I bring the graded tests to class the class after my students write them, I’d told her, and then I leave them in a folder outside my office, unless they don’t fit because half of my students didn’t show up to the class in which I returned them, in which case the tests are available for pickup during my office hours. Didn’t I think, she asked, that that was an awfully passive-aggressive way of getting the students to show up the class after the test, HMM?

It should surprise no one that Budgie Girl is majoring in psychology.

My studies in psychology (PSYCH 101, 1996; weekly viewings of America’s Next Top Model, 2003-present) can rival any first-year slacker’s, so I know enough to respond to students’ character attack by tilting my head in a concerned fashion and asking, all sweetness, Now why would you think that?

Because, replied Budgie Girl, suddenly a bit less sure, otherwise I would either give easier tests or grade on a curve so that my students who needed passing grades, or, like her, C+’s, would get them. (I assume that by “grade on a curve”, she meant “increase all of the marks by the same amount“, but we’ll let that go.)

I nodded in some parody of empathy, and continued, “Can you think of any other reason I might be such a tough teacher?”

Budgie Girl looked at me, suddenly scared, and said, “No.”

“Because,” I continued, “Precalculus I is a prerequisite for Precalculus II, which many of my students, such as you, are going to need to take. And Precalculus II is harder than this course, and builds upon it. A mark of C+ or higher, from me, means that you have the background that you need to pass Precalculus II. If I just increase marks of D’s to B’s, that doesn’t mean that a D student has the understanding they need for Precalculus II - they’ll still fail it. So I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favours if I made this course, or my tests, easier. It’s only by showing me that you have C+ understanding, or more, of this class, that I will be able to see that you’re prepared for Precalculus II.”

I could see her breathing slow, her expression change. “Right now,” I continued, “You’re not doing work at a C+ level. If you’d like help working on study strategies and ways of thinking mathematically, I’d be happy to talk to you about that.”

She nodded.

And that was how I managed to neutralize a student’s overwhelming arrogance and replace it with a more manageable veil of self-loathing, on top of which one can build an understanding of Precalculus I.

This is why I am not a psychologist.


  1. Hah. If you were a male teacher, said speech would have been delivered in a miniskirt and a low-cut dress. It used to amaze me how the clothes got skimpier and some girls began to sit closer to the front the lower their grades got. Little did they know that my then girlfriend, now wife, was setting up in the back of the room for her lab section (with those self-same students), which immediately followed my recitation.

    - John — 3/17/2005 @ 5:03 pm

  2. Well, passive-agression is marked by trying to control people’s actions (making them come to class), not showing your emotional fragility (did you tell this student anything personal? I think not) — maybe this student is more on the ball than you think! (Okay, other more reliable sources suggest this is a bad definition, but why should I live up to a higher standard than the I’m feeling lucky result?)

    (I still don’t blame them for the definition of “grading on a curve”, since they’ve clearly only heard it used — by profs — to mean “give marks to everyone”.)

    How’s this season of ANTM? I watched the second one and enjoyed it far too much.

    - wolfangel — 3/17/2005 @ 8:15 pm

  3. Just thought I would de-lurk for a moment, Miss Strip (or should I call you Moebius?), and let you know that I’m really enjoying your blog. Not too many mathematicians express themselves as well as you do — which makes me suspect that Budgie-Girl had even less justification than usual for the kind of request she made.

    Cheers! and may your red pen never run out of ink. :)

    {We now return to lurk mode.}

    - ThatTallGuy — 3/17/2005 @ 10:57 pm

  4. John’s comment reminds me of one of my dad’s stories from when he was a TA (back in the ’50’s)

    (Female) Student, in a breathy voice, “is there anything I can do to get a higher grade in this class?”

    Reply: “Yeah, study more.”


    1) His girlfriend was present
    2) There were 4 past/present/future Ms. Americas in that class. If one of them had asked, the answer might have been a bit different

    - enlightenedduck — 3/17/2005 @ 11:00 pm

  5. John: same experience here. She would have worn a miniskirt, and she would have bent forward as she spoke.

    Someone at my school said something interesting yesterday:

    “Students don’t want to talk and professors don’t want to be disturbed.”

    Interestingly enough, that’s the condition for the current teaching models to work. As long as the students stay quiet, and professors (or teachers) try to avoid too much interaction, the whole teaching thing works.

    As soon as students talk (read:complain), we go downward.

    Isn’t it depressing?

    - Daniel Lemire — 3/18/2005 @ 6:36 am

  6. Perhaps she would prefer you to use the “agressive-agressive” model of encouraging students to come to the class after the test: any test not picked up during the next class section will be rescored as a 0, and they need to take an alternate (harder) test to get a grade for that test.

    This is why I am not a teacher :)

    - David — 3/18/2005 @ 8:25 am

  7. The passive-aggressive aspect of me not bringing tests to class is just an added bonus, not my main motivation for not doing it. My main motivation is that I don’t feel like lugging all of the test papers on the bus, home, on my bike back to campus more than once, as there is a strong correlation between “not coming to class the class after the test” and “not coming to class the week after the test.” (That said, attendance yesterday was 75%! I think I’m actually having some success in this class. I’m going to withhold judgement until I grade the test corrections, but so far things actually look promising.)

    Wolfangel, the current season of ANTM is trashy and objectionable on so many levels, and yet, I must watch it. I MUST. I can’t explain this compulsion, other than as an offshoot in my general passing interest in anthropology. I can’t relate to the people on that show on any level (particularly since the stylists tend to favour makeovers that involve cutting everyone’s hair and dying it blond - yes, even one of the black girls last season), but it intrigues me to see that there are people who take, say, runway walking so seriously. (Honestly, check out Brazilian Stomp, at the bottom of the left frame. It’s a four minute clip of the judges analyzing the ten-second walk of one of the contestants.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/18/2005 @ 8:45 am

  8. Which seasons of ANTM were not trashy or objectionable on many levels? Actually, let’s just expand that: which reality shows have ever at any point not been trashy and objectionable? Sadly, they are damned compulsive.

    I also don’t get this “chop off their hair” stuff. I *like* long hair, and I don’t want to be blonde. Not that I intend to try out for a reality show, but the chop off a foot of hair thing shows up with most stylists, too.

    - wolfangel — 3/18/2005 @ 10:15 am

  9. The Amazing Race is only occasionally trashy, and makes up with it with enough teams of people who really, really care about one another. Each season of ANTM is trashier than the last.

    The cut-hair-and-dye-blond makeovers are nuts. On occasion, they work, but - but - whose idea was it to do to this to her? Really.

    Not that, uh, I care.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/18/2005 @ 8:31 pm

  10. I never watched The Amazing Race. The Apprentice is getting increasingly trashy; Trading Spouses/Wife Swap started out so bad they couldn’t get any worse. And the reality shows that involve finding the new Love Of Your Life are rather like watching train wrecks. Perhaps I should start watching this season of ANTM, despite having been so proud of quitting.

    What amuses me most is how upset the blondes always get when they get to be a slightly different shade of blonde.

    But I only know this through, uh, hearsay?

    - wolfangel — 3/19/2005 @ 5:31 am

  11. The label “passive-aggressive” is so over-used that I was delighted with David’s comment about whether “aggressive-aggressive” might be any better: “Hey! You want your papers back? Show up, dammit!” “You want ‘extra credit’ to make up for the quizzes you missed by being late or absent? Nope!” “You want me to compensate for the class’s sorry-ass performance by giving away more points to everyone? No, I prefer you earn them.” “You want full credit for a correct answer even though your work is incoherent? Sorry, your work is just as important as the answer.”

    Phew! I feel better now. Back to grading papers in a more equable mood.

    P.S.: What’s ANTM? America’s Nuttiest Teachers of Math? (I might qualify.)

    - TonyB — 3/19/2005 @ 2:39 pm

  12. Alas, ANTM is merely America’s Next Top Model, the crack cocaine of reality TV. Watch one, and you’re hooked for life. If you’re thinking, “I doubt it - I’m not interested in fashion or beauty,” I assure you that neither am I, and yet, I am right in front of the damned TV watching that dreck every single week. Next week, apparently, one of the girls has what the judges describe as “the worst photo in ANTM history.” I must see this photo. I must.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/20/2005 @ 12:21 pm

  13. that’s absurd. bringing the exams to class only once has nothing to do with trying to compel students to come to class. it is assumed they come, and if not, why should the instructor have to lug the tests back and forth until they happen to show up?

    - Jen — 3/21/2005 @ 4:29 pm

  14. Further to that, Jen, bear in mind that I live in a rural area, on a 15% grade, one kilometer from the nearest bus stop. So if a dozen students don’t show up to pick up their tests (which is common), then that’s over 100 sheets of paper I need to lug back home at night when I’m already about to drop dead of exhaustion from teaching the entire day. Then, the next day, I either have to lug those back to the bus stop, or, if the weather is nice, on the 10km bike ride to school.

    You can imagine why I don’t want to do this more than once per student per test. (That said, if a student phones or emails me saying “I was away when you handed back the test, could you bring it to the next class?” I will - but just that student’s test, not all of them.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/21/2005 @ 5:01 pm

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