Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

4/4/2005

R.I.P. Mathematics Education

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:30 pm.

From the table of contents of a precalculus text - written by the same three folks who wrote the piece of shit I’m valiantly trying to teach from - that I’m using for supplementary examples:

1. Functions, Graphs, and Models….1

    1.1 Using graphing utilities…2

Page 2! They really cut to the chase, don’t they? The good people at Texas Instruments, along with their shareholders, must be very pleased. Anyway, let’s see what the book has to say about functions, starting on page 1. In full, emphasis added:

THE FUNCTION CONCEPT IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ideas in mathematics. The study of either the theory or the applications of mathematics beyond the most elementary level requires a firm understanding of functions and their graphs. In the first section of this chapter we discuss the techniques involved in using an electronic graphing device such as a graphing calculator or a computer. In the remaining sections, we introduce the important concept of a function, discuss properties of functions and their graphs, and examine specific types of functions. Much of the remainder of this book is concerned with applying the ideas introduced in this chapter to a variety of different types of functions, as is evidenced by the chapter titles following this chapter. Efforts made to understand and use the function concept correctly from the beginning will be rewarded many times in this course and in most future courses that involve mathematics.

So, in other words, we’re going to put the cart right here, and leave the horse six time zones behind us. But don’t worry, in Section 1.2 we’ll get to meet the horse. Isn’t that exciting? In particular: note the conspicuous absence of, oh, say, the definition of “function” from the entire introduction of Chapter 1; note also the lack of references to, for example, a single instance of what we might be using functions for. All we know so far is, they sure are useful! And we can use computers to study them!

In the sidebar is a list of topics that students are advised to review - yes, I’m laughing too - before delving into the useful, rewarding, and tech-savvy world of functions; but then, we’re done with that intro, and we turn the page to learn that

[t]he use of technology to aid in drawing and analyzing graphs is revolutionizing mathematics education. Your ability to interpret mathematical concepts and to discover patterns of behaviour will be greatly increased as you become proficient with an electronic graphing device.

Makes you wonder what people did before there were graphing calculators. I imagine my parents and grandparents sitting around in caves, clad in fur, with fires burning in front of them, etching misshapen circles in the mud with sticks. The same circles, every goddamned time, because they couldn’t discover patterns of behaviour from one circle to the next. And forget parabolas! But then, along came graphing calculators, and God Himself smiled down upon the mathematics classroom.

Honestly, this is delusional. The bulk of my students come to me “proficient with an electronic graphing device”, and their mathematical skills end right there. They don’t use their calculators to help them graph functions; they use them as an excuse to whine that I make them graph functions by hand. They don’t find patterns; why would they? they have machines for these sorts of things.

I have yet to hear of a single mathematics educator, save an author of the new edition of a textbook - now compatible with the latest graphing utilities! - whose experience differs from mine.

How psychic phone lines work, according to the brother of the brother-in-law of a woman who founded one

File under: Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:17 am.

Last weekend, while I was waiting for a ferry, I ducked into a small coffee shop/bookstore on the Vancouver Island side of the ferry trip. There, a middle-aged man who reeked of cigarette smoke sat down at the table across from me - small town, small coffee shop - and engaged me in conversation, most of which I’ve forgotten by now. It started predictably enough - obviously I wasn’t from around here; was I student at the college? No, I sighed, I was a teacher at the college. What did I teach? Math. Oh, math. Ah yes, math.

Somehow, from there, the conversation settled upon the detachment many students feel from the subject; they’ll pride themselves on their skills in “critical thinking”, I said, but toss a couple of numbers into the things they’re thinking critically about, and all of a sudden they shut down. For crying out loud, I said, the damned business students did not know how goddamned interest was compounded. Anyone with an agenda to push or a scam to pull can prey upon their ignorance, and if they don’t learn how to work with numbers, they will be screwed out of their money or fed a pack of lies couched in fancy-sounding statistical terms.

At this my interlocutor mentioned that oh, yes, he knew all about scams and screwing people out of their money. And I could tell that he was just looking for a time to tell me the particulars of that, because that was the end of the math/teaching part of the discussion, but it hardly mattered, because what he told me next was just so great.

Ten years or so ago, he told me, his brother married the sister of Josie the famous psychic from Quebec, a woman who so altered the historical landscape that I can’t for the life of me find a single mention of her on the internet. But I’d heard of her, and I’d seen her television ads in the early nineties: ordinary folks proclaiming that Josie and her psychic friends knew all about them within five minutes of their call - it was as though the psychics had known them all their lives! The psychic friends, just by interpreting their astrological charts, knew that they were dissatisfied with their jobs! and struggling with their love lives! and torn among family obligations! They’d been skeptics before, but a friend their uncle’s friends had raved about Josie, and now, they’re believers.

Did I know how those phone psychics worked? asked the man. Did I? Because man, was it something. Was. It. Ever. Something!

I thought I knew, I said; it seemed pretty obvious. The people in the commercials were actors, for one; that was obvious. And the phone lines stayed in business for as long as they did because they were staffed by people trained to say the most general and flattering things about their callers (”you try to project confidence, but inside, you are often insecure; however, you are well-respected even by people who you don’t know very well”) and patronized by desperate losers who are ready to eat it all up.

In the middle of this, the man leaned back and started chuckling. When I was done, he took a long drag of his cigarette and leaned in again, exhaled in my face, and said, “Uh-uh. A lot of ‘em, they’re very specific. They tell you you live in a blue house and you were just laid off from work in the textile factory by Highway 71 and that your kid broke his arm last week.”

“Do they now,” I said with the skepticism of someone listening to a man in the midst of boasting of his knowledge of scams.

“Uh-huh. And you know how they do that? It’s because,” he continued immediately, without waiting for a reply, “They know you. They live right across from your blue house and used to work in the same goddamn textile factory until they were laid off, too.

“The phone lines,” he told me, “They have a system, did you know that? There’s a, there’s a computer, it tells you where the called is from. Then the call is routed to the nearest phone psychic. And Bell telephone is in cahoots with this, did you know that? They get 30% of the revenue from this.”

“Do they know it’s a scam?” I asked.

He shook his head, uninterested in my questions. “Josie,” he went on, “she knew she had a thing going. And there are a lot of wannabe phone psychics out there, you know that? Helluva lot, and you know why? Because,” he said quickly, “it’s no-skill labour and there aren’t any goddamn jobs in small towns. So, someone from a small town applies to be a phone psychic, ten dollars and hour, and they’re from a small town, Josie and her goddamn friends hire them. They got one of those psychics in every goddamn shit town in Canada and in the United States, and someone calls in from one of ‘em, from say Arizona, calling a 1-900 number based in Montreal, they’re routed automatically to the phone psychic in Arizona they went to goddamn high school with, and everyone knows everybody in those towns, and it doesn’t take a goddamn psychic to know that someone who lives across the street from you’s kid broke his arm.”

“Goddamn,” I said, and meant it.

“Goddamn is right,” he repeated. “She made millions this way. I fix cars to feed my family, she makes millions getting her psychic friends to tell my customers their cars aren’t running.”

I grinned, but something was bothering me: “What if someone calls in from Ottawa? Or Vancouver, or Chicago? It’s not guaranteed that they’re going to know the local psychic if they’re from a big city.”

He tossed the end of his cigarette into the ashtray, and immediately withdrew another one from his pocket, and lit it. “Are you kidding?” he said. “People from big cities don’t call goddamn psychics. And if they do,” he continued, “they’re not exactly proud of it, they’re not about to go public about being scammed by a bunch of bullshit psychics whose goddamn ads say ‘for entertainment purposes only’ right in the corner of the screen, so all the network’s got is word of mouth from satisfied customers. So it kept going until ol’ Josie died in a car accident five years ago or whatever. My brother, you know what he said? He said, ‘Betcha she didn’t see that coming. Because she was a psychic, you know? Get it?”

“I get it,” I said, and smiled.

He didn’t smile. “Good,” he said, satisfied.

So, maybe I could make a living in a small town, after all. And I’d have great stories for this blog if I made that career change.