Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Gather ye round and swoon over my (ex) department head.

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:18 am.

The second semester of the year has ended, this time for real: this brat wrote her final exam last week. Finally. Department Head handled the whole affair, from arranging the exam date to grading the paper, and MLIHASIM got the C that she needed. So, good on her, I guess. Not content, however, to leave the course with her honour even vaguely intact, she penned a valedictory email to Department Head, thanking him for supervising and grading her exam, which she’s sure was a huge burden for him, but what could she do? - if it were up to her, she pointed out, she wouldn’t have had to write that exam at all. She informed him that for the most part she “enjoyed having [me] as a teacher”, and that I was “good at explaining the basics”, but that my “tests and exam were significantly harder than the homework” and in fact contained some “questions that we never did in class.”* Since she hadn’t done math in years and years, she had a tutor “show [her] how to do all of the homework problems” and yet she still found the exam “very hard”. Oh, and she talked to some other students and they agreed with her, and would Department Head “please keep this sort of thing in mind” the next time he hires faculty? If this sounds familiar, it is: she aired precisely this grievance (minus the hiring advice) every single goddamned time we met outside of class, not to mention several times over email.

Department Head forwarded me this note. He also, God bless him, forwarded me his reply, which was basically all,


I’m glad you enjoyed Moebius Stripper as an instructor. As for your other remarks, I’m afraid that your expectations of a college-level math course are incompatible with reality. MS’ exam was no harder than the ones I give when I teach this class with the same text (and hence with similar homework). Math is not about memorization; in fact, mastering it requires that you be able to apply the concepts you learned to new problems. That you did not learn to do this in spite of the effort you put into this course indicates that a C was an appropriate, if not generous, mark for you to achieve. MS taught this course exactly as it should be taught, and exactly as I would teach it - though I don’t think I am as patient as she is! Speaking of which, your hiring advice is rather moot, as I’m the one who will be teaching this course - as well as the follow-up - next semester. Say - I guess that means I’ll have you in my class! See you next term and have a good summer, and I look forward to seeing you in the fall.

Dealing with students who think that they should be allowed to dictate the terms under which they learn (or fail to learn) the subject is frustrating. I can’t imagine how much more frustrating it would be if those students had the support of my boss.

* However, some of the exam questions were actually identical to questions on the review sheet - which MLIHASIM had actually told me she wasn’t going to do, because it too was too hard.


  1. If I were that girl, I would be waiting a year to take the next math class. She I’m sure is unchastened, but — ack.

    - wolfangel — 5/31/2005 @ 8:59 am

  2. He’s so dreaaaaamy…

    …or am I thinking of Jacques?

    - meep — 5/31/2005 @ 9:38 am

  3. Well, math is hard, ya know. I passed off a nasty student to a friend once. He came to my office every week or so with another WTF story about the student. At least you were able to pass this one on to the right person.

    - Overread — 5/31/2005 @ 10:42 am

  4. See you next term and have a good summer, and I look forward to seeing you in the fall.

    That should be fun :)

    - redlami — 5/31/2005 @ 10:48 am

  5. HAHA! /nelson


    - daz — 5/31/2005 @ 10:51 am

  6. Ooooh, I’m am flush with vicarious warmth! The fall term will be a garden of untrammeled delights for our intrepid young scholar as she continues her quest to teach her teachers how to do their job.

    Thank you, MS, for sharing that with us.

    - TonyB — 5/31/2005 @ 11:05 am

  7. Yes, to be a fly on the wall come September. Perhaps I could convince Department Head to blog?

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/31/2005 @ 12:11 pm

  8. Wait, I’m confused about what courses the head is teaching, or perhaps which courses the student will be taking.

    - wolfangel — 5/31/2005 @ 1:02 pm

  9. I was wondering if you have ever taken a course that you felt was badly taught or sat an exam that was poorly conceived and didn’t reflect the course well?

    - robbie c — 5/31/2005 @ 1:58 pm

  10. Wolfangel, the student took Math 1 last term, with me. Department Head will be teaching both Math 1 and Math 2 next term. Student will be taking Math 2 next term.

    Robbie, of course I have. I’m also sure that in at least some of those cases, I was wrong. But this isn’t what’s going on here, unless MLIHASIM’s remarks that overall I was a good teacher, good at explaining things, was just part of her manipulative behaviour (documented in more detail elsewhere). Her complaint was that the material on the tests was “much harder” than that in the homework. Some relevant facts:

    * The textbook had answers to the odd-numbered problems in the back of the book. I’d often put some of the even-numbered problems, or problems from an older edition of the text, on the tests and exams. I think we can safely assume that the even-numbered problems and old-edition problems weren’t “way harder” than the ones I assigned. The issue was that MLIHASIM was doing math by memorization and pattern-matching, and so naturally the problems she’d seen before were way easier than the ones that she was seeing for the first time on the tests

    * She discussed this issue with me, multiple times. I gave her advice on what she should be thinking about when she was doing the problems; I told her to write down some rough work, and then if she got stuck, to see me again during office hours. She did return during office hours, but without rough work. All she did was complain, again, that the tests were too hard. Not a productive way to improve one’s standing.

    * I’ve given inappropriate tests before. As I become more experienced, this happens less often. I’ve taught MLIHASIM’s course three times, and this exam was not inappropriate. (I ran it by two more experienced faculty before giving it, and they said it was a good exam.) I carefully planned the homework assignments to give practice on various concepts, and I design the tests so that those concepts are tested roughly in proportion to how much time we spent on them.

    * The student in question had previously taken this course with the Nice Teacher. Her ideas of what a math class should be are consequently pretty unrealistic.

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/31/2005 @ 3:24 pm

  11. Reading this post made me smile. Thank doG for Chairs who back up faculty (and who clue these types of students into reality). Glad this is over and done with for you.

    - Cheeky Prof — 5/31/2005 @ 3:31 pm

  12. Just goes to show that department heads DO serve a purpose. I’m keeping this article to give out to my next Calculus class.

    - Robert — 5/31/2005 @ 4:27 pm

  13. Oh, I forgot to say:

    “As for your other remarks, I’m afraid that your expectations of a college-level math course are incompatible with reality.”

    SWEET comeback.

    - Robert — 5/31/2005 @ 4:28 pm

  14. I love him. She’s going to be so steamed by that reply and yet, there’s nothing she can do about it. And her summer?–Ruined, utterly ruined.

    Oh yeah, he’s the man all right.

    - ilyka — 5/31/2005 @ 8:25 pm

  15. hi,

    new reader/poster…love the blog…planning one of my own when my summer starts.

    i teach math at a very good private high school, but my wife teaches (english) at a local college with many of the kinds of students you describe, so i totally know what you’re talking about.

    your department chair’s response is truly brilliant…i love the cheerfully blunt “i’m going to have to deal with you more, but i don’t give a s**t because you can’t hurt me” tone.

    also, hats off to you for keeping your integrity as a teacher and really thinking hard about what it means to teach well. anyone who hires you will be lucky to have you.

    - TIAB — 6/1/2005 @ 8:42 am

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