Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


This post would be TOTALLY AWESOME if I didn’t care about my job

File under: Meta-Meta, Know Thyself, Welcome To The Occupation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:01 am.

Last week, Nurse Hatchet provided some thoughts about blogging and work, namely that one should never do the former at the latter, and that one should only occasionally and very very carefully do the former about the latter. Her advice is reasonable enough, and I’m paranoid enough, that I plan to follow her recommendations to the letter, and that’s why I’ve been spending the past five days rereading her post in the hopes that I missed the “unless there’s something really really juicy, in which case, WRITE AT LENGTH AND IN GREAT DETAIL” exception the first twenty times. But, alas.

Let me give you a taste of just what I’m leaving you in the dark about, okay? Here - my first week of work involved a lot of mini-meetings, most rather standard, with the experienced staff: here’s where to find the office supplies, here’s a project you might be working on next month, here’s how to log on to the office database. That sort of thing. And then yesterday: here’s a pile of confidential emails that illustrate just how batshit insane some of the people we deal with are. And although I want so very much to elaborate on this, I MUST NOT TELL YOU ANY MORE. Never since Abraham laid his son upon the altar has God so tested one of His people. Oh, I thought of using the old “just make stuff up” device to satisfy the urge, but this is so completely a case of truth being stranger than any sort of fiction I can spin that there’s really no point. Really - think of the craziest type of work-related emails you can imagine. These are crazier.

Other than that, this job? Pretty good so far! I like the people I work with! The commute is too long! It sure is raining an awful lot these days!

And before anyone points out the obvious - my last job was a contract position, and I suspect that I could have skinned a live cat in any one of my classes and the university still wouldn’t have fired me and looked for someone to replace me for less than six months, at zero notice.


  1. Re: your fine print at the end. The truth of your words makes it easier for me to deal with complaining students: No matter how bad the class is, any possible mid-semester replacement is likely to be worse.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 10/29/2005 @ 4:58 am

  2. Seriously. It amazes me that there are students who hate EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO HAS EVER TAUGHT THEM MATH IN COLLEGE, and yet believe that there are throngs of unemployed, qualified, sensitive, talented, and patient math instructors who just lining up to teach their calculator-dependent asses how to prove trig identities.

    - Moebius Stripper — 10/29/2005 @ 8:57 am

  3. I had a slightly similar dillema recently. I participated in a psychological research experiment, which I thought was quite badly designed and executed, and it’s a great funny story. However, I was told not to talk about it while they’re still collecting data, because if future testees find out, it could comprimise their data. I’ll say this much, though: If you’re going to perform an experiment that involves deception, make sure you have some acting ability.

    - Geoff — 10/29/2005 @ 9:26 am

  4. Well, there is this thing called “plausible deniability”…

    But if this is really truth that is stranger than fiction, than the plausible deniability factor shrinks pretty far.

    And, of course, there’s also the fact that the boss can probably find out who owns the domain-name “talldarkandmysterious.ca”.

    That pretty much destroys any plausible deniability that you might be able to muster.

    All of the above assumes that your boss doesn’t know you’re a blogger, and doesn’t knmow your weblog-address, and discovers it 9 months from now.

    If he knows already, then you can assume he’s reading this now.

    - karrde — 10/29/2005 @ 9:49 am

  5. Geoff - oh, that sounds exactly like the psych experiment I did back in, oh, ‘96? I should really post about that, because it’s hilarious.

    Karrde - give me some credit; TD&M is not registered under my real name. I check this blog in Lynx from a putty window at work; there’s nothing on my work computer to link me to it. And you know, these “I know all your secrets!” comments are rather creepy, even though the folks who post them never do.

    - Moebius Stripper — 10/29/2005 @ 9:59 am

  6. Hmm. Discretion? Let’s see if I have any left after the recent rollercoaster ride we’ve all had at work this semester.

    One member of my department is hypersensitive and hair-triggered about — well, I don’t know what — everything! Last school year we had a minor internal controversy over configuring our classrooms. Did we want to tear out the chalkboards and replace them with whiteboards? There was a vigorous reaction by those who prefer chalkboards (I’m one of them): Don’t touch our chalkboards! Keep the current fifty-fifty split! The aforementioned touchy member of our department decided to poll the entire faculty, sending out an e-mail message that asked us to vote on whether we wanted to have more whiteboards — and don’t forget that whiteboards are cleaner, more convenient, and more technology-friendly. (Completely untrue, of course. Whiteboards produce less dust than chalkboards, but it’s a dirty dust that permanently stains books and clothes. Whiteboards are high maintenance if you actually use them a lot and we don’t have the custodial support to clean up the ink dust the way we should.)

    I replied to the e-mail saying that a neutral poll should have summarized the arguments on both sides instead of being slanted in favor of whiteboards. My sensitive colleague promptly went to the dean to complain that I had “bashed her” and shown myself to be both sexist and racist. (Huh? I had said nothing about the purveyor of the poll, merely gently criticizing the poll’s bias.) Fortunately, my colleague did calm down and did not pursue a formal complaint.

    This year, however, the sensitive colleague overheard a discussion among faculty members concerning the “clever” remarks our students make in class. A statistics professor noted that his students were fond of responding to his example of “Guess my height” with shouts of “Sixty-nine!” (followed by giggling). One of our newest faculty members, a naive kid not yet versed in the ways of the world, said, “I don’t get it.” The stats prof said, “Oh, it’s a reference to a sexual position and the students think it’s funny.” The sensitive colleague was horrified. She followed up the next day with an e-mail to the entire department denouncing this outrageous faculty behavior, filed a formal complaint with the dean, and warned everyone that the next infraction would force her to go directly to the college president.

    The sorry saga sputtered to a kind of temporary resolution this past week when one of the vice presidents met with the stats prof, agreed that he had not behaved improperly, and declared that no action was required. There will, however, be a meeting with this vp and the sensitive professor over what constitutes actual workplace harrassment or inappropriate behavior, so we’ll see if that cools her jets or not. But here’s the rest of the story: The sensitive professor is our department chair this year, so how can we expect the rollercoaster ride to be over? We’re all hunkered down and braced for the next whip-around.

    (Sorry for the long post. My workplace has been a great environment for many years and this is a major reverse. Damn.)

    - Zeno — 10/29/2005 @ 10:14 am

  7. MS - Can we ask you to write the posts now, and file them away in secret? Then, maybe ten years from now, when you’re somewhere else and the people embarrassed are no longer identifiable, you’ll have awesome material for your book.

    - Ron Avitzur — 10/29/2005 @ 12:28 pm

  8. I will argue that some of us hated all our university math professors because they were, in fact, all terrible teachers.

    Also, you’re such a tease. There must be some plausibly deniable way to post these stories. Passworded? Super secreter blog?

    - wolfangel — 10/29/2005 @ 2:35 pm

  9. Nuh-uh, I ain’t writing two blogs. And if I ever do write a book - and I would like to, some day - it will not be Tall, Dark, and Mysterious: The Novel, for a variety of reasons.

    Zeno - oh, let it all out. Maybe we can have some arrangement where you rant about your job in my blog, to keep the trainwreck quotient somewhere near its previous level.

    (And, wolfangel - oh, yes, plenty of university profs are terrible teachers, and I’d bet money that university math profs contribute disproportionately to that phenomenon. This assessment from my students I do not question. The one I do question is the idea that there are plenty of great university math instructors - some of whom are available to take a six-month position in a small town.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 10/30/2005 @ 9:03 am

  10. Hey,

    I’ve become recently much more sympathetic to hating your math professors.

    I’m taking this (supposedly) applied categorical data analysis class. The sole prereq is the intro stats class that covers stuff like what is a mean, median, sd/se/variance, etc. Our homework and tests have things on them like, oh, prove various properties of the variance of the mle estimators or even find the variance of a mle estimator. Prove various things about an overdispersed Poisson distribution, etc. In other words, the way the professor is teaching the class the 1 year sequence of mathematical statistics is assumed, and better yet at least the first semester of the 1 year upper undergraduate/MS level mathematical statistics sequence.

    I’m … lost, and I’ve had a hell of a lot more statistics than the preqrequisites dictate. I’ve had to buy the book for the aforementioned mathematical stats class and read along to try and do the homework, which has turned into fucking 15 to 20 hour weekly ordeals. Oh, and remember how this is supposed to be an “applied” class? The bloody teacher knows how to use none of R, SAS, or Stata. in fact, on our first couple homework assignments, he asked us to turn in our code so *he* could see how we were doing things, which definitely makes you wonder why the fuck you’re in his class. Keep in mind that, going by the prereqs, you may well have never run a regression before. And we’re completely on our own for getting any of these regressions to work and produce results.

    Unfortunately, I can’t drop because I have to have this class to graduate. It’s sucking. And I hate the professor, who isn’t a bad teacher at all — but I sit in the class and am completely bloody lost half the time. The only students really getting it are the 6 stats grad students in the class.

    Anyway, the level of teaching is completely inappropriate and the frustration is definitely affecting my feelings towards the professor. I definitely see how sitting in a class, working a reasonable amount, and at the end of the day *just not understanding* can really make you hate someone.

    - Earl — 10/30/2005 @ 9:25 am

  11. Earl, before you start hating the professor, you need to ask the key question: “How’d you end up teaching this class?” If the professor answers something like, “I always wanted to learn applied statistics, so I thought it would be a good idea to teach it in order to learn it,” then you can hate the professor. However, if the professor answers something like, “There was no one who was both qualified and willing to teach it, and I drew the short straw,” (or a more displomatic version thereof) then you should hate the administration.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 10/30/2005 @ 10:40 am

  12. Rudbeckia,

    I’m quite sure this professor didn’t have any desire to teach this class at all and got stuck doing so because he’s one of the more recent tenured faculty. Nonetheless, what is his choice is how he teaches it and the content included; the way it is being taught it wildly inappropriate given the prereqs.

    Anyway, other amusing stories from the same stats department:

    There is a chinese professor in the department who is straight out of mainland China and his english is… not so much. So the students are in his class and he’s lecturing at the blackboard. He turns around and mentions that he’d accidentally broken into chinese for the last 30 seconds or so and asked if anyone had noticed. Everyone in the class shook their heads; we just thought it was his accent. He’s that indecipherable. Oh, and he regularly gets his conjunctions confused — switching “and” and “or”, etc.

    Another story (same professor): a friend is taking a test and is running out of room on the photocopied exam sheets. He goes to the front of the lecture hall and asks the professor for some scratch paper. The professor just gave him this look, cocked his head to one side, then dragged his nails down a pile of paper sitting in front of him on his desk. The friend just said fuck it, went back to his seat, and pulled a pile of paper out of his backpack to use.

    Thank god for FAC.

    - Earl — 10/30/2005 @ 11:34 am

  13. Ah, but you are assuming that it is his choice to teach it this way — he might not know enough about applied statistics to teach it any other way. I say this because my first term at my old job I was assigned to teach a graduate course in software engineering — despite the fact that I have never taken a computer-related course above the freshman level. Furthermore, the only thing that I was told about the course was which textbook to use; aside from that one datum (which was communicated to me just a few days before the start of the semester) I knew nothing about the content, the expectations, or anything. Since I don’t know anything about computers, my only option was to teach math.

    It’s entirely possible that the reason that your professor is not teaching applied statistics is because he doesn’t know any applied statistics and is teaching the nearest thing that he does know.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 10/30/2005 @ 1:46 pm

  14. Rudbeckia,

    I didn’t think of that; stupid me. I doubt the professor knows much applied stats, but the whole situation sucks and the students are getting screwed. Anyway, I thought you were an algebraist? What SE class did you end up teaching — and how?

    - Earl — 10/30/2005 @ 2:34 pm

  15. Of course it is still possible that your professor is evil — just wanted to be sure that you also allowed for more benign possibilities.

    I don’t remember what the course was about; I faked my way through the best that I could. At one point I think that we talked about when an algorithm would terminate? Don’t know. I ended up teaching it because the system for assigning staff to courses was fundamentally flawed. While it would be on topic in terms of gossiping about work, it’s not all that interesting. Just your usual academic bullshit rather than “batshit crazy.”

    On a more productive note (since I am hijacking the comments, I will go all out), Earl, you should talk to the professor. (Ideally you would have done this during week 2 of the semester.) Don’t be confrontational or demanding, rather approach the meeting from the point of view that you are having a problem with the course and you are looking for a solution. Think up some realistic options that you might like the professor to consider. In my administrative part of my job, I field complaints from students, and the most productive meetings happen when the student has specific suggestions.

    If talking to the professor doesn’t work, then you can move up the line. Next place to go would be someone from your own department — maybe your advisor. Explain that you are taking that course to fulfill the applied statistics requirement but that it is not meeting your needs and ask what is the best way for you to learn the applied stats that you need for your program. Someone might have a good suggestion. Or your prof might get a talking to from someone. (But since you talked to the prof FIRST and gave him a chance to address the issues, it’s not like you’d be ratting on him behind his back.) In any case, whining in the comments of some blog is going to be of only limited value. :)

    OK, back to our regularly scheduled work rants.

    I’ll take another turn: someone I work with quit mid-semester (I’m too far out of the loop in the rumor mill, so I don’t know why this happened.), leaving other people to take on overloads so the classes would be covered.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 10/30/2005 @ 5:16 pm

  16. Quit mid-semester? Day-am.

    Regarding profs being made to teach courses they’ve never studied - I have to say, grad school was a real eye-opener for me in terms of this sort of thing: I learned just how little my department cared about the undergraduates. The only sort of quality control we had for them was that if they had a bad teacher, oh well - at least they’d fail and not move on to the next class with such poor understanding of the material!

    Once the department was having trouble offering the graduate-level courses that many students needed to graduate. We asked the department chair if he had any plans to deal with this problem. He did: increase the number of students in each section of the intro-level math classes, thereby cutting the amount of money needed to pay their (now fewer) instructors, and divert the extra money to grad courses. I commented: oh, so you propose to increase class sizes for the courses that we grad students are teaching?

    - Moebius Stripper — 10/30/2005 @ 6:21 pm

  17. Earl - I think you’re missing something about that second story with the not-so-fluently-english professor. First of all, that’s hilarious. Someone asks for scratch paper, so he scratches a sheet of paper?

    Secondly, and more importantly, did it ever occur to your friend that the term ’scratch paper’ might be a bit more colloquial than this professor, who clearly doesn’t have the best grasp of the english language, knows? Did he even try to explain what he meant by that?

    I mean, don’t get me wrong. It can be a dangerous thing for students when their professor lapses into another language for thirty seconds and no students can even tell the difference. But expecting this same teacher to understand slang terms and getting upset when he doesn’t? C’mon. Be realistic.

    - Simon Rose — 10/30/2005 @ 7:47 pm

  18. Yes, I found it hilarious that 3 years in a row, I was the person who told the intro stats instructors about some great examples for various stats topics (my favorite is Simpson’s paradox, and the example involves grad school admissions at Berkeley). Most of the grad students who taught the class had never taken stats before, but it’s pretty easy to teach it to yourself from the books. But that doesn’t take care of the real-life application aspect, so I would lend them all sorts of easy-to-read books about various abuses of statistics (it’s sad, but pathology is often the best way to teach a subject involving real-life situations.)

    I eventually taught the stats class myself. I believe that was one of my unpaid teaching stints (I was on fellowship, you see, and didn’t have to teach if I didn’t want to. It also meant that I didn’t get paid for teaching. But I would get paid for grading. Go figure.)

    - meep — 10/31/2005 @ 2:14 am

  19. Combining the topics of chalkboards and colloquial speeech, I once got fed up with the filthy chalkboards in a classroom and at the beginning of my lecture wrote “WASH ME” in big letters on one of the boards (and left it there). After class, this nice student from Japan came up to me, very confused about what “WASH ME” meant and how it pertained to the subject.

    - William — 10/31/2005 @ 8:05 am

  20. Speaking of bad stats professors, I had one of the worst. I was taking the general-population stats course because I had already decided that I was going to have another major (besides math) that I would pursue in grad school. The regular teacher (prof. X) of this stats course was well-loved. The actual teacher of this stats course (prof. Y) was taking over because prof. X was on sabbatical. Prof. Y used prof. X’s book (literally HIS book…it was a draft of the one he was writing) and X’s assignments. But he didn’t bother to remember that those assignments included some using a computer package that he…ummmm….NEVER MENTIONED ONCE IN CLASS!!!!

    In addition, prof. Y was just a terrible, horrible lecturer, and clearly resented having to teach the course. He was so bad that he kept having to make the tests easier and easier so that there was some remote chance that a significant number of people could pass.

    So, on the 3-hour final exam, I was done with everything except for one probability problem with about 60 minutes left. The problem was: 5 men check their identical hats at a restaurant, but the checker forgets to label them, and gives them back randomly–what is the probability that none gets his original hat back?

    I’ve seen solutions to some similar problems, but I don’t know if I could come up with the general solution right now. But within a few minutes, I realized that the sample space is 5!, or just 120. So, I did what any good math major would do when s/he is stuck. I listed all 120 possibilities and counted. On a FINAL EXAM!!!! That’s how easy he had to make the final.

    My worst teacher ever by far.

    - Polymath — 11/1/2005 @ 10:20 pm

  21. Now I’m remembering the required second-year stats class (which was really just elementary probability) that I took back in the day. The first two months were a rehashing of a certain non-required-but-all-math-majors-had-taken-it-anyway high school math class, so a lot of people stopped showing up in the first few weeks, and kept not showing up throughout the term, even when new material was introduced. Marks in this class were consequently very low - much lower than marks in more difficult classes offered to the same group of students.

    As far as I know, the course had evolved over a ten-year period according to considerations of the following form: “Hmm. People aren’t doing very well in this class. We need to make it easier at the beginning.” And so they did. And since it was easier at the beginning, even MORE people stopped showing up, even earlier into the term. And so, even more people crashed and burned later on in the term. And so, the administration got together again and said, “Hmm. People aren’t doing very well in this class. We need to make it easier at the beginning.” And so they did…

    None of which has anything to do with the original post.

    - Moebius Stripper — 11/2/2005 @ 5:20 am

  22. Since we’re sharing, my worst professor by far was Dr. Smith. She was this awful bitch who had just left Harvard and come to this large, but *public* university in the midwest.

    I was a freshman taking DiffEq 1. This was a 300 level class, where classes are ranked

    - Earl — 11/2/2005 @ 4:55 pm

  23. I wonder if I can post again? let me try:

    Since we’re sharing, my worst professor by far was Dr. Smith. She was this awful bitch who had just left Harvard and come to this large, but *public* university in the midwest.

    I was a freshman taking DiffEq 1. This was a 300 level class, where classes are ranked

    - Earl — 11/10/2005 @ 5:44 am

  24. Earl, are you trying to include an ampersand or a less-than sign or a greater-than sign in your message?

    - Whatever — 11/10/2005 @ 9:17 am

  25. Earl, man, if at first you don’t succeed, try something different. Most likely you’re submitting something that is being interpreted as bad HTML.

    - Moebius Stripper — 11/10/2005 @ 2:21 pm

  26. insanity

    - Whatever — 11/10/2005 @ 2:48 pm

  27. MS: ah, thanks. I thought it was just this browser / internet connection having issues (since it’s using post to xmit the data and might interpret a closed / dropped TCP connection as being over.) Ugh. I really overthought that problem — plus I guess I assumed that wordpress would be smart enough to escape less than signs. Though having seen wordpress in action, I suppose I oughtn’t be surprised… Anyway: the post.

    Since we’re sharing, my worst professor by far was Dr. Smith. She was this awful bitch who had just left Harvard and come to this large, but *public* university in the midwest.

    I was a freshman taking DiffEq 1. This was a 300 level class, where classes are ranked less than 100 = remedial, 100 = intro, 2-300 = intermediate, 4-500 = advanced undergrad, 600 = undergrad/masters, etc. She announced the first day of class that she didn’t think this should be a 300 level class, so she would teach it as a 500 level class. I was a freshman and too stupid to know that was a giant fucking red flag screaming, “DROP DROP DROP you idiot.”

    So anyway, I did 20-25 hours a week of homework for the entire term to pull an B. After the semester, I was comparing notes with a dormmate who had taken the same class in a different lecture and was surprised to find out they covered 1/3 the material we did. Of course, he got an easy A and there is nothing on my transcript to differentiate betweeen us — except I got a lower grade. My grade was poor because I failed a test, but I had the highest homework average in the class — 49%.

    But the funny part is this. I was in her office — it was a place I ended up spending a lot of time that semester — and she was on the phone with a colleague. In response to something he or she said, she emphatically replied, “I don’t give a damn about the students!” Then looked at the 7 or 8 students in her office and said, “Oops.” I didn’t have the balls to respond , “No shit.”


    - Earl — 11/10/2005 @ 5:52 pm

  28. ps: whatever: in the semi-fault tolerant architecture of the internet, if it fails, you do try again ;)


    - Earl — 11/10/2005 @ 5:53 pm

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