Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Your stupid misconceptions addressed

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:42 pm.

Things are pretty busy here at TD&M Headquarters: I’m away on business working long hours; I’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio; and, oh yeah, I’ve been taking care of everything that needed to be taken care of before my new condo officially became mine. Why, I’d have nothing worth blogging if it weren’t for the fact that one of my former students recently took me to task in the comments section on my most recent post!

Just kidding! Reader Carolyn wasn’t one of my students; rather, she’s a genetically engineered composite of every student that every academic blogger has ever complained about. O Lord, thank you for this bounty.

Hi, I just happened to come across your website while searching for something on Google.

Welcome! Make yourself at home, and above all, don’t be shy about telling me what you think of me and my blog!

I have read a lot of your posts and some of them are pretty interesting, while others are kinda depressing.

I am currently an undergraduate student, and therefore your posts about education interests me the most. I’d like to say that some of them are not totally fair, this is, of course, from a student’s perspective, and as we all know, a students’ perspective is often different from that of the teachers. :)

Yes, different. Bear in mind, though, that all teachers once were students, whereas few students once were teachers.

It’s called perspective.

First of all, I’d like to state that I am not a bad student, nor a lazy one. In fact I’m a pretty good student, if not the best in my school. Still, I found that playing bingos made of students’ mistakes is a cruel idea.

You should see the bingo card I made from students’ complaints about my blog.

Well, yes, I can see the humor in it, but still, in my homeland, there is an old saying: there are no bad students, there are only bad teachers.

And you left your homeland, yes?

I understand a teacher’s frustration when he can not make a student understand something, I also understand that certain students can be irritating, but, it’s not very professional to make fun of your students that way, well, not even on a website. You know not everybody in this world is very bright, but if you are not tolerant of this, you shouldn’t be teaching in the first place.Maybe I am taking it too seriously , but I feel very sad when I think about the possiblity that my own teachers may do the same with our mistakes.

Let me provide some never-before-published context to Precalculus Bingo, one of whose squares is “(x+y)^2=x^2+y^2″. Students are taught to expand (x+y)^2 in grade nine, if not grade ten; they then use it again in grades eleven and twelve, both of which were prerequisites for the college math class I taught. I had them expand such a quantity on their first quiz. Three quarters of them made the mistake on the bingo card. I spent ten minutes the next day going over it; I explained how they could substitute values for x and y and see that their fabricated identity didn’t hold; I showed them how to expand it.

A week later, I gave the same question on the next quiz. Nearly as many students got it wrong. Again I went over it in detail; again I explained how to expand algebraic expressions. I announced that I’d spent over half an hour on that one question, plus they’d had plenty of similar ones in the homework; I told my students that if I ever saw that mistake again, they’d get a mark of zero on the question. Consider yourselves warned, I said.

Five students made that mistake on the test. This is the sort of mistake I put on my bingo card.

Secondly, about grade inflation. I’d like to say that grades are not accurate indicators of one’s ability and will never be. I am not saying that people who always get D’s can actually be bright, though many famous scientists used to be terrible students when they were young (Albert Eistein for one). Therefore, I see no point for a teacher to take it to the extreme and say “oh, I am gonna be a super strict teacher and give the whole class a D average just to prove I am a committed teacher who cares about my students”.

Oh, and I said that where? Nowhere. I did, however, say this:

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, and every single other teacher who does not run an independent school, have a curriculum to follow. Mathematics is cumulative; I need to know that my students have attained the level of understanding that they need to move on. Which kind of flies in the face of your “marks don’t mean anything, so give me an A” theory, so feel free to disregard. After all, students often have a different perspective from teachers.

From my experience, the real learning does not take place in school anyways.

And this translates into a mandate to give higher marks…how, precisely?

If a person is really commited to learning, he/she can always borrow books from library and study on his/her own without going through any kind of formal education. Since you are a college professor, I would assume your students are old enough to do this if they want to.

That’s two uses of the hypothetical syllogism in as many sentences, so let’s address both antecedents right now:

One - here’s a real-life conversation (abridged) that I had last term:

Student: I was never good at math and haven’t taken any math courses for the first three years of my degree. What do you suggest?

Me: Well, I’ve placed some high school math books on reserve in the library, and -

Student: Where’s the library?

Two - speaking of learning stuff on one’s own: sidebar sez, erstwhile college instructor. Run along, look it up on your own outside the classroom; I’ll still be here when you’re done.

Then, what’s the real point of going to university or college? learning? well, maybe, a little bit. I don’t think that learning something in three months and then getting tested on it(whether it’s math or statistics) can make one more educated.

Then get out of the classroom; you’re wasting your time.

Therefore, in my humble opinion, an important aspect of going to school is getting regonized for one’s abilility. That’s what the grading system is for. It is to show the future employer that a person is intelligent enough to perform certain tasks. Therefore, grades are important to students and will always be.

A summary:

  1. Grades are meaningless.
  2. Therefore I should give higher grades.
  3. You don’t really get educated in school, remember? Grades are meaningless.
  4. Grades are a means of recognizing students for their ability.
  5. Which was not acquired or honed in the classroom in which those grades were assigned.
  6. Making grades kinda disconnected from the grader and the material being graded.
  7. Still, because they determine employment prospects, grades are super important to students.
  8. But still meaningless.

Good to know.

Many would be idealistic and say university is about learning, I would beg to differ and say it’s 50% about personal growth and 20% about learning and 30% about the degree.

Well, that’s a load of 95% bullshit.

Seriously: I hate, hate, hate it when people think that their unfounded theories gain legitimacy by virtue of having made-up numbers attached to them. That right there is a reason that every member of a democratic society should learn statistics: so that they’re not so dazzled by numbers that they accept uncritically every statement that invokes them. Nonetheless, even if we accept your made-up statistics, how does the fact that university is 50% about personal growth mandate me giving higher grades?

This leads to the whole “students complaining about marks” question. I wouldn’t lie and say I have never complained about a teacher giving us a unreasonably hard test or about an irresponsible TA marking over-strictly. I actually do it a lot, though not always directly to the professor or the TA’s.

And we take your complaints very very seriously. Sometimes we even blog about them!

I have to say that students, as payers of their education, should have the right to question an unfair mark, if they indeed have the reason to.

And they do have that right; it’s a free country. Hell, I even let my non-paying scholarship and bursary students question their marks. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees them the right to ask questions; who am I to rescind it?

I have found, from my undergraduate experience, that professors and TA’s can be totally unreasonable and unfair when marking students’ tests. I can understand that from a teacher’s point of view, you may not think you have done anything wrong. But from the students’ point of view, we have not done anything wrong neither. And there is no reason why you must be absolutely right, and we must be absolutely wrong.

Yes, there is a reason: I have two degrees in the subject I teach, and you have none. I am familiar with the curriculum; therefore, I know what students need to know in order to advance to the next course, and you don’t. I have a broad background in my subject, and I know how the various threads of it fit together; consequently, I know what types of mistakes are serious, and which types are minor - and you don’t. I bring a decade of study and experience to the table, and I base my judgements on that. You bring only a sense of entitlement. There’s a chance you’re right and I’m wrong about a test or a grade, but frankly, the odds are against you.

One important thing about academia is the freedom of thoughts, the freedom of argument and sharing our different views. I’m sorry if I have sounded rude, but that’s the way it is.

You don’t sound rude; just ignorant. After all, you’re espousing the view that learning is only a minor function of the academy, whereas providing a forum where people wave around their baseless claims so that they can compete with one another on equal footing is “one important thing” about it. You don’t need university to “share [your] different views”; you can do that at a coffee shop, a park, or a party. You can even complain about how unfair your teachers are in all of those forums.

If you are going to outright dismiss the superior expertise and background of the people charged with expanding your worldview and not merely validating it, then there is no point in you going to university.

People are biased creatures you know, even the brightest man can make mistakes, and I don’t think every professor belongs to the brightest catogary.

Yes, everyone can make mistakes. I have certainly done so in setting tests or grading, and I have made amends - successfully, from what I’ve been told - whenever that came to my attention.

A low grade or a difficult test, however, is not prima facie a mistake.

Finally, I want to agree with you that the Canadian, and actually the whole North American education system doesn’t prepare a lot of people well for an university education. . Since I have studied for quite some time in East Asia, I have a comparison. It’s true that the education here is pretty slack. From your posts I can see that you are quite fond of the education of “your time”, and I am kind of suspicous of this.

Well, “my time” had its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I’m feeling more than a shade nostalgic for those halcyon days when we didn’t sass our elders like you’re doing now. On the other hand, walking to school barefoot in the snow kinda sucked.

In fact, I find this generation of students to be a lot brighter on average than the previous generations, in many aspects (technology for one).

I tutored a grade 12 student this summer. He was weak in basic algebra, so we spent some time going over the basics. I went through one linear equation step-by-step, and then pointed to the last line and said, “So - x equals five times two,” and paused.

“Holdonasec,” said my student, and darted upstairs. I waited for two minutes until he returned with his backpack. He threw the bag on the floor beside him, opened it, and withdrew a pencil case. Slowly, he opened the pencil case, and pulled out a fucking graphing calculator. He then keyed in, 5, x, 2, = before triumphantly declaring, “Ten.”

Every generation has geniues and idiots, and it’s hard to compare.

No, it’s easy to compare: a first-year statistics course’ll provide you with the tools to identify trends. See your local university for a statistics class near you! If you think that you can’t analyze data because it can’t always be linearly ordered, then your university education has been for naught.

Easter education is probably the strictest and the most rigorious in the world, but they produce far less Nobelist than North America, and there is a reason for that. This is where a rigorous education is simply not enough.

In any first-year statistics course - you know, the one whose content you obviously don’t get at all - one learns that one can’t compare data sets by looking at the outliers.

Go learn about what that means - independently, in a library - and then we’ll talk.

well, this was a long rant. Just wanted to share a student’s point of view, somewhat different from yours. Maybe you find these ideas unimpressive, but at least it will help you understand better what your students may be thinking. I see you are a committed and serious teacher, these are what you want to know, right?

Well, inasmuch as gazing into the abyss can be educational, sure.


  1. Oh, entitlement… Thanks for sharing with us this other point of view. :)

    About the precalculus bingo. When students make the outrageous, ridiculous mistakes that they make, I sit patiently and explain it once more, give them encouragement and constructive feedback. The only way to do that without going insane is to later rant to my friends on how clueless my students are (so that I will not tell it to themselves). A precalculus bingo is to your advantage, clueless student!

    And I hear you, MS, on the made-up numbers. I hate it when people randomly say things like “99.9% of A are B”. Because, apparentlly, 95%, 99%, and 99.9% mean the same.

    - oxeador — 3/22/2006 @ 10:37 pm

  2. Well, yes, 95, 99, and 99.9 percent are, what, 2, 3, and 4 standard deviations from the mean? And those are all the same.

    MS: near the top, the paragraph “I am currently an undergraduate student, … different from that of the teachers. :)” should be blockquoted. [Fixed - thanks. -MS]

    - Theo — 3/23/2006 @ 12:32 am

  3. I think college education would be better if profs openly mocked their students. One of my best teachers (in high school) used to express his contempt for our stupidity quite often, and if you really ticked him off, he threw an eraser at you.

    Thing is, some people are invincible in their ignorance, and even external objective measures of their ignorance make little impact — if low SAT, ACT, AP, etc. scores don’t tell you that you don’t know math, high school grades notwithstanding, I doubt open college prof contempt would have much of an effect.

    Lastly, nobody gives a damn about your personal growth, excepting yourself and perhaps your mother. But even your mother will say “When are you going to get a job?”

    - meep — 3/23/2006 @ 2:55 am

  4. When students complain about the way I teach (usually in the intro/core finance course), I tell them that I checked the records, and that I’m the only person in the room who’s passed this class. That’s why they let me make the decisions.

    And 85% of studies done on the topic show that 93.4% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

    - Unknownprofessor — 3/23/2006 @ 5:21 am

  5. That was the ultimate smackdown! I love it, especially the part about the grades. I had a student come in to see me once, and his argument basically boiled down to “you should give me an A because I’m a pre-med and pre-meds don’t get B’s.” When I boiled it down for him, it was actually fun to see him squirm and try to make it sound logical. On the other hand, though, I also heard that argument from a football player (”you should give me a passing grade because I’m a football player”) and when I didn’t change the grade, I got in trouble with the athletic director and the assistant department head.

    If this Carolyn wants to know where “personal growth” in college comes from, I’ll gladly tell her. I had a real analysis prof my senior year that pushed us quite hard. He gave us 20 hours a week of homework but would only collect two problems, which two problems were announced the day they were due (so that we had to do it all). The high score on one of his tests was 34%. It was quite demoralizing and he got very horrible student evaluations. But he, more than anyone else I studied under, prepared me for graduate school.

    …walking to school barefoot in the snow kinda sucked.

    You must be younger than me, then. I rode a dinosaur to school, although it was still in the snow, uphill both ways, all summer long. ;)

    - Wacky Hermit — 3/23/2006 @ 6:44 am

  6. We call a student like this an “overdemanding underachiever.” Anything the instructor may do isn’t enough, but they won’t bother to crack open the book.

    As far as going to the library and learning the material by reading the books, I can’t get some students to show enough discipline to read the book for the course. They certainly aren’t going to have the discipline to go through a book in the library to understand the material.

    - Mark — 3/23/2006 @ 6:47 am

  7. From my experience…

    I have found, from my undergraduate experience…

    Just another incident of somebody claiming that the singular form of data is anecdote.

    - Anne on a Mouse — 3/23/2006 @ 6:51 am

  8. Here’s a nice followup column on this, too:


    I think Carolyn is not taking the instructors’ personal growth into account when criticizing their “failures” as instructors. You should cut them some slack. Think about it - you’ve got to take each test only once — many instructors have to grade the same exam hundreds of times. That’s gotta suck.

    - meep — 3/23/2006 @ 7:01 am

  9. I would ask where you find these people… but they find you! Astounding.

    - parodie — 3/23/2006 @ 7:08 am

  10. oh i would laugh if this girl weren’t so laughably internally inconsistent. you’ve pointed out the doozies, of course, but note how the whole purpose of her letter was to complain in a public forum about how this one aspect of her life (being graded) is unfair and frustrating–which is all you were trying to do in the first place. i would bet large amounts of money that if/when she has a blog, she will complain about her job, too.

    also, if the grading system is “to show the future employer that a person is intelligent enough to perform certain tasks”, then she shouldn’t really be complaining that the teacher ought to be beholden to the payer of the tuition, should she…a teacher ought to be beholden to an employer who probably wants you to separate the men from the boys (a great expresssion that i haven’t found a non-sexist replacement for yet…i’d appreciate any suggestions).

    i want to believe that non-teachers have a clue about what it’s like to teach, but for the most part they have no idea. i’m reading frank mccourt’s “teacher man” right now (halleluja, it’s spring break), and he spends a lot of time talking about what teachers face, and i have a feeling he’s also sick of people who don’t have a clue. except he’s 41,304 times better at expressing it than me, and no, i did not make that statistic up. (however, i did round it down from 41,304.27.) it’s a fast read, and i highly recommend it, if for no other reason than how you can imagine all the non-teachers reading it and finally saying to themselves, “wow, i never realized how rough it is to face students every single day.” maybe just a fantasy, but it’s a nice one, so you might want to read it.

    - Polymath — 3/23/2006 @ 7:49 am

  11. I think perhaps the most important sentence in Carolyn’s response is:

    Many would be idealistic and say university is about learning, I would beg to differ and say it’s 50% about personal growth and 20% about learning and 30% about the degree.
    I think there is a kernel of truth in this statement. Most people go to college when they are 18-24, which is when a great amount of personal growth takes place. For many people, college is the first time they live away from home, and the first time they encounter many decisions for the first time. Because of this, I would say that “personal growth” is a key part of many people’s college experiences. Indeed, if you read most institution’s recruiting literature, they often use this as a selling point.

    However, I don’t see how, as an instructor, I can account for “personal growth” in the grade I assign, or how that would be appropriate. Should I ask my students, on their trigonometry final exam today, how many boyfriends or girlfriends they’ve had in the last three months? Or if they got sick without their mommy or daddy for the first time in their life? Should I ask if they learned a Very Important Lesson about the dangers of alcohol overindulgence? And if I judge a student’s life over the last few months insufficiently interesting, does that lower their grade in trigonometry? (”You spent too much time studying in the library. Not enough personal growth, I’m afraid: C-.”)

    No, I’m afraid a student’s grade in trigonometry has a much more humble purpose: to indicate how well that student has demonstrated proficiency and understanding of the material in the trigonometry class. Likewise, a degree is an indicator that you completed a course of academic study, not of all those amazing life experiences you’ve accumulated along the way.

    - Chris Phan — 3/23/2006 @ 8:00 am

  12. First — thank you for posting this and dissecting it. It was a pleasure to read :)

    MS said:“Nonetheless, even if we accept your made-up statistics, how does the fact that university is 50% about personal growth mandate me giving higher grades?”

    I think the vast hordes of people (at least down here in the u.s.) go to college just because “it’s the thing to do”. I know in the state I got my undergrad degree in, many people got into college for almost-free if they only had half a brain (and graduated from highschool there) which flooded all of the first and second-year courses with people who didn’t care enough to get more than a C, and had a tendancy to be raucous. This makes the classroom environment a bit less savory for the people who were there for an education, but it definitely seems to be the trend. I keep thinking that there is some golden country elsewhere where one can teach students who are not there just because it’s almost free and better than working at McDonald’s.

    Maybe the world is slowly being taken over by people who argue that the sole purpose of college is to socialize people. :/

    Meep said: “I think college education would be better if profs openly mocked their students. One of my best teachers (in high school) used to express his contempt for our stupidity quite often, and if you really ticked him off, he threw an eraser at you.”

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, one of my favorite profs *hated* when people walked in late, and every time someone walked in late, he’d pause the lecture to go on a tirade about how this behavior showed that the person had control issues and was using this as a means to rebell against their parents. Similar sort of reaction to cell phones.

    But on the flip side, I have a professor who is rather short with people who ask stupid-ish questions, and I think, while this does shut up the one guy who’s asking questions to try (unsuccessfully) to look good, it creates a sort of hostile environment in the classroom and makes him hard to approach.

    - rosona — 3/23/2006 @ 8:39 am

  13. Maybe I am too softhearted, but I hate grading my students. I remember back when I was an undergraduate worrying about my grades, and I don’t like making students unhappy. I feel like most of them are sort-of friends after going through a whole quarter together. (Sort-of because a relationship of friendship, being one of equals, is questionably compatible with a teacher-student one.)

    The truth, of course, is that all your life people will be grading you. Not on a scale of A to F any more, but grading you nonetheless. In the made-up percentage division of the purpose of university, what happened to “preparing you for life after university”? Learning to deal with being evaluated by other people, and with not always being able to measure up to their expectations, is a big part of learning to get along as an adult.

    The older I get (and I’m not even that old yet!), the more of our societal problems I think can be traced back to people not wanting to have to grow up.

    Meep said:

    I think college education would be better if profs openly mocked their students. One of my best teachers (in high school) used to express his contempt for our stupidity quite often, and if you really ticked him off, he threw an eraser at you.

    I strongly disagree with this. I don’t know how serious you were being, but my experience is that many people can understand things, as long as they are explained patiently, many times, and as long as they stop believing that they are too stupid to ever understand them. Mocking our students does not seem, to me, like a good way to ensure the latter. Nor, as rosona pointed out, a good way to encourage positive class participation and discussion.

    - anti — 3/23/2006 @ 9:32 am

  14. During this semester one of my failing elementary algebra students has been sending me e-mail full of complaints and whines about how I conduct the class. She was particularly incensed when they failed a quiz on the slope-intercept form of a line for the nth time and I declined to do the solution in detail again on the board for them. (Most of them already had the solution on their corrected quizzes, written line-by-line by me!).

    Eventually my student escalated her messages to the point that she began to trash a colleague in another department as well. When I replied that I preferred not to second-guess colleagues as a matter of professional courtesy, my student demanded to know why I was deferential toward my faculty peers yet insisted on correcting my students! When I told her that I knew more math than my students and they should welcome my gentle correction, she said I was insulting her intelligence. I’m not sure that I could. It seems best if I stop answering her e-mail.

    She is, by the way, the author of the message I excerpted here in my post on student whinges. She’s featured under the subtitle The boycott approach.

    - Zeno — 3/23/2006 @ 9:37 am

  15. This is a great post! What this student does not realize is that going to University teaches one how to work. You learn to face adversity (as discussed above), and you learn to deal with things by yourself, but most of all you learn how to earn grades, not have stuff handed to you. When I was in high school (no dinosaurs, I had shoes, it did snow, but my computer was a state-of-the-art Apple IIC), I got great grades without doing much, but when I got to college, I had to work hard to earn average grades. It hurts not having things handed to you, but looking back, I’m glad I took a tough major (Biology) and suffered through classes like Organic Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus, rather than switching to something I would have excelled at easily (Art or English) and not learning to deal with stress and disappointment. My parents were a key in getting me to tough it out. Neither went to college but both have excellent work ethics. Not like today when kids are taught to whine for attention.

    Do students realize that when they put their problems into an email, you now have a record of their attitudes to share with your higher-ups? Now, when they complain to the dean that they aren’t doing well, you’ve already got their problem documented! Talk about backfiring.

    - DJ — 3/23/2006 @ 10:15 am

  16. anti - I wasn’t being totally facetious (only a little). Plenty of incompetent teachers have used ridicule to shut down discussion when they don’t know what they’re doing. I wasn’t meaning it to be used as an indiscriminate tool.

    That said, the worst students to deal with are the ignorant ones who are totally blind to their ignorance. I wasn’t too bothered by the calc students who hadn’t taken calc before and asked silly questions - that’s ok. It’s the ones who have had calc before AND think that because they know d/dx (x^n) = n*x^(n-1) therefore they know calculus… and then try to dominate class discussion. Sometimes aggressive ego-popping is called for. I hate having to convince a student they don’t really understand the topic at hand, and even harsh grades don’t always bring them slap up against that reality.

    It’s pretty much impossible to teach someone something they think they already know.

    As for my eraser-throwing teacher, I think he was in the vein of those Zen masters who would whack their students at interesting times. It sure got our attention.

    - meep — 3/23/2006 @ 11:53 am

  17. I hear you, Meep. You cannot teach calculus to those students who believe they already now it. Not that I would ever throw an eraser to a student (That is just not my teaching style. Although I had one teacher who threw them, too! And he was good).

    - oxeador — 3/23/2006 @ 12:40 pm

  18. This is my favorite line:

    …there is no reason why you must be absolutely right, and we must be absolutely wrong.

    I guess she didn’t notice that we’re talking about math - one of the few subjects where one could (usually) say, with absolute certainty, that an answer was right or wrong.

    Indeed, that is exactly what I’ve always loved about the subject. Whenever I appealed an exam grade, there were only two possible outcomes: within ten minutes, either I would (a) start kicking myself for making such a stupid mistake, or (b) be smug and insufferable for the next week or so. Appealing a grade in math is (or, rather, should be) about whether the answer was right or wrong, and not whether one ‘deserves’ a better grade because of how hard one tried.

    - Independent George — 3/23/2006 @ 3:57 pm

  19. “And we take your complaints very very seriously. Sometimes we even blog about them!”

    That, my friend, is a classic line. Can I steal it and make it the tagline for my blog?

    - Robert — 3/23/2006 @ 6:09 pm

  20. A small drama…

    Here we have Mobius Stripper getting a random email from a person who thinks grades are unimportant and therefore everyone should get A’s, that college doesn’t have much to do with education, and people who think (x+y)2 = x2 + y2 are just m…

    - Casting Out Nines — 3/23/2006 @ 6:19 pm

  21. Off with her Head!!!

    - Phlyer4 — 3/23/2006 @ 6:29 pm

  22. Seriously, I keep re-reading this article and I come away more baffled and mortified every time. It’s like every pointless, unfounded, anecdotal, touchy-feely anti-intellectual apology for doing badly in school that I’ve ever heard:

    (1) What makes this person think that you are entitled to her opinion in the first place? Or that just because she has a strongly-felt opinion, that it (a) matters or (b) ought to be publicized? Did anybody call upon her to have an opinion about students and teaching?

    (2) “In fact, I find this generation of students to be a lot brighter on average than the previous generations, in many aspects (technology for one).” Does this person not understand that there’s a difference between having more tech gear in your backpack and being smarter with technology? OWNING tech and KNOWING HOW TO USE IT TO SOLVE PROBLEMS are two very very very different things.

    (3) Speaking of technology, how about a spell checker?

    Good Lord.

    - Robert — 3/23/2006 @ 6:31 pm

  23. Whoa, lots to reply to…I’m going to be selective here (for now).

    First of all: Robert and DJ, this student didn’t send me an email. I consider emails private correspondance, even when they come from idiots; I don’t post them to my blog without permission. What you’re reading was a comment posted to my blog, and as such, was clearly intended for public consumption. (Even though it was posted to my previous entry - you know, the one about me buying a condo.)

    Re mocking students - I agree with both anti and meep, in that it’s not something that should be done regularly, but that it could be effective iff it is used only on those students who are so full of themselves as to be deaf to reason. I think, though, that while ridicule has very limited use, teachers would often do well to say to students like Carolyn, in so many words, “Your behaviour is unacceptable.” I’ve engaged students like her before, and I’ve always regretted it, because by engaging them I have given the impression that their point of view on the topic of discussion is wrong - whereas the real issue is that the topic of discussion is not a legitimate one.

    Wacky Hermit - uphill both ways - oh, yes, you are older than me. By the time I went to school, geometry had already been invented.

    Zeno - oh, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was not to answer student emails with more than five sentences at a time. If you have more than that to say, invite them to your office to talk, where you can have an actual dialogue, rather than a debate.

    Robert - the tagline’s yours, though attribution would be nice. You don’t want to know what we here at TD&M do with plagiarists.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/23/2006 @ 8:32 pm

  24. links for 2006-03-24

    Tall, Dark, and Mysterious » Your stupid misconceptions addressed ignorance fought with snark. satisfying, I’m sure, but more heat than light. (tags: math mathematicians teaching academia advertisingignorance) Sato-Tate Conjecture proved? R. Taylor …

    - leuschke.org — 3/23/2006 @ 9:18 pm

  25. MS - Thanks for setting me straight on the email vs. comment thing. And you can get my position on plagiarism here.

    All - After sleeping on it, I would like to retract the first statement I made in a comment above, namely: “What makes this person think that you are entitled to her opinion in the first place? Or that just because she has a strongly-felt opinion, that it (a) matters or (b) ought to be publicized? Did anybody call upon her to have an opinion about students and teaching?” I retract it because this is in fact what MS, myself, and a lot of others here are doing when we blog. Did anybody ask us to blog? Probably not. What makes me think that my opinions matter? I guess it’s because *I* think they matter and that I have some basis for saying them. So I think my comment was duplicitous.

    However I will say that just because you have a strong feeling about something, it doesn’t mean it’s ready to be voiced. A little research or circumspect thinking goes a long way, and Carolyn’s comment tends to rest more on anecdotes and excuses rather than seeing the whole picture.

    Sorry to hijack the thread, MS. I’m done.

    - Robert — 3/24/2006 @ 3:36 am

  26. Best damn post I’ve read anywhere in a long time! Thanks!

    - Wren — 3/24/2006 @ 5:06 am

  27. Wow. Brilliant post. Excellent start to my day — even if I’m California high school English. Just — wow.

    - OKP — 3/24/2006 @ 6:47 am

  28. Thanks, MS. I’m sure you’re right. It can’t be a good idea to send detailed responses to contentious e-mail messages from disgruntled students. One of my younger but wiser colleagues is privy to the exchange of messages (he was the student’s teacher last year), and he says there’s no end (except the end of the semester) to the student’s appetite for argument with her teacher. (He, by the way, as her former teacher, is now held up to me as a paragon of pedagogy, but I doubt that I will be so honored in her next class.)

    - Zeno — 3/24/2006 @ 11:21 am

  29. I’m cringing ‘cos it’s true. If one thing drives me out of teaching college,* it’s the getting e-mails from people who figure because, you know, they WORK for a living (at Chi-Chi’s or somewhere) and I only teach, that they know oodles more about real life than I do, and how I need to cut people slack and give them more than a week to do homeworks or make class more ‘entertaining,’ or accept their wild theories that have nothing to do with material discussed in class as valid answers to test questions, or, you know, cancel class once in a while.

    I want to say to them: I don’t come to the Chi-Chi’s and follow you around and tell you how to wait tables or fry chimichangas. Please don’t presume that you know more than me.

    (I will say once in a while I do have a student bring up a valid point or suggest an area where I can improve, and I do take that to heart. But 90% of the stuff is just entitled whiney blah, and it’ wears me down and makes my heart sad.)

    (*Well, other than the crap “meetings” we’re required to go to with some “expert” who drones at us for three hours about “teaching technique” and lectures us on how we shouldn’t lecture, I mean)

    - ricki — 3/24/2006 @ 11:52 am

  30. I don’t know, I think you’re being too hard on the student - after all, the average student comment is 40% intention, 30% effort 20% grammar and punctuation and only 10% content.

    Even if the content is only worth a B-, if we give an A for effort & intention and an A- for grammer and punctuation, the total must be at least 85%, which should be enough to get one into a pretty good college, so the student must be smarter than you seem to think.

    - Declan — 3/24/2006 @ 3:35 pm

  31. Ricki - I do cut students some slack when they’re going through difficult times. However, by “cut students some slack” I mean things like “give incompletes, so that they can write the exam next month instead” rather than “give A’s, because they have such difficult lives”. I know that sometimes unexpected things happen and my class has to take a backseat; however, the grades I give are reflections only of how my students perform on tests of the material, and not of how serious the mitigating circumstances that prevented them from doing well are. This makes me a very mean person, apparently.

    Declan - don’t make me come over there. *shakes fist*

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/24/2006 @ 8:47 pm

  32. Meep: Did you by any chance attend school in Challis, ID? I had a Latin teacher who used to use the erasers very creatively. After one particularly bad day (in which a number of students failed to complete an assignment), the slackers were lined up for target practice at the front of the classroom. The teacher then had them conjugate random verbs. The ones who fumbled through without error got to sit down. The ones who made mistakes or stood there open mouthed got pelted. One kid had a face as white as a street mime by the time he was finished. It was great entertainment for the rest of the class, and the kid who got the heavy duty dusting never came to class unprepared again. Of course, the teacher would probably be sued over that kind of behavior today.

    - Peggy U — 3/24/2006 @ 11:38 pm

  33. There’s a lot of fight in you, MS.

    - slacker — 3/25/2006 @ 2:20 pm

  34. No, this was a science/math magnet school in North Carolina in the 90s… the teacher was for physics. The teachers had a little more latitude than normal high school teachers as it wasn’t a normal school, and generally the worst behavioral problems were people falling asleep in class. And it’s not like he threw the erasers all the time, or even hit anybody with any force. I think the erasers generally hit the desk in front of the person, but there was always the possibility of getting someone in the face on the rebound.

    On to a different topic, I think I’ve found a link that explains the wisdom found in the submitted comment from the student: “Unskilled and unaware of it”

    - meep — 3/26/2006 @ 1:35 am

  35. For those still teaching -
    If there is one particular mistake you’d like to eliminate for a
    given semester, for your own peace of mind, I suggest skipping
    the multiple explanations. Just tell the class that a certain
    specific wrong answer seems to be fixed in place and have a class
    discussion about how much (if any) partial credit that particular
    answer should receive in the future. In my own experience that
    particular error tends to largely disappear. Also people tend to
    be fairly harsh in their judgements as to how much credit a specific wrong answer deserves (after all, they can’t imagine, at the time, they’ll be making that mistake).

    - XY — 3/26/2006 @ 9:30 am

  36. Well, my favorite part:

    I am not saying that people who always get D’s can actually be bright, though many famous scientists used to be terrible students when they were young (Albert Eistein for one).

    Have I mentioned that I hate this person? Yes, dear, you are a young Einstein. He once failed the totally unfair precalculus class of MS’s great great grandfather Klein Bottler, and he would completely agree with your points. This is one myth that should be taken down with a vengeance.


    I’m not convinced that any true geniuses have truly come out of nowhere, in that they really tried and failed at things for a while, then abruptly changed course to greatness. Even the ones with bad grades seem to have been either bored or just weird. They’d done pretty profound things in their 20’s (I’m thinking of Smale for example) and, as you suggest, MS, they got along just fine with their D’s, didn’t they?

    - Mike — 3/26/2006 @ 11:48 am

  37. I’ve seen one of Einstein’s report cards from his youth (in an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in NYC) — the marks were pretty good across the board, even in non-math/science subjects. He had his differences with the pedagogy of the day, but he had no trouble mastering the subjects in his adolescence.

    - meep — 3/26/2006 @ 2:35 pm

  38. Robert: [“In fact, I find this generation of students to be a lot brighter on average than the previous generations, in many aspects (technology for one).” Does this person not understand that there’s a difference between having more tech gear in your backpack and being smarter with technology? OWNING tech and KNOWING HOW TO USE IT TO SOLVE PROBLEMS are two very very very different things?]

    Absolutely. Yes, there’s a lot of technology that many of the “older generation” haven’t mastered, but that’s not because they are dumb. It’s generally simply because they just don’t see the point, don’t have a need for it, or are comfortable (maybe a bit too comfortable) with the way they already do things. When a Carolyn can explain to me how a cell phone works, then I’ll give her some props. Until then, the mere fact that she possesses one doesn’t impress me one bit. But what do I know; I’m just an old fart that designs spacecraft software. And I can assure you that I didn’t get to this point via any “personal growth” experiences.

    Do be careful about the eraser throwing, though. I had a high school teacher who did this. Until one day when his aim was a little off, and he accidentally threw the eraser out the window of his third-floor classroom…

    - Cousin Dave — 3/26/2006 @ 4:37 pm

  39. It srikes me that Carolyn could save a lot of money by not going to university. All she is there for apparently is personal growth and to get a qualification to show off to her employer. This is costing her tens of thousands (assuming that she could earn a salary at least somewhere in the high thousands by not going to uni.)

    Where’s the library?

    I have a bit of sympathy for this. At the university I attended there were several different libraries scattered across campus (the main library, the law library, the engineering library, the sciences library). For some reason I’ve forgotten, in the final year of my engineering degree I wound up having to consult books in the law, sciences and engineering libraries for the same project. Finding the law library the first time was a mission. (And I got quite fit trekking across campus).

    I suspect however this was not the case at your college.

    - Tracy W — 3/26/2006 @ 7:08 pm

  40. Sorry MS, didn’t mean to insinuate that you would share an email without permissions. I had read Zeno’s “Boycott Approach” just before posting and was amazed that a student would put the fact that they were skipping classes and refusing to do the work in writing - which would be very incriminating indeed!

    - DJ — 3/27/2006 @ 6:56 am

  41. MS, your definition of “cut slack” is pretty much the same as mine. And I’m a lot more willing to, say, allow for an extension on a paper (with documentable reason) when it’s someone who hasn’t spent the whole semester whining to me about tight deadlines, or hard tests, or “you never covered this item on the test” (when I did, on one of the days they happened to skip class).

    Unfortunately, my definition of “slack” seems to be the definition of “hard *ss” to many of the people I deal with.

    The “Einstein was a lousy student” (I’ve also seen it “Edison”) trope just makes me ill. I used to get it all the time when I was a college student, usually from my less gifted/less hardworking dorm mates. The attitude in which the story was delivered to me is typically “I’m making D’s but look at what a special wonderful person I am, you’re making A’s and that means you’re a mindless boring sheep.” Feh. Who’s got the Ph.D. now, baby?

    - ricki — 3/27/2006 @ 7:52 am

  42. I’ve heard the “bad student” stories from a number of very successful researchers (about themselves). All of them came out of super rigid Continental European education systems.

    The point I got out of all of them, was that if you are in a SUPER RIGID educational system, often the very top marks are obtained by jumping through all sorts of academic hoops. You’ve memorized all sorts of useless stuff, and you have gotten good at echoing the teacher’s favourite ideas, etc.

    None of them had stories of failing. They had stories of just getting by, of rederiving on exams the results they were supposed to have memorized, etc. They couldn’t be bothered to deal with the chicken-shit aspects of school. In consequence, they were warned they would never amount to anything, and often, they failed to gain admission to the most prestigious graduate programmes.

    At some point, of course, creativity rather than ability to memorize and regurgitate, becomes important. This is the point of all of these stories. Being ranked in the top 15% at the end of high school is good enough to be the best in your field later on.

    - Sam — 3/27/2006 @ 8:37 am

  43. holy crap dude. that poor kid stood no chance. then again most teachers can’t teach for shit to begin or end with.

    - david k — 3/29/2006 @ 1:47 pm

  44. Loved the read and got a bit of an education too. I have a grade 10 and allways wodered how it works. Now I know. THANKS

    - jackcass — 3/29/2006 @ 10:08 pm

  45. These kid are products of a liberal progressive educational system. Read your Paulo Freiere, read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, read ANYTHING from the Harvard Educational REview, wallow in modern feminists’ theories of hurt feelings (”if I hurt, you are responsible”), listen to the pissing and moaning from minorities trying to get student newspapers shut down for lack of “tolerance” or “respect” or whatever, merely because they noted that black people have lower IQ’s than whites who have lower IQ’s that Asians.

    You must take care of their feelings. You must make them feel good. You must let them work in groups so they can get the same grade even when they have never learned a damn thing. You must raise the grades of minorities because the only reason they fail is institutional racism.

    Look, there is a reason that fewer and fewer men are going to college. College has become a pussy place where leftist losers and whiners hang out pointing fingers, having demonstrations and blaming evveryone but themselves for their failures. So ddon’t play dumb, guys, they are a product of your gooshy leftist politics writ large.

    - Big Bill — 3/29/2006 @ 10:54 pm

  46. Declining Mathematical Knowledge

    In November 1982 I took a Mathematics O Level which had (amongst other questions) the following:

    You may assume that 124.6 x 1357 =169082.2 without checking


    Using the above result evaluate 123.6 x 1357 by a subtraction method onl…

    - L'Ombre de l'Olivier — 3/30/2006 @ 2:15 am

  47. Bill whined,

    blaming evveryone but themselves for their failures.

    Well, when students’ failings are the fault of feminism, oversensitive minorities shutting down newspapers, and college becoming a pussy (*) place, I can understand how students might be less inclined to blame themselves. Only so much blame to go around, you know. (You did, however, leave out socialized medicine, the homosexual agenda, and Clinton. O, what horrors those have wrought; no wonder kids can’t compute a blessed sum without calculators.)

    (*) Your mother went through a near-death experience pushing you out of hers, and you’re using that word to indicate weakness? I don’t follow the logic here; perhaps there’s an emotional argument I’m missing?

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/30/2006 @ 7:22 am

  48. Big Bill, what does being liberal or progressive have to do with anything? Last time I checked, there were examples of leftish goverments in the world whose education system produces good and bad students, and same for goverments in the right, so I am not sure what your point is.

    - oxeador — 3/30/2006 @ 10:21 am

  49. Just came over from GNXP, and I have to say this is an excellent post. In college I had exactly two professors make changes to exams in order to make them more fair: one was in my international trade class, taught in a three days per week format that the prof wasn’t used to, and the first exam was 14 pages long. Not a single student finished. The second was my advanced macro econ prof offering a retake (to be averaged with the first try) of the mid-term because most everyone did poorly and we didn’t have any idea what the structure of the exam was going to be: she hadn’t done a review and there wasn’t a review sheet, it was just “everything we’ve covered.”

    Neither of these changes came at the request of students, as far as I know. As a student it is your job to learn the material, and the only person to blame if you don’t is yourself. I’m damn terrible at linear algebra and elementary analysis mostly through lack of effort, not because the profs were bad. The analysis prof was quite good, the linear algebra one had a really thick accent. But I learned statistics from the Chinese guy I couldn’t understand, so I’m guessing the algebra problems are probably my fault.

    I had one econ GTF who would answer people’s phones if they went off in class, I always liked that policy. I also liked that the econ department would neither issue incompletes nor reschedule exams unless you personally were in the hospital.

    - Timothy — 3/30/2006 @ 12:15 pm

  50. Oxeador - eh, don’t bother.

    Timothy - I remember once when I accidentally omitted a section from the list of topics they’d have to study for the test. (The section I omitted took all of thirty minutes to cover in class, so it was rather minor.) That section, not surprisingly, was not very well done, and even though I suspected that it would have been poorly done regardless, I recognized that I was partly responsible. So I after I returned the test, I told my students that they could submit their solutions to the affected questions, and the marks they got on their submissions would replace the marks they got on the test.

    I gave them a week to do this. I explicitly said that they could get help from one another, or from the tutors in the math resource centre. Half the students didn’t submit corrections. Of the others, only around half got full or close to full marks on these questions. Many expressed their disappointment that my way of making amends for the mistake I made did not involve giving them full marks on the affected questions without requiring them to submit correct solutions.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/30/2006 @ 12:50 pm

  51. I want Carolyn’s rebuttal!

    - Paul Scheer — 3/30/2006 @ 3:00 pm

  52. In reading your takedown of the first half of the comment, I thought you were being quite unfair. However, after reading the second half, I think you were perfectly reasonable.

    Now, back to grading papers…

    - Kenny Easwaran — 4/1/2006 @ 9:29 pm

  53. Re: comment #47
    I love you, MS! I can’t stand it when people blame feminism for the downfall of “kids these days”. We all make our own choices and have to live with them.

    I graduated last year with a BBA in economics (with honors of course) and I got so sick of students blaming their failures on whatever they could come up with. I am a feminist (though not a leftist) and I certainly didn’t need my binkie and blankie for upper level calculus. And I didn’t use the “I’m a girl, too pretty to do math” excuse either.

    - Redneck Feminist — 4/1/2006 @ 10:17 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.