Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Big Thirsty on Responding to the Little Dears From Longtime Lurker TadPoleDrain.

I am not really “in” the profession, nor do I aspire to be. I dropped out of PhD school not quite ten years ago with my MA in English lit, and somehow used that to get a job as an adjunct math prof. This should tell you something about the quality of the place that I teach and the quality of the students that I teach.

I mostly teach remedial pre-algebra and basic algebra, although I also taught myself (basic) stats one step ahead of teaching it to the students. I try to be a decent teacher (and I think I am), but the students won’t work, won’t learn, and can’t/won’t do math. So I decided to make them write instead. (They can’t/won’t do that either, but sometimes a change is as good as a rest.)

I had them read the merest snippet from “A Mathematician’s Lament,” which is basically an essay about the current terrible state of math education, and write a two-page response paper reflecting on their own experiences. For students who had not been in class, I not only posted the assignment to the Blackboard equivalent we use, but also emailed the assignment to the whole class directly.

 This was one absent student’s response to me, over email. She signed her name (no closing), but other than that, this is the email in its entirety.
I'm sorry but why are we writing a paper in a math class? I thought this was an Math class not an English class?! I hate math already your making me hate it even more! This is ridiculous!!!
Q: So, here’s my question. If you had no fear of consequences, how would you respond to this student’s email? And in the real world, how would you respond?


31 comments:

  1. It’s hard for me not to be snarky while responding to anything this immature, illiterate, and stupid. What I’d want to say would be:

    “Why NOT write a paper, since SO few of you can do math, and we have to do SOMETHING of educational value!”

    That wouldn’t help, though. Most modern students don’t know enough to be afraid if you yell at them. Doing so therefore is pointless. Anything you say subsequently sounds to them like that sound effect done with a trombone in Peanuts cartoons, to signify that an adult is talking.

    I therefore try to keep all interactions with students professional. In my general-ed, intro-astronomy class for 100 non-majors at a time, I find that a good tone to take is similar to the one used while doing public outreach with the general public, in museums and planetariums.

    I’d therefore say:

    “Notice how word problems are important in mathematics? This is because life is a word problem. Even in math, we never use the language of mathematics alone: we also use English words. So, we need to have a paper, to develop our skills with words.”

    Since so few of my intro-astronomy students can even work with fractions, I have them do quite a lot of drawing and writing. It’s valuable. The writing includes a 1-3 sentence exercise on why the sky is blue, a 1-3 sentence exercise on why sunsets are red, 1-3 sentences on how we know atoms exist and 1-3 sentences on how we know Earth is round, 1-3 sentences on how we know that Earth goes around the Sun, one-page explanations of problems with the Drake equation and the Fermi paradox, and a longer term paper on a topic of their choice related to astronomy or space science. It does make a difference. Many of them do demonstrate improvement in their writing, researching, and thinking, over the term. Sometimes their writing is interesting.

    In the real world, I’d respond by saying, “Fine. If you won’t do the work, then you’ll be fired.”

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    1. I should explain: the middle choice ("Notice how word problems are important... [etc.]") would be the one I'd say. I wouldn't say the first, snarky choice ("“Why NOT write a paper, since SO few of you can do math..."), even though it would be my first impulse, because it wouldn't help, as much as I'd like to say it.

      I also wouldn't say the last choice (“Fine. If you won’t do the work, then you’ll be fired.”) since this isn't the real world. This is academia.

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    2. Frod: I love the 1-3 sentences thing....

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  2. I can't make myself imagine how to act without consequences!

    If there were none, I'd just tell the kid that somehow she'd mistaken me for someone who cared about her FEELINGS.

    But really, a "Did you not see the fucking assignment" would work, too.

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  3. First answer:
    I think you meant to say "I thought this was a Math class, not an English class" and "I hate math already, and you're making me hate it even more!"

    Whether you like the assignments or not is irrelevant, you have to do the work if you want to pass this class; you clearly need to work on your writing anyway. Also, please be advised that I find your style inappropriate for a student addressing a professor in an academic setting; you're not talking to one of your buddies.

    I can easily see myself responding exactly this way, and I don't think anything would happen (except maybe for the positive outcome of the student dropping the class.) It's why I'm so popular.

    If I really wanted to be nice, I'd say:

    That was exactly the point of the reading: to allow you to express your feelings about math as part of the graded work for this course. But don't worry, we'll get back to more standard math assignments very soon.





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    1. PK, I like your remark about the student's tone being inappropriate. I work for an online campus with strict rules about just that. I'm free to, and often do, reprimand students for speaking to me in a rude, hostile, or petulant manner. I tell them to re-write their e-mail and send it to me again, because I don't respond to anything that violates the college's etiquette policy. It's empowering for me to be able to push back against disrespectful behavior, and a good learning experience for the students about not firing off angry e-mails when you're in reaction mode.

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  4. Dear Sneauphloeche,

    It is best that you disabuse* yourself of the notion that you are in a position to credibly judge whether any assignment is "ridiculous," for if you were in that position, you would be teaching the class or otherwise productively plying your expertise in another venue. As an expert in both Math and English, I can assure you that you should write the paper because I fucking said so, and because if you don't, I will fail your ass. Judging from your spelling and punctuation, you need all the writing practice you can get. Hop to!

    Sincerely,
    Prof. Punchenuppe.


    P.S. Take heart that I won't grade you on your love or hatred of math; you will earn points for your work alone. I do suggest, however, that you find a safe place to vent your apparent negative feelings so that you can return to your studies unencumbered by them, and so that they don't color your interactions with your professors.

    * Look it up.

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    1. I see now I didn't follow the full assignment. In my head, I started with my "real" reply, which was similar to Peter K's but wasn't on my screen when I started my missive. I also contemplated reminding the student that if zhe didn't do the assignment, then the other students might set the curve and zhe risked being at the lower end of it. (I don't curve, but as my students nonetheless obsess about the class mean, fear of being left behind can still be a motivator.)

      There are two relationships at play: one between me and my boss (hence my paycheck), and the other with the student. Even if consequences to the former were not an issue, I cannot find it in me to deliberately act in a way that damages my relationship with the student, as it could impair the student's learning, and that would be working against myself. But I do have to tell them what's what from time to time, and in so doing, I try to model professional behavior.

      In real life, maybe I'd contemplate writing the snarky response, but I'd quickly let it flee my mind and never actually write it, much less send it. So to provide that version here, I had to imagine holding onto the initial reaction long enough to commit it to (virtual) paper. This required getting into character somewhat, and that character clicked "publish" in haste the way one would slam the phone on the hook, without doublechecking whether I'd fulfilled all requirements.

      I often find it quite satisfying to slip the snark so far between the lines that it may be undetectable. For example, I'd hardly ever send an email so transparent as "Judging from your spelling and punctuation, you need all the writing practice you can get." Instead, I'd say "The process of organizing one's thoughts and presenting them in writing, and concomitant attention to details such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation, both help to develop habits of mind that come into play when solving mathematical problems. As with any acquired skill, practice makes perfect." Then having written that, I'd ruminate on whether there's actual research to back that up, and suspect that there is at least no evidence in the opposite direction. I'd also contemplate the number of colleagues in STEM fields who are quite good musicians and good writers as well, and suspect that all these things are not unrelated.

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    2. I like the P.S. (in fact, I like the whole letter, but I especially like the P.S.)

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    3. Ogre-- The last paragraph of your self-reply gave me a wonderful moment of feeling understood!

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    4. Thank you both for that feedback. Ovreductd, I get that feeling when I read the work of others here, too.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. My temptations would definitely be to respond in kind (emotionally, accusatorily), and/or to point out that her email isn't exactly persuasive, or attuned to her audience (I am, after all, an English/writing proffie, and falling back on the question of audience and adjusting your arguments to your audience is sort of an automatic move, and often also remarkably effective in dealing with students stuck in their own limited perspectives without explicitly calling out their self-involvement. In this case, however, it's probably not the right choice).

    In practice, I'd almost certainly ignore the emotion, and the accusations, and respond to the substantive question by saying something about writing as a process of reflection, and my hope that giving students a chance to reflect on their prior experiences in learning math might help them to identify, and ultimately to eliminate, some of the roadblocks to their current learning. I might even reiterate/add to the prompt by suggesting that she reflect on *why* she hates math, what specific experiences led to that feeling, and how they compare to problems described in the excerpt you asked them to read. Has she experienced some of the issues the author describes? Different ones? Do some of the practices the author describes as problematic strike her as useful, or vice versa? [the virtue of this last set of questions is, of course, that it pushes her to go read the excerpt, which I suspect she hasn't]. There's actually material to work with in her message, and calling attention to it has the virtue that, if she is willing to do the work, but just anxious/overwhelmed, you've given her something to work with, and if she's simply lazy, you've turned her arguments against doing the work into material for completing the essay, which is a pretty smooth countermove.

    P.S. I really like the assignment -- but then I would, since I'm a writing proffie who thinks writing needs to be more widely integrated into the curriculum.

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    1. Yes, the smooth countermove.

      While a struggling undergrad, I visited a professor in her office. I apologized for my horrible performance on the midterm, explained that I had some personal problems I was overcoming, and asked her professional opinion as to whether I could pass the class or would I be better taking it another semester. She handed me a piece of chalk and told me some things to write on the board. I complied, but as we went on, my head got fuzzy and I began to lose hope. She used the smooth countermove and got me to demonstrate what I did know, which in turn revealed how to fill in what I didn't know and how doing that and keeping up with the remainder of the course would take sustained effort of the type we had just undergone. Then she left it in my hands. It was a transformative experience.

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  7. For the good of the order, I supply this link, which links to a PDF of Lockhart's essay.

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    1. I hadn't read this before. Very interesting and persuasive.

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    2. Thank you, OPH. I truly enjoyed reading it.

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    3. When I skimmed the essay and saw the graphic compuptation of A = 1/2 b h, I was reminded of how in Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," a character squared the hypotenuse and the other two legs. It was the father trying to make the concept accessible to his son, if memory serves.

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  8. without repercussion? I'd send her a job application for the local fast food joint.

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  9. Personally, I'd give her an honest answer to her question, and explain why there was a writing assignment: what you were hoping to change for them, what you'd hope they would learn, etc.

    And then I'd tackle the 'hate' part. If you hate it, why are you taking it? Because you have to? What for? General degree requirements? Why do you want the degree? Do you really WANT to learn the stuff for the degree? If so, hating math is just hating yourself for taking the degree. That's not on me. That's not on mathematical thought. That's not on the universe which obeys mathematical rules. That's on you.

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  10. I've developed a method of responding to this sort of thing that lets me say what I really want to say and also maybe help the student, so both of my answers are pretty much the same. It'd go something like this:

    "You seem annoyed and upset, and perhaps you're feeling a bit of fear and worry about the assignment. It's a common problem that students have had bad experiences with math and writing in the past, and they have decided that they "hate" those activities. "Hate" of this kind often masks a fear that you can't do, but I'm sure that you can. In fact, I will help you write this paper if you wish to come to my office hours. You'll have to do the writing, but I can help you outline and revise it if you like.

    As for why we are doing this assignment, you always have the right to ask me that. I assigned this because it fulfills course objective number three on our syllabus: "Think critically about mathematics as a field." It also in part assesses objective number four: "Translate mathematical concepts into clear language and use mathematical concepts to translate real world problems." I plan each course very carefully, and in my previous experience, this sort of assignment is a very effective and efficient way of meeting this objectives without making students do a lot of less effective work.

    If that doesn't answer your question, I'd be happy to meet you in my office during my office hours or by appointment.

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    1. Ooh; I like this one, all the more so because it can serve as a template for responding to a whole range of fraught email situations.

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    2. Yup. That's my template, more or less. Empathize, offer help, explain rationale, subtly point out that I'm a fucking expert thank you very much, and then offer more help. That tends to shut them up, and sometimes even brings them around. Wonders never cease.

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  11. With or without repercussion, I'd send the relevant part of the syllabus about courtesy (includes "respect the instructor's role") and a standard signature that has detailed instructions about sending email at the college level. I'd probably also add what Frod said about math and life involving word problems.

    Without repercussions, this email would have been lost in the fetid maw of the server, and if she doesn't submit by the deadline, tough luck.

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  12. Heck, I regularly assign term-papers in my upper-division [physical science] classes, and I have a short essay justifying this choice on the LMS. There are two basic reasons; one relating to the idea of a liberal education and the other for those students who conceive of college as a job training program.

    From the POV of a liberal education, the ability to communicate clearly on a technical topic is distinct from mastery of the topic itself, and you are not a complete scientist--much less a complete educated person--unless you achieve some level of skill in both.

    For the job seekers it's even simpler. Every--and I do mean every--job for which my major acts as a guild membership for requires you to regularly write reports about what you've been up to. Reports for clients, reports for bosses and reports for peers. So you should damn well know how to write them. (I also give presentation assignments for the same reasons.)

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  13. > ... job for which my major acts as a guild membership for^H^H^H^H requires you ...

    Sigh.

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    1. It's fear of the pedant's castigation that breeds aversion to ending even mid-sentence clauses with prepositions, and makes possible the punchline "OK, if you insist: where is the library at, asshole?"

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    2. In that case I had repeated the "for" and I just liked the flow in the latin-eque order better. I examine phrases that end on prepositions for the possibility of ambiguity rather than treating them as in error.

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    3. Yeah, I got that. I wasn't even teasing you about it. Simply free associating.

      I'm old enough to actually remember using the ctrl-h combination because the terminal had no backspace key, and ctrl-i for tab, etc.

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  14. Dear Student,

    We are writing a paper in math class because literacy and numeracy are together the pillars that support the ability to think critically. Much is made in university education of transferable skills, such as critical thinking or problem solving. For many students these skills are far more valuable in their future lives than the specifics of any individual course. I realize this may seem tangential to the main goal of learning the 'content' of Hamster Husbandry. But many students pass through my Intro to Hamster Husbandry class who will not go on to work as Hamster Care Technicians or become members of a Gerbil Response Unit. Nevertheless, those who learn to think and express themselves clearly in both words and numbers typically find that they can adapt themselves to the various opportunities that life might present them, and avoid many of the pitfalls. That is why we are writing a paper in math class.

    Well, that, and because I said so.

    I remain, etc.
    Rosencrantz A. Guildenstern
    Department of Hamster Husbandry
    University of Tuktoyaktuk.
    Tuk U!

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