Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Royal Wee

I scrounged the last working "old school" overhead projector in the building. It seems the classroom's ceiling-mounted digital projector had gone on the fritz yesterday; when later polled, every colleague who'd earlier been in that room claimed that since everybody already knew about it, they didn't need to tell anybody. So it was just an ordinary Tuesday.

Even though I'd arrived atypically early, now I was running late, and I still needed to grab blank transparencies and another Sharpie from the department office. (By now you've probably guessed that there are no chalkboards or whiteboards in this room.) So that students wouldn't think class was cancelled, I projected onto the screen a note to the effect of "Today: 4th Law of Hamster Thermodynamics," scrawled on a piece of cellophane sandwich wrapper, and ran upstairs.

I returned to find most of the students seated and talking to each other but nary a (text- or note-) book open on a desk. I sighed, flipped a transparency onto the projector, and started to write.

"Uh, professor?" came a confident voice from the student seated two desks behind the projector.

"Yes, Mr. Hruutspungar."

"Could you, like, move the projector? It's blocking the screen and we can't see around it."

It is the academic's nature to consider new evidence; if there's one thing we know, it's that we hardly ever know everything about anything. I looked back at the projector, then surveyed the room. The aggrieved student's desk was surrounded by several unoccupied desks; I hypothesized that other students had chosen theirs for the clear view they afforded. It was easy to test this by estimating sightlines from the corners of the screen to the observers' eyes. Additionally, I was more than a little familiar with this room---I've logged many hours in it and have occupied every desk myself during seminars etc. over the past decade. In about the time the average person takes to read the first sentence of this paragraph, I concluded that the projector was not significantly obstructing anyone's view but Hruutspungar's.

Yet... I wanted more data. "When you say 'we can't see around the projector,' you mean just yourself, right?"

"No, I mean everybody."

I exchanged quizzical looks with Hruutspungar's nearest classmate and turned to another, my expression imploring clarification. I was met with upturned palms and a shrug, the international sign of I have no idea what the fuck this guy's talking about.

I was suddenly reminded of the three mountain problem, and it just escaped:

"Didn't Piaget figure all this out with a bunch of three-year-olds?"

And did a flash of recognition cross the faces of a few students? I savored the illusion that it did. Ah, but not dear, blankly uncomprehending Hruutspungar's. Even so, I regretted my implied unfavorable comparison and tried to make amends.

"I'm sorry. That last thing... it's from another problem I've been working on. Please ignore it." I shifted to a croon and gestured to another desk. "Mr. Hruutspungar, I believe you'll find the view from this desk far superior to that of your own."

"No, you need to move the projector. The top part is sticking up and..."

"The projector stays. Let's try my idea."

"But I don't see how that's..."

"That's rather the point, yes? To see?" I took a second to temper my rising snark. "Please, just... switch desks."

Hruutspungar grudgingly dragged his backpack to the other desk and schlumpfed into the seat, his expression brightening as he again fixed his gaze to the screen.

"Hey, did you move the projector?"


"Well, it's like in a totally different position now, so you musta." He pronounced it as he writes it.

I was lost for words, but one student was not.

"Actually, Spung, maybe you thought you were moving from here to there, but what really happened is, the projector and everything else in the room moved in an equal and opposite direction."

Other students took up the chain: "Not just all the stuff, but the room itself." "The whole building!" "The continent" "The planet!" "The universe!" Some raised their hands to their heads and then splayed fingers and mimicked explosions: minds blown.

I was at once amazed, gratified, hopeful, resigned, despondent. I had no where to put it all.

--from OPH


  1. How does that child find his way home at night?

    -anon y mouse

  2. I know you're not making this up but please tell me that you are making this up.

  3. The Stoopid is strong in that one. Just wow.

  4. You can't be making that up because you could come up with a student that stupid. Probably. Wow. His parents will be related after the divorce.

    1. Couldn't come up with... Sorry.

  5. This reminds me of an old video gag from The Onion:

    But seriously, stuff like this is happening in real life? Humanity is officially doomed...

  6. I can see this guy in a future DERP-related post, OPH.

    Kudos to the other students.

  7. and you led your class to discover Galilean relativity ... awesome.

  8. OK, I'll come clean: I made it all up. The student's name, I mean. While not a cheese per my usual, it is something that people actually eat (albeit with somewhat Anglicised spelling).

    And the timeline is a little off. Although written as if the event had happened eariler that day, it's actually been several weeks since. I'd put the event behind me till a comment in another post dredged it up again.

    I wonder of such students: are they so egocentric that they are literally incapable of understanding that others do not see things the same way (for many values of "see")? Or, are they merely lazy and don't examine other views unless/until they absolutely must? What if the latter were commingled with tendency to claim membership in a group of exaggerated size? You know these students by their stereotypical pleadings such as "A lot of us* feel that the quiz was too hard", which are often part of a ploy to effect some result beneficial to themselves. Crank that up to eleven and we might get Hruutspungar.

    * You mean you and the one other that didn't get a perfect score, i.e., the absentee who hasn't even gotten their score back yet?

    1. So this new naming convention suggests that this guy is bigger than cheeses? (1)

      I had to look up the foodstuff in question; might not be on the menu anytime soon in the EC1 household.

      (1) Pratchett, Soul Music.
      Sadly missed.

  9. This happens to me everyday. I have at least five in each class that are like this. I have no idea how I even finish all of the material for the course.

  10. I'm sitting here trying to convince myself that it is possible the student in question has been taking philosophy 101, thinks that the kinds of ideas discussed therein might be new to others as well, and is trying (however ineptly) to make some kind of point about sophistry.

    But it's not working. OPH's version sounds more plausible.

  11. Other than the dolt, they don't sound like such a bad lot. At least they have a sense of humour. Consider yourself fortunate. Most of my jokes fell flat. Having been on both sides of the lectern, I always felt sorry for the proffies when their witty jokes fell on deaf ears (jokes involving Shakespeare quotes or mathematical theorems are never a safe bet).

  12. I almost cannot think of a story I would not believe at this point, nearly 35 years into a teaching career. I just teach 1-2 classes a semester now (for "fun" I say, but I wish I realized it was a lie), and an attitude of complete stupefication is what I carry from class to class.

    Something has happened. Changed. You can say, "this must be double spaced." You can put it on the projector. You can write it on the whiteboard. You can put it in 18 point font on a page by itself in the LMS. You say in a rough draft workshop. You can say it at an individual conference.

    And you all know what happens: 1) the day before it's due you get asked 9 times if it should be double space, and 2) they will still come in single spaced.

    Last year I went absolutely batshit crazy on formatting, not just important things like citations, but inches, font sizes, spacing, etc. My policy is I would not take the paper in if it didn't meet the requirements. I did accept them eventually, as long as they were prepared correctly. And some students got it together. And some didn't.

    God only knows how they understand, use, or retain the actual important stuff I teach about critical reading and analysis.

    Who am I kidding?

    1. I wonder about that, too. They just can't seem to retain a single fact. I tried putting my office hours and contact information on the syllabus, which I also e-mailed to them, which I also uploaded in Blackboard, and I'd periodically send e-mail reminders of my office hours.

      The most frequent question I received via e-mail was "when are you office hours, and where's your office?"

      I don't think it's about inability to retain information. They can retain information when it suits them to do so. It's simply about being mollycoddled and spoon-fed information from the moment they took their first steps. Why search through your e-mails when you can just have your professor re-send the e-mail at the very moment you need it? (except I always made them wait at least 24 hours, just on principle) Why look in the school directory for my telephone number when you can just e-mail me to ask for it?

      I answer the department's mail, too, and I see the exact same trend: prospective students asking for information that is not only on our home page but could also be found in milliseconds by typing the question into Google.

      People like to feel special and important, and one-on-one attention gives them that feeling. But is it really just millenials? I can't tell you how many times have I given one-on-one tutorials to Luddites who asked me to show them simple tasks like saving an attachment or an image from the Web.

      There was a time when a faculty member called me to ask me an inane "industry standard" question that had nothing whatsoever to do with my job or even the university itself. I asked him, "Do you actually think I know more than Google?"

      There was a long pause, and finally he said "Yes." I Googled it for him.

    2. Given that my place mostly offers only two things to distinguish our 'product' from that of other colleges and they are low price and access to the underpaid faculty I don't think that sending them a let me google that for you link would be politic.

      But someone should.

    3. Watch it: you're liable to be yelled at by their parents and your higher-ups that their parents complain to, if you so much as say, "Do your own homework."

    4. I hear you all. My response to being badgered for information that could have been easily found elsewhere is to send citations, links, copy/paste from handbooks, etc., situation depending, or even---gasp!---simply not respond. I try to exert minimal effort, but not to the extent of outright uncollegiality or insubordination to colleagues or superiors. I typically add a sentence like "if you have any followup questions please get back to me"; they seldom do.

      I think Patty is correct about the want to made to feel special through individual attention (customer service!), even if it's under pretense of finding out some inane detail. I cut my colleagues some slack in that typically, the detail is not so inane, and often, they've spent at least a few moments thinking about where they can find the information themselves. (If it's in the uni's inward-facing info portal, there's no hope of finding anything whose location you don't already know---there's no search function!) And, when the colleague has dropped by or phoned, the ensuing conversation is almost always useful in other ways.

      But students who ask the most inane questions have seldom spent even a second trying to answer them themselves. As mentioned, we've already bent over backwards to make the info available, often in multiple ways. And I hardly every learn anything from any ensuing conversation.

  13. Yup, I had one of these, too. It was all I could do not to blurt out, "Why don't you just move your fat head 1 meter perpendicular to the line of sight?" I did not, though, since I knew they wouldn't understand what a line of sight was. What was REALLY annoying was that this was one of the sharper members of a class of 80 undergraduate education majors. I remember my Mom explaining to me how, when you're an adult, you get used to looking around people in a crowded theatre---and getting it, when I was about 6 years old.

  14. And I thought *I* was bad at anything involving spatial relations. On the other hand, as a relatively short person who has sung in several choirs, I have extensive experience in dealing with blocked sight lines.

    I do feel just the slightest twinge of sympathy for Mr. Hruutspungar, because I have occasionally, when severely underslept/undercaffeinated, found myself tenaciously defending similarly indefensible (though less egocentric) propositions. I don't remember doing so in public, however; my interlocutor was usually my sibling (and I was under the age of 18; then again, I'm female, and females tend to mature a bit faster).

    1. then again, I'm female, and females tend to mature a bit faster

      Well someone has to. The thought of a world dominated by the kind of egotistical little snot I was at that age is ... eerily like this presidential campaign now I come to think of it.

    2. The candidates this year do seem to be taking this principle to an extreme. The male is a clear example of arrested development (and I was happier when I thought he was just a very big toddler; recent evidence that he did, in fact, reach puberty while retaining the lack of impulse control of a preschooler is not encouraging). The female is far from perfect, but shows signs of continuing to learn and grow in her late 60s. Of course, I can think of counter-examples (females stuck at some point -- usually junior high, which is the point at which females are generally the most awful --; males continuing to learn and grow relatively late in life).

      Because I attended a girls' school, and then a very selective college, I think I missed out on some of the worst adolescent-male behavior. The boys were still boys when I parted ways with them at the end of 8th grade, and the young men I encountered my first year in college tended to be of the more self-disciplined variety. Of course most of us, give or take the legacy admits, were pretty socially awkward, but in a way which mostly avoided both trouble *and* some of the fun we should probably have been having.