Sunday, January 28, 2007

Snow? In January? Are you serious?

Looks like global warming has wimped out. We've only gotten through half the winter with unseasonably high temperatures preventing any significant snowfall.

Or as The Onion reports, "Northeast Stunned by Freak January Snowfall".

And it just keeps going... we got some heavy snow last week, then it just keeps adding. I had to drive back from teaching class on a satellite campus while it was snowing, which is a tense and terror inducing experience for me. Yup, I'm pretty much a southerner.

Classes even got cancelled on Thursday evening this last week. (I'm told because the highways were closed due to wrecks.) This is not good: since the class only meets once a week, we're now a week behind.

I just continue to hope desperately that no major snow hits on Tuesdays when I'm out at the satellite campus. A small amount is enough to panic me.

And now it's doing it again. I keep digging back out, and it keeps pulling me back in.

Admittedly, as I keep shoveling the walk and the drifts on either side of it get deeper and deeper, I keep thinking I could make a really rocking snow fort between the sidewalks if I just scooped out the center and packed the sides. I wonder what my neighbors would think? Especially if I hid out in it all day and threw snowballs at anyone walking by.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Repeated Conversation

From today, with groups of students handing in a group work assignment:
Me: This problem asked you to show that these numbers are composite. You only listed them.

Student: But they are composite!

Me: But you haven't shown this. You just listed the numbers.

Student: But it's right--they are composite!

Me: How could you show the numbers are composite?

Student: I don't know. What's a composite number?
Repeat for most groups.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Academic Year Interstitial

Spring semester has started, much too soon... it always does.

Over the break, I put together my "notebook", explaining what I've been doing at the University for the last year, except in my case it was what I've been doing at the University for the past five months. I'm hoping that matters, because I have the feeling that most of the sections on scholarly development and university service essentially boil down to: "I got nothin'." At least I can say I won Time magazine's person of the year.

I feel the same way about the courses I'm teaching in the spring. I have three sections which meet once a week for two and a half hours, and I'm feeling slightly lost about what to do. One class now counts for a whole week. The classes will only meet 15 times! In one respect I like the longer sessions; it feels like I can do some things (like group activities) which take a little time to start--we don't have to break suddenly in the middle and assume the students will still remember what they are doing when we start the next class. But what do I do about tests? I can't really see successfully covering new material the same class as I give a test, but I don't see giving up three weeks of class to give three tests either. For the topics course, I'm thinking I should be able to get away with some take homes, but I'm not sure that will work in lower level courses. So I'm experimenting. One course I'm doing just quizzes, basically every week. Another I'm actually giving an hour test and then moving on to new material. We'll see what happens.

Then there's the textbook for one low level course I'm teaching. I was pressed for time last semester, and ended up selecting the textbook that most of the rest of the department uses for the same course. I've been reading it over the past week or so, and I hate it. It's annoyingly filled with bubble-gummy pop culture references to everything under the sun, from Jurassic Park to "Judge Judy", in some sort of attempt to be hip and exciting for what I'm sure the author thinks of as "those wacky college kids", or equivalently, "gen-y" or "gen-z" or maybe we've cycled back to "gen-a". There is also a formula, neatly boxed, for everything. In each section, we have a sequence of carefully labeled problems. Each problem has its own formula, and an example of plugging numbers into the formula. It's a frigging how-to manual on steroids. Nowhere does it ask students to actually think about anything; it asks them to memorize, plug numbers into formulas, and regurgitate regularly. (The author has the gall to then title the book Mathematical Thinking.) Oh, and then there's this other little kicker: sometimes it's just flat out wrong. I'll look for another book for the next time I teach this course, and if I don't find something better, I'll roll my own. The list of topics isn't that complicated.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Return of the Marshmallow

One of my friends in grad school accused me of being a marshmallow when it came to grading. I guess I took the more optimistic view of how many points to give an answer. ("Well, he didn't answer the question correctly, but he understood that the writing needed to go on the paper, and most of it has correctly formed words and numerals. Let's give him half credit!")

I can tell that the marshmallow has clearly returned.

I have not gotten a single complaint from a student or request for a higher grade.

I obviously did something very, very wrong last semester, and I'm worried about anyone else finding out.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Amusement from Students

Here I just collect a few of the random student incidents which have amused me over the last semester:
  • Picture it: I'm in the middle of deriving the quadratic formula (which gives the solutions to a general quadratic equation), and the students are obviously having a lot of trouble with the abstraction, since this is supposed to cover all possible cases. (I also dropped a term or two and had to make corrections as we went, which didn't help.) In the midst of our derivation, a student asks: "Can we do another one after this one?"
  • A student tells me he studied the wrong chapter for the exam. It was a chapter we hadn't studied yet. I asked, "Didn't this all seem pretty unfamiliar?" He said, "It always does..."
  • Learned from tests: Three lines which meet at a point might be called (1) sedimentary, (2) a midpoint, (3) conclusive, or (4) parallel. (The last is my favorite answer.) A convent is made up of two angles with measures summing to 90 degrees. Many of my algebra students decided that the product of 6 and 9 is 15. One of my colleagues believes some of her students have trouble reading; I have no idea where she gets that idea.
  • One student missed class and sent me a note with his homework from the day explaining he couldn't make it because he was in line for a Playstation 3. The note said he was going to sell the Playstation "for a large profit of which I could use for school related bills." He also let me know he was in several TV and newspaper interviews from that day, "if that helps validate my dilema" (sic). I considered taking the homework in exchange for a Playstation 3.
  • Another colleague was despairing at the end of the semester because on the final he asked students to calculate how much total they would pay for a $200,000 home loan paid over 30 years at some standard interest rate. The answers ranged from $120,000 to eight million dollars. We concluded that we should quit teaching and go into the business of selling home mortgages to our students.

Monday, January 01, 2007


Since I went to Texas for Christmas, I flew. Since I haven't yet learned to do it on my own, I had to get on a plane.

I discovered that the Erie airport is tiny, much smaller than even the Roanoke airport (and I never thought I'd be able to make that comparison with anything). I got checked in at an automated kiosk, which was handy as no one was at the NWA ticket counter when I got there. (I mean NWA the airline, not the rap group.) Unfortunately, nobody was at the counter when I finished checking in and needed to check my bag. I stood around for perhaps four or five more minutes before someone came out of the back and checked my bag. (Perhaps he was constipated.)

We all know going through security is a royal pain, and we all know it's because we're all ruled by ninnies. Let's see, shoes off, and I'm not trying to smuggle any liquids on, am I? I actually packed a bag of filled Hershey kisses in my luggage so that no one would have a fit because there was something semi-liquid inside them. I'm convinced most of these plots have just been to see what stupid things we can all be made to do. Now there's work on an x-ray machine to examine everyone who goes through the airport. We'll all be zapped with radiation every time we get on a plane. Some people have actually complained about this--because they don't want anyone to see their naughty bits on the screen. Screw that; I'll walk through naked before I'll let them irradiate me to satisfy their curiosity. I'm kind of tempted to do it now; I almost took a jar of bouillon cubes in my carry on as a protest anyway. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you must not watch Stephen Colbert.)

Next time I'll be prepared. I'll just tell the guard that the person in front of me looks suspiciously foreign, and while they all tackle him, I'll wheel through my 12 cases of bottled water. I figure I'll sell the water at $4 a pop on the plane, which should work out great, since I think that's half what the airline wants for the same thing.

Anyway, stuff into the plane, and off to Detroit. While I'm racing from one end of the airport to the other in 20 minutes between flights, I notice there's an automated announcement telling us we're in the central time zone, and to check clocks in the airport for the local time. (The automated announcement can't include the local time?) Then a voice starts up saying something in Japanese, which I assume is the same thing, because at one point it pauses to say "Central Time Zone".

Finally on to Texas, and I get to eat. (No food served on the planes, and remember I only had 20 minutes between planes in Detroit. I got in at 6:15 and my last meal was breakfast at 8:00.) Then home, where I got meet my parents' cat, Sweetie, also known colloquially as "Mr. Kitty." He's is a sweetie, and my parents rescued him some months back. He is now also possibly one of the most spoiled cats I've ever seen. My father attributes this to the fact that both my parents have the "grandparent hormones" raging, and no grandchildren, so they've settled for a grandcat. They each try to entice the cat to sleep with them at night, and every time my mother goes into the kitchen he runs in and hops up on his chair in case she wants to feed him treats. I don't know where he gets the idea that he always gets treats when she goes into the kitchen; I think there have been a few times when he didn't get treats. (She also holds his bowl for him when she feeds him breakfast and dinner, because he gets scared otherwise. He's somewhat timid, from having previously had a rough life.) He's a very affectionate little thing, and actually looks a good bit like my partner's cat. We got along fine once he figured out I would pet him.

Flight back was mostly uneventful, with the Erie airport again the bottleneck in the whole thing. We arrived about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, but then waited almost half an hour for the luggage to appear. After fifteen minutes, someone came on the speakers to announce there would be a delay. (Would be a delay?) The woman next to me wondered why they could sort 50,000 passengers a day in San Diego, and not handle the luggage here; she thought perhaps there was a cow on the runway they forgot to move.

But I'm back home, and home is still here, which is always a relief. I suppose I have to think about doing work again.

Happy New Year to all!