Wanted to be accepted without being acceptable …

I chuckled when a FB friend posted this:

The individual who posted this did so in a tongue-in-cheek way.

But it did get me to thinking about what I’ve actually seen. I teach college. And from time to time, a student will complain about flunking a class. But often their complaints will be “I needed this class and those credits to…” (insert “keep my scholarship”, “get my job”, etc.)

And, because I teach mathematics, their complaints are almost never “I did this correctly and didn’t receive proper credit” or “I knew the stuff and you flunked me anyway”. To them, the “grade” and “credit” is really a commodity that I have and that they want; “knowledge”, “learning”, and “performance” are almost always completely unrelated.

It would be like a prospective surgeon always botching the cadaver operation but wanting a pass, or a prospective pilot always crashing in the simulator but wanting a “pass” from pilot school.

It is the old “accept me” rather than “help me so I can work to meet the standards”.

Another note Needless to say, poor people are not the most popular people in our society and are often blamed for their fate. The article I linked to purports to ask “why”. It is a decent article, but I find it strange that the author doesn’t see the reaction to poor people as being natural.

The headline is: “Why do we think poor people are poor because of their own bad choices?” so I’ll give my answer:

1. Our own experience. Quick: what poor people to you actually KNOW? (not merely read about or have seen somewhere)

Chances are, it is the family mooch. In our case, this sibling of a family member had the same parents, the same educational opportunities, the same upbringing, the same inheritance (well into 6 figures), and managed to piss it all away.

Parents will often see some of their kids do well, while others become chronic underachievers.

So when we hear “poor people”, we think of the examples that we know, rather than someone who grew up devoid of realistic opportunities. We look at the negative outliers that we know and try to extrapolate.

2. Social pathology. Yes, poor people tend to share some very bad, self destructive habits. Of course, research tends to show that this behavior tends to stem from poverty rather than the other way around. “Being poor makes you stupid” as some might say. The direction of causation isn’t always clear.

3. Fear. Yes, though I am comfortable at the moment (and close to being “long term comfortable”), at mostly points of my life, I was really only a bad break away from personal disaster (untimely illness, injury, lay off, employer going out of business just when I become unemployable), etc. No one wants to think “I am one bad break away from being just like that poor person” so we conjure up reasons why “it can’t happen to us because we are so virtuous” or something.

July 7, 2017 Posted by | education, politics/social, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Doing students a disservice: not pointing out their ignorance

A couple of things have struck me. There is a New York Times article about high school students not believing climate change because of what they hear at home and from our current President.

On the other end, you see student takeover and (attempted) intimidation of faculty at Evergreen State College; what struck me is how inarticulate the students are, and how they seem to ‘know” that they know more than the faculty and staff:

And they appear to be enabled by at least some of the faculty:

About 55 Evergreen State College faculty and 23 College Staff have signed a “statement of solidarity” with the student protestors, which you can find here. (That’s more than a quarter of the faculty).

I reproduce the statement in its entirety (indented). It is an implicit criticism of biology professor Bret Weinstein as a racist, which he is not. He is being punished and ostracized for writing an email refusing to leave campus at the “request” of students of color on Evegreen’s “Day of Departure.” If you want to see the email that got Weinstein demonized, go here. The bolding is mine, and my comments are flush left. […]

I omit the names of the signers (see the document linked to above), but I am guessing that the faculty are almost all humanities professors and that there are few or no science professors. The College Fix (I can’t verify their assertion) says that “The statement is being circulated by Julie Russo, whose expertise is “media studies, gender & women’s studies, sexuality and queer studies,” and Elizabeth Williamson, whose expertise is English literature and theater studies, according to a Friday listserv email from Russo obtained by The College Fix.

Now I am for getting students to start to think for themselves. But part of “thinking for oneself” is to come to grips with one’s own limitations (intellectual ability, experience and knowledge) and to understand when to defer to those who know more. Not all opinions are created equal.

And yes, fresh eyes might pick up on blind areas, but, I’ll just ask this: are the students really fit to run a university or to teach classes?

Now I teach mathematics and I can tell you that if I am not reasonably gentle with my examinations, I would blow away my classes. They simply lack the perspective, knowledge and experience that I have.

Yes, once in a while I might make a mistake on the board and they catch it, but none of them would claim to know more than I do.

I think that it there is a fine line between encouraging students to think for themselves and making them way overconfident as to their current abilities and achievements.

Workout notes: a bit sore from this weekend, but I still got in a weight workout and an easy walk:

weights: rotator cuff, pull ups (5-5, then 4 sets of 10), bench press: 10 x 135, 5 x 185, 8 x 170, incline press: 10 x 135, military: (dumbbell) 15 x 55 seated, supported, 10 x 45, 10 x 40 standing, rows: 2 sets of 10 x 55 dumbbell, 10 x 110 machine. Goblet squats: sets of 5: 25, 25, 45, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75, abs: 2 sets twist crunch, 2 sets of yoga leg lifts, 3 sets of moving bridges, headstand (shaky, but ok), 5k walk (warm).

June 5, 2017 Posted by | education, social/political, walking, weight training | | Leave a comment

I’ve never seen anything like President Trump but…

It is weird. On one hand, I see President Trump as being a disaster. But, at least for NOW, my personal life is going well…for NOW…there are potential land mines ahead. But enough about that.

I work in education (mathematics) and Trump is a potential distaster at many levels. His nominee for Secretary of Education doesn’t even know the basics:

and yet is likely to be confirmed. I sure hope that the Democrats are united in opposing her, though if it looks like she will win anyway, I can see giving a few red state Senators a pass for local political reasons.

Higher education will not be spared; a creationist is being appointed to lead a task force in higher education.

And do not think that our lead in science/engineering/mathematics research is a “given” either; remember that in the 1930’s, Germany lead the world. They ran many of their top people out and the US took command.

Even worse, Trump appears to have no grasp of reality. He thinks that Islamic terrorism is being under reported and provided the media with a list of 78 “under reported” events…(and yes, the list had egregious misspellings in it, including of the word “attacker” in places!”

And just read some of President Trump’s tweets: do these sound presidential to you?

As someone pointed out, Trump is like a “boy’s idea of a man”. Oh sure, there are times when I have fantasies about being well off enough to tell anyone to “f*ck off” without having to worry about the consequences, but I realize that my having those fantasies are the result of my incomplete growth as a mature human being; it is my goal to get to the point where I don’t have those thoughts. I certainly do not admire someone who acts that way…especially the President of the United States.

What to do about it:

February 7, 2017 Posted by | education, political/social, politics, politics/social, science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Thinking about thinking: critical thinking, empathy (and its limitations), faulty memories, etc.

Memories: yeah, our minds fill in the gaps, and so some of our vivid memories…never happened, or didn’t happen the way that we remember them. That is one reason I keep this blog; I often revisit what I did..and once in a while, find that I didn’t do what I thought that I did.

I still “remember” an epic workout that I once did: 8 x 400 in 75 each..back in 1982. Trouble is: I never did that. When I read my old logs, I did one workout where my LAST 400 was in 78 (others were 82-83) and I did a few 10-12 x 200 in 37-38…very different. I had written that 8 x 400 in 75 was my GOAL. Goals are not facts. 🙂

Empathy Yes, compassion for other humans is a good thing. But sometimes empathy for an individual can override doing greater good for more people. So empathy for individuals might lead to policy that might actually be harmful for more people (or do less good than it might otherwise). This book is on my reading list.

Critical thinking: Yes, I am for it, but effective critical thinking requires a context and a detailed knowledge of the facts and principles for the context. So teach history, teach physics, teach chemistry. But forget this “course on critical thinking” stuff.

Challenging beliefs and the “regressive academic left”. This article has given me something to chew on. Some of it is very good: one can’t challenge absurd beliefs without talking about underlying assumptions:

Malhar Mali: What in your opinion is the best way of fostering critical thinking when it comes to religious and supernatural beliefs?

Peter Boghossian: I think the whole way we’ve taught critical thinking is wrong from day one. We’ve taught, “Formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence.” But the problem with that is people already believe they’ve formulated their beliefs on evidence — that’s why they believe what they believe. Instead, what we should focus on is teaching people to seek out and identify defeaters.

What is a defeater? A defeater is:

C is the defeater. We should teach people to identify conditions under which their beliefs could be false. This is profound for a number of reasons. If I’m correct, then it would be the holy grail of critical thinking. The problem with traditional notions of critical thinking is that most people believe what they want to believe anyway. They only look in their epistemic landscape for pieces of evidence which enforce the beliefs they hold — thus entrenching them in their view of reality. Eli Pariser has a vaguely related notion and talks about a technological mechanism that traps us in a “filter bubble.”

There are attitudinal dispositions that help one become a good critical thinker and there are skill-sets. If you don’t possess the attitudinal disposition then what’s the point of the skill set? A skill set could actually make it worse because, as Michael Shermer says, you become better at rationalizing bad ideas.

By teaching people to identify defeaters, which is a skill set, we may be able to help them shift their attitudes toward responsible belief formation. We may be able to help them habituate themselves to constantly readjusting and realigning their beliefs with reality. In the philosophy literature there’s a related notion called doxastic responsibility, which basically means responsible belief formation.

MM: So if you had put that formula into action with “If A, Then B, Unless C” what would that look like?

PB: A pedestrian example could be when someone thinks they see a goldfinch in their backyard. The traditional route here is to say, “Formulate your beliefs on evidence. What evidence do you have to believe that’s a goldfinch?” and they say: “Well I see the bird is yellow. I know there’s a high incidence of goldfinches in this area, so by induction I can see that it’s probably a goldfinch.” But unbeknownst to them it’s not a goldfinch but a canary.

So instead of saying, “formulate your beliefs on the basis of evidence,” we should say: “how could that belief be wrong? Give me three possibilities how the belief that it could be a goldfinch might be in error.” This type of questioning — applied to any belief — helps engender a critical thinking and an attitude of doxastic responsibility.

The author then goes on to lose his way when he discusses the “regressive academic left” later in the article. Yes, they exist. Yes, some are nasty people. And yes, they are a threat to free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Yes, they are a threat to critical thinking skills.

He says:

Here’s what is surprising: with very few exceptions, and there are exceptions, Christians are very kind decent people all over the world. I do talks and we go out afterwards for drinks etc., and we talk with civility.

The far Left in contemporary academia is not like this. These are viciously ideological and nasty people whose goal it is to shut down discourse and indoctrinate students. I think we’ve spent too much time on Creationism. The problem is less with creationism and more with radical Leftism. For example, if you’re a professor who teaches in the biological sciences, creationists have substantive disagreements with your work and they’ll try to demean it. But they’re not going to harass you or your family. They’re not going to try and get you fired. They’re not going to call you a racist, a sexist, a bigot, a homophobe.

That may well be true, but creationists get on school boards and have seats of political power. Climate change denialists have seats in Congress:

You really can’t compare the power and money behind the right wing variety of nonsense.

Sure the idiots in academia are annoying. But they aren’t the threat to science that the science denialists are, and they have nowhere near the degree of institutional support.

December 10, 2016 Posted by | education, science, social/political | | Leave a comment

Homework and futility …

Workout notes: (speaking of futility)

rotator cuff
squats: lots of weightless squats, a few goblet squats with 25, one set with 40, finished with 10 x 210 leg press
pull ups: 15-10-10-10-5
bench press: 10 x 135, 4 x 185, 7 x 170 (weak)
incline press: 6 x 150 (weak), 10 x 135
military: 7 x 50 dumbbell standing, 10 x 45 standing, 10 x 40 standing (couldn’t get 50’s in the air while sitting)
rows: 3 sets of 10 with 50 (single arm)
abs 2 sets each of 12 twist crunch, 10 yoga leg lifts, 10 moving half-bridge.
headstand (surprisingly good)

Bad math/science puns



Homework and futility Yes, I know that hard work can get most people, at least of a certain age, to improve on something.
But, well, let me use an example. Take any Division I football coach. What do they spend their time on? Sure, they set up game strategy, decide to who play and set up how to train their players. BUT…they spend a lot of time…recruiting talent. If talent didn’t matter, why is recruiting important?

Again, average players can improve with good coaching and hard training, but only so much.

I think that a similar principle applies in academics.
Sure, students say that they work hard in my classes, but these are college students; those in my engineering/science/mathematics section have a certain aptitude for the subject. Teaching and hard work bring out their talent. But they have it to begin with.

But what about grade school? Don’t they have to take everyone (within reason)?

So, I question the value of assigning too much homework to grade school kids. Again, I am talking about “too much for their level”.
Since this isn’t my field of study, I don’t know what the evidence says, though this post “seems” reasonable to me.

And there is something else going on here: I remember not doing much homework as a kid, and I sure as heck got no help from my parents. Yes, “that was then”. But…I can tell you that students who show up as freshmen in this day and age really aren’t any better prepared than we fact, I’d say “somewhat less so”?

And I do wonder:

Research tells us the following about the impact of homework on children in primary school:

Homework offers no academic advantage. Instead, it overwhelms struggling children and is boring for high achievers.

Interesting…I’ll keep my eyes open for what else is out there.

September 9, 2016 Posted by | education, social/political, weight training | Leave a comment

Uncertainty …

Workout notes weights only; I was going to walk but I ended up thinking that I needed some rest.

pull ups: 15-15-10-10 (good)
rotator cuff
squats: a few weightless sets
bench press: 10 x 135, 4 x 185, 8 x 170
incline: 10 x 135
military: 2 sets of 10 x 45 standing (dumbbell), 15 x 50 dumbbell (seated, supported0
rows: 2 sets of 10 x 110 machine, 10 x 50 (single arm) dumbbell
2 sets of: 12 twist crunch, 10 yoga lifts, 10 moving half bridges
headstand (easy today)

It seems that on most days, I have a few exercises where I feel good, others where I am “meh”. Today, pull ups were very good. Friday: bench press was good.

Uncertainty Ok, I am 57 years old (minus one day) and I’ve never trained for a marathon at this age. I get the sense that I am saturated with training, and I should probably start a loooong taper..a very gradual taper. Yes, the first marathon is 4 weeks away, and I do have some more 15 milers planned. And yes, I’ll be walking during my marathons; these will be “run/walk”. My days of “racing” these bad boys are over.

And the uncertainty extends to teaching as well. I am always wondering “how much detail do I provide” in a first course? Too much: loses all but the best students. Too little: I end up shortchanging the students. This is the challenge of teaching “a first course”.

Baseball: what a fun season. I saw more games last weekend; yesterday’s was rained out but there is a double header tonight.




The Chiefs have split with the Bees: they won 3-0 on Friday, getting all their runs in the 3’rd inning, and fell 7-5 when the Bees hit the ball very well (2 home runs). And there is this aspect of minor league baseball: some parent clubs have decided to keep their minor league teams more or less intact. On the other hand, the Cardinals have been promoting many Chiefs; hence the team you see in the play offs might not resemble the one that got there. It should be interesting.

August 29, 2016 Posted by | baseball, education, walking | | Leave a comment

Hooray! My shirt is “right side out” today!

Workout notes: ugh…legs were sore and …while not dead, did NOT feel good.
So I took it on the treadmill for 10K (6.21 miles), starting at 5.2 mph and increasing speed by .1 mph every 5 minutes until 50 minutes, then 6.2-6.5 for the last 10 minutes (increasing every 2.5 minutes). That got me to 5.75 miles in 1 hour, then to 10K in 1:04:40 (machine gives you 5 cool down minutes).

Then I walked outside. I didn’t time myself nor did I have my smart phone; I figured this was “about 2 miles”: ha ha ha ha!


Academia I applaud the University of Chicago for this. They notify their incoming freshmen that there are no “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, etc.

Friendship Yes, a lack of friends can be deadly. Ironically, those who complain to me about loneliness have done their best to make it impossible to be friends with them to begin with. 🙂

August 25, 2016 Posted by | education, running, walking | , , , | Leave a comment

Why “I am offended” isn’t good enough: education in the humanities

Watch this:

Now what was your reaction? Was it: ‘well, he is just stating a truth that we often don’t say out of politeness”? Was it: “how DARE he say that…I am OUTRAGED” ?

Those two reactions are really different sides of the same coin.

My reaction: “he is completely wrong but doesn’t understand why”. And that is one, of many reasons, that I value history and the humanities. That is one reason (among many) that we need all majors (including STEM majors) to take such courses. And that is why the increasing disrespect of the humanities (sometimes an earned disrespect) worries me.

Being able to be outraged isn’t the same as being educated. And, I truly wonder what percentage of people could explain why Rep. King’s statement was nonsense.

July 19, 2016 Posted by | education, social/political | | 2 Comments

College these days

I haven’t seen much of what is being deseribed here and here at my university. I do think that there is a fine line between being responsive to student needs and holding students accountable for their learning. Learning isn’t passive and it involves the students working AND changing. And, students don’t know what is best for them, though they often think that they do.

It is just so easy to fool yourself into thinking that you know something that you don’t really know. And, yes, becoming educated often involves entertaining ideas that one does not like.

June 22, 2016 Posted by | education, free speech, Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

My take on a professor’s lament

A college professor writes:

Salon is running a particularly poorly thought-out piece, even by Salon standards, about the inability of college students to use the English language to express themselves in writing. I’ll let the author off the hook for the stupid title (“Death to High School English”) and the tagline, as an editor probably chose those. But the argument overlooks such an obvious explanation in favor of a more complicated one that it’s difficult to take whoever she is seriously. When the tagline asks, “My college students don’t understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?” We could do that, I guess. Or we could rethink how we grade them in high school.

There is a tendency, even among educators, when outcomes are not as they should be to assume that teachers as individuals or the educational system writ large must be to blame. In this case we’re hypothetically dismantling all K-12 English education and starting over from scratch with some sort of newer, better method. What this overlooks is the reality that most students in college – the same ones the author rightly points out are terrible at writing – have no idea that they’re terrible at writing. They think they are quite good at it, in fact. They do not believe this because of simple arrogance or Those Darn Millennials or any other popular explanation. They believe they are good writers because they have been getting good grades on written assignments and in English throughout their educational careers.

The rest of the piece at Gin and Tacos is worth reading.

Now I have never tried to teach anyone how to write, aside from supervising a senior project and reading student’s mathematical proofs. I have had some conversations with English faculty and I remember one saying: “I can get most students to an A…..” at which case I wondered if was the STUDENT who was supposed to get THEMSELVES to the grade.

Here is what was going on, I think: many professors let students rewrite and rewrite their papers prior to turning in the final copy. This makes me wonder: at what point is the professor actually grading their own work rather than the work of the student? I can easily see a student learning how to game the system by, in effect, getting the professor to write their work for them. Hence, they get a good grade by producing a polished paper, and move on to the next class not having learned a thing, other than how to get someone else to fix up their writing.

At some point, someone has to kick up the training wheels!

Now, on a related note, I am not without guilt. Yes, I think that I assign grades fairly; I let the spread sheet do the calculations, and then I move the student names off of the screen and just look at the numbers. Yes, at times, I’ve used cut offs that were slightly more generous than those stated on the syllabus, though, again, I am looking at the numbers and NOT at the names.

But, that aside, even strange things can happen.

In one case, a student with a 98 average made an 86 on the final exam, which still gave the student an A. But on ONE other problems (the rest of the exam was good), I was told: \int^{\infty}_0 e^{-3x} dx = lim_{b \rightarrow \infty} \frac{e^{-3x+1}}{-3x+1}|^b_0 . Yes, the student aced the other integral problems, including the trig substitution problem as well as the substitution problem \int e^{sec(x)}sec(x)tan(x) dx . The error that the student made on that problem was just plain inexplicable.

In another case, a linear algebra student missed problem one, which was to determine the determinant of a two by two matrix of integers! But the student got enough of the other problems right to end up with a (low) C for the course, including one that involved finding eigenvalues and eigenvectors of a 2 by 2 matrix.

Anyway, I shudder to think of these students making such errors in a subsequent class the their instructors finding out that they had their previous class from me. 🙂

Go figure.

May 17, 2016 Posted by | education, mathematics, social/political | | Leave a comment