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

Public Perceptions of Science

Yes, the public, on the whole, doesn’t understand STEM fields. In fact, one economist was briefly detained for questioning when a fellow passenger on an airliner saw what he was writing down and thought it might be something evil (it was a differential equation).

And the results can be difficult to understand. When one attempts to explain them to a non-expert, say via a popular article or a popular book, one has to make simplifications:


Though this meme is probably unnecessarily harsh, it does get across the point that when one is trying to understand something outside of one’s specialty, one is doing a translation of sorts, and we know that information can be lost in translation.

I go through this all the time when I go to mathematics conferences and take in a talk that is outside of my narrow area. I have the advantage that I KNOW that I am missing the nuances and that if I wanted to understand the results or the conjectures, I’d have to engage in intense study in that field..and I still might not be able to understand what is going on.

Aside from that, there is how the media interacts with the science studies themselves, along with the fact that scientists like publicity too. This John Oliver segment (30 minutes) is outstanding and is making the rounds on the various science blogs.

May 13, 2016 Posted by | mathematics, science, social/political | Leave a comment

My Head Talks

The Dean opens it up (talks about 1:30 or so) and introduces me. Then I talk for about 5 minutes, and then the speaker gives an excellent talk about topology, algebra and the mathematics of financial prediction. So if you haven’t met me in person, this is what I sound like.

April 16, 2016 Posted by | mathematics | , | Leave a comment

Creature of habit (and missing workouts)

I have to cover for someone’s class, which cuts into my morning workout. Hence today I ran 5 miles over lunch (about 5.2 actually)

Good news: it was very pretty, though there was a breeze. I did 2 lower Bradley loops (1.22-1.24 miles each) in 21:39 (8:44-8:52 mpm) with the laps being 11:05/10:34. I walked the big hill coming out of the park after these two laps, and then slow jogged it home. Hey, 5 miles are better than zero.:-)

I do have to get new shoes though as my teeth are starting to rattle as I run.

Think of this: suppose you have an ordered list of ingredients of a food stuff (say, water, salt, sugar, gelatin..), the weight of a serving, and the amount of say, protein, fats, sugar (nutritional information on the label).

You can use linear programming (and similar techniques) to determine upper and lower bounds for the various ingredients and have a phone application do this.

Why is this important? Some people have dietary restrictions (e. g. some can’t process phenylalanine) and therefore have maximum amounts of this substance they can have in their daily diet.

Who knew?

April 14, 2016 Posted by | mathematics, running | | Leave a comment

The walk of shame to the library

Workout notes: 8 mile “run” on the Rivertrail to Glenn Oak Park, up Prospect and into Springdale to the Mausoleum and around that small loop. It was windy and just under freezing; not bad running weather though. The footing was mostly good.


Not shown is the small spur I did on the trail which parallels Perry Ave.; that was iced over so I turned around but I did enough to get 8.
Then I did 10 minutes on the elliptical and a few weightless squats to loosen up.

Note: while out on the “run” I found a dollar bill.

Walk of Shame I took a whole stack of books to the library; they were mostly for a project that didn’t work out. But I did check out a new book to look at something else and what did I find in that book?


I put it on social media but that isn’t exactly “like-bait”:-) But seeing that did remind me that I need to get moving. It has been too long since I’ve had one of these.

I am thinking about things and I have a mystery that I don’t understand…yet. For the mathematically inclined: it has to with speeding up the convergence of an alternating series by using Cesàro summation. For the first two examples I’ve tried (one conditionally convergent, one absolutely convergent), the convergence sped up by a constant multiplicative factor. That isn’t very good for computational purposes, but why “that” factor and not some other one?

January 26, 2016 Posted by | mathematics, running | | Leave a comment

Welcome to 2016!

Workout notes: 8.3 course in 1:31:10 (about 1:30 slower than last week; but it was 24 F (12 F colder) and I ran a reasonably tough 8 two days ago). I was 43:49 at Heading, 1:22, 46:06 for the last 4+ (10:00 from the Park exit to home).

There were some trees down: a big one that I ran under and a smaller one I ran around (on the way up from the bridges to Cornstalk) and one I stepped over on the way down from Cornstalk to the lower park entrance.


I didn’t feel that good until mile 3 or so.

Then we got take out from Jerusalem restaurant and Tracy came over to watch Notre Dame vs. Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.


Though ND moved it well, at times, they were outclassed 44-28. Ohio State had it all: running, short passing, deep threat. But ND didn’t embarrass themselves the way that Iowa is doing in the Rose Bowl (down 35-0 to Stanford at the half).

My goal for 2016: aside from my usual “one marathon or longer” goal, I’ll need to get to work on professional stuff. I don’t want to stagnate. I’ve got 3 ideas to work on, and I need to do it next week. One idea will just result in a dumb blog post that might help with calculus teaching; one will be an exploration of a “long shot” idea and the third is the mostly likely to pay off as a research paper.

Also, I want to read more books; I have one that I want to finish and I need to read some more substantial stuff. My brain is getting lazy.

January 1, 2016 Posted by | books, Friends, mathematics, running | Leave a comment

Between classes

I’ve got incentive: IF I get done with grading I’ll get to watch the clowns the Republican debate…and maybe, just maybe, catch the Rams last game in St. Louis on Thursday night. Yes, Donald Trump fascinates me, and yes, his ideas are really mainstream Republican ideas. What the Republican elites object to is his tone and manner of presenting such ideas directly.

I’m done with scoring the final exams for one class and about to start another batch.

Workout notes: 10K shuffle (aka run) in Bradley Park; I was a wee bit faster today than I had been recently. Great weather for December in Illinois (slightly chilly; leggings under shorts was overkill). I didn’t have the “fire in the belly” to push the pace though.

Quick posts

A friend sent me this. There is some truth in this, even for math research talks. Here is what often happens to me: I’ll go to a research talk in an area that is “sort of close” to mine. Now keep in mind that while I’ve been modestly active, because I am a small college professor, my research has been rather narrowly focused.

So the talk might start with some concept that I’ve seen before, perhaps 20-30 years ago. My mind will try to recall that concept and make sense of it….and by the time I return the speaker has moved on and I am hopelessly lost. The good news is that if the topic isn’t too far away, I can often find the speaker’s notes and study them later.


Science and Spandex


But, but…I was just studying the Periodic Table!

Affirmative Action Yes, I am in favor of affirmative action…done correctly. Many opponents of affirmative action don’t have their facts straight. But some who support affirmative action don’t have their facts straight either.

I am no fan of Justice Scalia but, in my opinion, he had a valid point when he said that some students would actually be harmed by being put into academic programs that they weren’t ready for. Yes, that applies to white students too (some elite universities have “regional affirmative action” which I’ve seen applied to not only racial minorities but to, say, white students from underserved rural areas).

The Naval Academy (and the other service academies) have prep schools to get promising recruits up to speed academically prior to entering and, for the most part, it does little good to throw underprepared students to the wolves before they are ready.

December 15, 2015 Posted by | education, mathematics, republicans, republicans politics, running, science, social/political, spandex | , , , | Leave a comment


The night classes are taking a bit out of me; I find myself sleeping in and starting my day later.

Workout notes: lifting only.
rotator cuff
pull ups (4 sets of 10 plus a later set of 10) weak today
incline bench presses: 10 x 135, 3 x 160, 7 x 150 (weak on the 160 set)
dumbbell bench press: 10 x 70
military: 3 sets of 10 x 40 standing
pull downs: 3 sets of 10 x 160
rows: 3 sets of 10 x 200 Hammer
yoga (15 minutes worth; really sweated. Was able to headstand)

Math note: I figured out a homework problem that was puzzling to me:

It was to show that \overset{\circ}{e}_x \leq \overset{\circ}{e}_{x+1} + 1 (note: \overset{\circ}{e}_x refers to an expected value of a random variable of the length of time someone who is x years old can expect to live past his/her current age).

It bothered me enough to disrupt my sleep two nights ago, but when I woke up, I was able to figure it out. I did a “happy dance” but in all seriousness, it wasn’t hard. It is just that I am having increasing doubts about my ability to learn new things. These doubts aren’t warranted…yet.

But yes, I bloody well SHOULD have been able to figure it out; it is just that I get mentally lazy at times.

September 11, 2015 Posted by | mathematics, weight training | , | Leave a comment

Not used to a big lunch

I filled in to teach a class today..and then went to swim:

500 free, 250 of back/fly, 150 of side, 100 IM, 4 x (100 free, 100 pull, 100 fins)
Then weights:

pull ups: 5 sets of 10 (stronger than I had anticipated), super sets with
military (machine, 10 x 100 each arm)
rows( machine, 10 x 110)
rotator cuff

Then incline presses: 10 x 135, 10 x 135, 5 x 135 (quit as I was getting tight)

But when I went home, Barbara’s cleaning woman was still there (she had started late), so I walked to the Vietnamese place for a buffet lunch.
It was good, but it was also more food than I was used to.
So when I tried to concentrate on a work topic…..zzzzzzz……and I ended up checking Facebook about 50 times…

There is a reason I eat a light lunch on most days.

FAIL I was looking at a math book (for a class that I am teaching) and read the phrase “…. i(t) = a(t) -a(t-1) for integral t \geq 0 ” and I didn’t quite get the word “integral” (I had just taught calculus…) until my colleague patiently reminded me of the phrase “for integral multiples of \pi

“slow brain + heavy lunch” = “embarrassing fails”.

July 27, 2015 Posted by | mathematics, swimming, weight training | , , | Leave a comment

Mathematics, Dirty Harry wannabes, hacks and car dealerships ….

Mathematics: this appeared in the New York Times. It is about Terry Tao, who is one of the best mathematicians in the world. It also gives a reasonably good description of what mathematical research is like. True, I only do it part time, and my best stuff wouldn’t even be a throw away for Professor Tao. Nevertheless, the article in interesting reading.

Computer hacks: yes, if someone REALLY wants to hack your computer, they can. No, I am not really worried; there is no reason to target me. But still, this article is very interesting; I knew about some of this from my days in the Navy.

Dumb business practices: A potential customer visits a car dealership:

So last night I decided to go shopping for a new car. My current car is fine, but it’s three years old and I’ve already put 80,000 miles on it. I get nervous when my car gets near the 100,000 mark, so I thought I had better go ahead and start looking.

When I got to the dealership, the salesman pounce on me. You know the routine. They need a commission check and they want to sell me the most expensive car I can get. The salesman shows me a few cars, and I find one I really like. I test drive it and decide that I wanted the car. We discussed pricing and payments and finally my trade-in. He took my keys and told me they were going to take my current car out for a drive so they could appraise it.

When he returned, he told me they had to knock off $3,000 because my car had been vandalized. My car hadn’t been vandalized, so I said “Excuse me?” while giving him a puzzled look. He said, yeah, somebody did a real number on it. At that point, I stood up and said show me. I thought for a moment that I must have overlooked something that must have recently happened. He laughed and said, “That Hillary bumper sticker on your back window.” He said, I am sure you wouldn’t have put that mess on there. You know she’s going to ruin the country if she wins and will tax you so much you won’t be able to afford a car. Then he laughed again.

Well, I wasn’t in the mood to hear his shit. I asked for my keys back and when he gave them to me, I got up to leave. Confused, he chased after me. I told him I did not appreciate his comments and that he had lost a sale. The sales manager for the dealership overheard me and came over to ask me what had happened so I told him. He rolled his eyes and told me that his salesman was only joking. I said I’m not and I left.

Boy this is going to be a long election season… Oh, and I won’t ever be buying a car from that dealership.

LOL. But a friend, actually the same friend that pointed me toward the Terry Tao article, pointed out that this guy blew an opportunity to get a big discount. Hey, you can tell me that Obama sucks, but if you want MY business, that is going to cost you! :-)

Playing Dirty Harry: Some “patriots” (yes, I now find that I use that word as an ironic slur) are taking it upon themselves to “guard” military recruiting centers. The military is less than thrilled.

Perhaps this is why:

Bottom line: you might be a good hunter and you might be good at the target range. But real life attacks are unpredictable, highly stressful situations and unless you are not only trained to react well under stress and your training is current, you will probably be less than worthless in a real life situation. You’ll be nervous, scared, and other humans will be around; things will be happening FAST and it is highly likely that you’ll just make things worse.

Even trained professionals make mistakes.

July 25, 2015 Posted by | mathematics, politics/social, social/political | , | Leave a comment


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