Friday, July 29, 2005

The Grueling Ordeal

The day you hand back the last midterm of the semester is always the most grueling day of office hours.

You sit in your office all semester, twiddling your thumbs and chatting with your officemates. Nobody comes in to talk to you. You start giving out a lot of D's and F's on quizzes, but nobody comes to see you. You tell your students that you expect that if they are not doing well, that they will come see you, but nobody comes to see you until there are only a few weeks left in the semester. And it's always the same thing:

"I'm obviously not doing well in your class. I've failed half the tests and quizzes. What can I do to pass the final exam?"

Well, given that the final exam is in A WEEK, probably not much.

I mean, let's face it. There are limits to how much math a person can learn in one sitting. If you didn't learn the stuff back when I was teaching it, your chances of learning it all in one lump sum and being able to catch up in time for the final are about the same as the chances that I will lose 30 pounds in that same amount of time. If people could learn unlimited math in one sitting, I could teach this class in a week and a half of comfortable eight-hour days.

The students get desperate. They come in and try to beg for points. I had one student who got 6 out of 10 on a problem. I spent half an hour explaining to him that I can only grade him on what he writes on his exam paper, not what he was thinking, and that if he doesn't write the number pi/4 on his paper, I have no way of knowing that he came up with this number, especially when everywhere he should have written pi/4 he wrote the square root of 2 instead. "But I was thinking of pi/4," he complained. "I just wrote square root of 2." Yeah, I bet he was thinking of pi/4, especially while I was going over the problem in class just an hour or so earlier. But he kept on explaining to me what each line he wrote really meant, how writing "sec 2 = pi/3" really meant he was plugging pi/3 into the original function (which was tan x - 2x), how he had really come up with the right value even though he wrote something different, but discarded it immediately because he knew it was not the answer. He proceeded to give his work a deconstruction worthy of a PhD in English Literature, finding meaning where only meaningless symbols had been written into statements that weren't even true.

If it wasn't so pathetic, it'd be funny.