Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Better Late Than Never

Sorry for putting this off for so long, but I've been kinda busy...

TD&M hits the nail right on the head-- again and again and again-- in the most satisfying smackdown I've ever read of the prototypical clueless student. She says everything I've ever wanted to say back to students like these, only louder (I muttered it all under my breath after they were out of earshot). And she brought back all sorts of memories.

I remember this one calculus student who got a failing grade on his quiz because he was not applying the chain rule correctly (if I recall, he was making the common mistake of inserting the derivative of the inside function into the outside function, instead of multiplying by it at the end). He came up to ask me to change his grade. He said he knew how to use the chain rule and I ought to give him a better grade just for that, and I told him I would not because he did not use the chain rule correctly on his quiz, at which point he called my grading "bull$#!^" at a volume loud enough for the class to hear. I told him I would see him after class.

When I got him by himself, I told him to work a chain rule problem on the board so that we could see whether he really knew the chain rule or was just bull$#!^ting me. He raised his eyebrows at me using the cuss word to apply to his work, but worked the problem I gave him anyway. I think I impressed him against his will when I looked him straight in the eye and cussed right back at him without flinching. He did this problem exactly the same wrong way he'd done the others. Then I showed him the right way. He insisted that his way was "just as right" as my way, because it was his (behold the glory of constructivist math!) and he insisted that since it included the derivative of the inside function, it must be right even though it is not identical to my result. I patiently explained to him that math does not follow the rules you would like it to follow just because you have all the same elements, that you don't get points for creatively rearranging the rules, that the chain rule is true in the form I presented it because it is provable, etc. etc. I was finally able to convince him to do it my way, although to this day I still think he did it only because he didn't want to fail. He'll probably go to his grave thinking that he was right and I was just being a nitpicky bitch who cussed at him unfairly. However, he never tried to engage me in a power struggle again. An important part of this whole interaction was proving myself to be the alpha dog. If I had backed down, I would have lost control of the classroom, or at least of him in the classroom.

And then there was the student who excoriated me for twenty full minutes (I was watching the clock) after a test. He said he had never seen such a horrible test in his life. I tried to make him feel I was taking his complaints seriously. He complained that not only was the test too long, it had only 10 problems to 125 pages of material in the textbook (he waved the 125 pages of textbook in my face to make his point). I told him there were three solutions to that: I could add more problems to the test, I could give tests more often, or I could skip over whole sections when selecting the problems: and I asked him which he thought would be the better solution. None of those seemed to be acceptable to him, and he seemed mightily flustered that I'd trapped him with his own logic. So then he went off on the difficulty level of the problems and said they were "nothing like the homework" (I get this a lot, even on homework quizzes which are explicitly composed of nothing but homework problems). So I went through the book and showed him how I'd taken the test problems verbatim from the unassigned problems in the problem set. This flustered him even more, so he started to question my qualifications for teaching the class. He claimed I was totally unqualified because I hadn't taken reams of pedagogy classes instead of math classes. I explained to him that actually, in fact I had taken teacher ed classes as an undergrad, that the math department holds workshops for the express purpose of training their TA's in pedagogy, and that I had taught this class before, and that if he thought I was unqualified, he ought to take it up with the math department, as they had many more TA's who (according to his standards) were less qualified to teach than I was, and that he was welcome to transfer to one of their classes. After ranting on for a full 20 minutes questioning everything about me but my parentage, I think he started to realize what an illogical and insulting @$$hole he was being, and he calmed down a bit.

OK, that's enough Student Horror Stories for one day.