Monday, January 17, 2011

Identically different

You're not alone

Every semester begins in the same way. Students show up, a bit disoriented, and try to figure our their instructors and their classes. We instructors usually have the advantage of more experience (although some of our students have been here a long time), but we're a little disoriented, too. What will the new crop of students be like?

One thing is all but certain. Some of them will fail.

I know. That sounds like a defeatist attitude. Is the fact that it's true a defense? There are solid reasons why a college instructor cannot realistically expect to shepherd an entire class of forty (or more!) to passing grades at term's end. (Please take it as read that the instructor has actual standards and does not simply hand out C's for “trying.”) I'll enumerate some of them:


In a class of any size, you're going to have students who run afoul of emergencies, whether anticipated or unforeseen. I've had students distracted by health issues (all the way up to and including life-threatening physical conditions or debilitating emotional difficulties), family problems (divorce, custody disputes, offspring with behavioral issues), and legal matters (such as probation violations, lawsuits, restraining orders, evictions, and incarcerations). While some of these circumstances could be mitigated by high-functioning and responsible individuals, many would overwhelm any mere mortal. Severe illness, in particular, is not something easily managed. No one blames a student for not doing well in a class if he or she is simultaneously struggling with a debilitating illness.


The lazy student exists. I seem to have a few every semester. They're apparently not quite sure why they're in school, but perhaps it was the path of least resistance. They like to sit in the back row and drowse—or play surreptitiously with their electronic toys. Each semester I fight the temptation to label students as indolent too quickly—their characteristics are often so overt—and instead give a good college try to getting them involved and learning. If they don't snap out of it, they're doomed. But they mostly don't care. At least, not enough.


Perhaps this one is new to you, but it's a commonplace to me. My struggling students frequently suffer from singular situations—or so they think. No one has ever suffered as they do! It finally occurred to them that I should try to disabuse them of this notion.

Sure, absolutely everyone is unique. Even identical twins (DNA isn't everything). But people are unique in their assemblage of traits and experiences, not in their components. The various traits and experiences, when viewed individually, are part of the common legacy of humanity. In other words, you have more company than you realize.

The poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal said it in a way that impressed me back when I was in graduate school. The original German is not at my fingertips (as if it ever was), but the English sense of it is this:
No matter how embarrassing or isolated your seeming situation, you nonetheless have thousands of companions of whom you are unaware.
Quite right. And thus I try to get my students to understand that they are neither the first nor the last to have a problem with mathematics. Literally millions of other students have had problems with algebra, for example. No professor during office hours or tutor during drop-in assistance periods in the help center is going to recoil at a student's question and say, “Oh, my God! I've never heard that question before! No one has ever had this problem before!”

Been there. Done that. Students and teachers and tutors alike. (Okay, a few of the newer teachers or tutors might have that reaction, but they'll get over it pretty quick.)

You are unique yet the same. No one else has quite your special combination of characteristics, but every part of you is shared with others. Don't fall into the trap of thinking, “No one has ever been this confused before. No one has ever made such mistakes before. No one has ever been this bad at math.”

Plenty have, and they have done so in ways that are both different and the same as your missteps and failings. Many of them have found assistance and solutions that are also as different and as identical as the ones available to you. Go find them and swell the ranks of the successful.


Disturbingly Openminded said...

I've come back to this post several times to look at the last graphic and I have to ask: Am I supposed to be seeing some there that everyone else can see?

I ask because I'm color-blind (color-weak, technically, because while I see all colors I often can't distinguish one from another.)

I see all manner of shapes: hexagons, rosettes, circles, even a pretzel. I'm just wondering if there is something else.

As for the uniqueness aspect of your post, I immediately thought of the opening lines of Anna Karenina (sp?). Perhaps Tolstoy should have written that every unhappy family THINKS it is unhappy in its own way. I find your version matches my experience much more closely.

Zeno said...

You're seeing pretty much what I expected people to see, DO, even if normal color vision might enable you to see some additional patterns. I picked Penrose tilings as illustrations because they don't create simple periodic patterns but are still composed of a handful of identical basic components.

horseplayer said...

You are too easy. I took an honors
chem course taught by Dr. Cortes. He
laid out the rules: Four exams graded on a standard curve. First exam had a
10 point bonus essay. Two Asian ladies scored 110 points. The doc said it was only fair to set the curve at 110. My A grade went to a B.
I escaped with a gentleman's C that i had to work my ass off for. To this day i consider the Dr. as the best instructor of my life. As the Dr. said, life ain,t fair get over it.

Zeno said...

Thanks for the entertaining story, horseplayer. I am, however, bemused by the contrast in what your chem professor reportedly said: Apparently it was "only fair" to rebench the grade curve because he had a pair of overachieving students, yet it was okay if everyone else got screwed because "life ain't fair." I prefer to run my classes without overt contradictions.

Ray said...

I, too, am colour-challenged, and really expected there to be more to that ending graphic. Not that it isn't very interesting - it just seems as though it should be an optical illusion, something along these lines.

Kathie said...

Zeno, having taught school as a young adult myself, and my husband having been a professor since for more than 30 years, I'd agree with you that shifting the grade curve is unfair -- and that one of the things, besides teaching well, that any educator vitally needs to do is to play fair with the students.

Re the original topic, namely that experienced teachers have seen it all before: Even the most dedicated student -- like me, when I took beginning Portuguese -- occasionally finds a lesson puzzling, and requires a little extra tutoring. My professor had been teaching nearly 30 years by then (including as a TA in grad school), so knew well what tended to give even top students fits. So, when a few of us went to his office hours for further elucidation of the intricacies between "para" and "por" (both meaning "to" or "for"), our prof was ready, and pulled out copies of an old worksheet on the differences from his file cabinet for us, which helped clarify. Apparently some of the lesser students didn't really care enough, and weren't planning to take the second semester anyhow).

Rustic Earthican said...

During several days of rest after submitting my thesis, I've been catching up on your more recent pieces and reading older ones. Other than drifting in to where we help undergrads in this spare time (explaining being the fun part of teaching, at least vs. grading), the last teaching-related activity I did was grading a small mountain of calculus homework, followed by a day spent with colleagues tackling a couple thousand exam papers. Every so often I'd come across a comment of desperation or surrender, "I can't do this" or "I'm bad at math". The frustration is understandable, but of course we'd rather see students regrouping after a loss to try to overcome their problems.

During this recent reading, several times I saw you reflecting that we expect to see students fail, but still want to persuade each one that this isn't a personal inevitability. I'm hoping to get (back) into teaching soon, and although I'm not sure if this is a good idea, I'm contemplating discussing the issue at an early meeting of a hypothetical class. Still, in trying to do so I might linger too long on the possibility of failure and end up more depressing than inspirational.

Would you mind if I were to present this piece or something cobbled from it to a possible future class? I'm not sure I'd reflected on the connection between problems in math problems and the common feeling of insecurity over some deficiency perceived to be rare or even unique, but it does seem a good perspective here.

Zeno said...

Consider yourself welcome to borrow anything from this post that you find useful, Rustic Earthican.