Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I miss the symbolism

Not quite perfect

At work I use Microsoft Word, which is installed on all of our office computers. My library of exams, however, old and new, are maintained in WordPerfect format. I've routinely upgraded Corel's product to the point that today I am using WordPerfect Office X5 to write my exams at home, where most of my school materials are prepared. (I've never felt a need to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Microsoft, and I use enough of its products anyway, whether by my choice or not.)

But now something weird has happened. I replaced my home computer with a newer and faster system, using LapLink's PCMover to migrate my software from the old computer to the new. Unfortunately, on the new computer WordPerfect got balky. I uninstalled it, dug out the original disks, and reinstalled it. The same problem remained: I've lost the gallery of useful special symbols that I used to invoke with Ctrl-W. It's a significant loss, especially now that I have to resort to the equation editor for every little thing, such as merely embedding a Greek letter in text or a prime symbol after a function name.

I am not pleased.

Interestingly enough, the problem has survived a number of attempts to uninstall and reinstall the program. In addition, I now get an error message when trying to implement the Service Pack 2 maintenance upgrade. I'm stuck with the original release version from the installation disks, but without the special symbol feature. Woe and alas!

Gaze upon the stark difference of “Before” and “After”:

Before: The math symbol palette as it should appear.

After: The math symbol palette in its current denatured form
Any bright ideas, anyone?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

You may already be a loser

Are you effing kidding me?

I sometimes get e-mail from students. It happens. Students usually write to ask questions or to tell me why they missed (or are going to miss) class. I like it when students take the trouble to contact me.


Then there are examples like this, which initially appears innocuous:
Hello mr Z,

I need help with alot of the materials, is it possible to get some help from you?
Thank you,

Sent from my iPhone
This plaintive query arrived during the fifth week of the semester and came from a student enrolled in a class that had met nine times. I had given that particular class a total of six quizzes, short one- or two-problem exercises designed to help me keep tabs on my students' progress and to highlight the concepts or formulas I deemed most important.

I took a peek into my gradebook to see how much help Edie might need. Out of six quizzes, with a total of 60 points possible, Edie had racked up a grand total of seven points. She managed a score of 6/10 on Quiz 1 and 1/10 on Quiz 3. She missed Quizzes 2, 4, and 5. I imagine she finally got worried when she took Quiz 6 and earned 0/10. Time to ask for help!

Several possible responses to her plea came to mind. For example:
Hello, Edie. It's way too late. I'm dropping you for non-attendance.

Take care,

Professor Z
But I got a grip on myself and decided to take a milder tack (and included none of the bracketed remarks!):
I can recommend several steps, Edie, to improve your performance in the class, but you have to implement them quickly if you are to do well in next week's exam [after which pigs will fly]. First of all, you can come to my office hours, which are included in the course syllabus (look at the top of the first page) [and which I e-mailed to everyone in addition to handing out a hard copy on Day 1]. Second, you can go to the Campus Tutoring Center for drop-in math tutoring. Check at the CTC's information desk to find out when tutors knowledgeable in our subject are available. Third, you should review the problems on all of the quizzes we've had so far [including the ones that you missed or flunked—which is all of them]. I have been posting solution keys on the course website where you can download them or print them out.

Finally, ask questions in class [if you're ever there]. We will be doing as much review as we can fit into Tuesday's class next week. [Then, when you realize you have no idea what we're talking about, you can drop the class.]

Professor Z

My student was impressed with the helpfulness of my message, which prompted the following response:
Thank you mr Z! I will read the book this weekend and come to you during office hours.

Yeah. That seems reasonable. Four chapters of neglected school work all polished off in a single weekend.

The self-delusion will not be long lasting.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Clairvoyance: the real thing

My colleague knows the future

Deliveries from the college's repro services ramp up in the days preceding the start of each semester. Our course syllabi and first-week handouts begin to appear in our campus mailboxes. The initial trickle turns into quite a flood as the first day of instruction approaches—and woe betide those who submitted their print-jobs too late to ensure delivery before the semester begins. (You could end up on the doorstep of repro services, hat in hand, while disgruntled employees poke among the just-printed but undelivered jobs to see if your syllabus is ready for the class that's meeting in thirty minutes.)

In our math department, the deluge of printed matter is always punctuated by a singular event. During the last week of summer vacation (or the last week of winter break), a heavily-laden delivery cart arrives from repro services, groaning under stacks of boxes of shrink-wrapped bundles. This particular shipment stands out from all the others because it is addressed to one person, a colleague who always submits her entire semester's worth of print-jobs in advance.

The entire semester. On the first day of instruction her office is stuffed with every handout, worksheet, quiz, and exam that she intends to use in her courses for the duration of those courses. She will not have to write or copy a single instructional document during the entire academic term. Despite having witnessed this for several years, I am still unable to fully grasp the concept. It's quite foreign to me.

I know what lesson plans are. Why, I've even used them. Or, rather, tried to use them. I confess that my “lesson plans” have eroded over my years of teaching. Careful outlines with boxed examples and key concepts have withered away to Post-it notes containing pre-cooked problems with the kinds of results I want. (Well, sometimes. In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that my cluttered brain contains many memorized examples that I can call on at will, or reconstruct on the fly, depending on what comes up. I mean, how hard is it to cook up on the spur of the moment a quadratic equation with complex roots? Who needs a Post-it for that, right?)

Moltke's dictum that “no war plan outlasts the first encounter with the enemy” applies to the classroom as well as to the battlefield. I simply cannot imagine following my colleague's example of preparing every quiz and exam in advance of meeting my students and then managing to stick with my original plans. In fact, I prefer to hold off on writing my exams until after holding a review session with my students, which usually means writing the exam the night before I administer it. It's not procrastination. It's how I find out what I need to test them on. It's a process of reacting and adapting to each class at each moment of time during the semester.

There's a neat counter-argument to my mode of instruction, and I presume it's the one my colleague would use if we were to discuss our differing approaches. She could tell me that course content is pre-determined and learning outcomes are pre-defined. (She's right, of course. All classes have official definitions that can be found in the college catalog.) One can then reasonably focus on those pre-ordained objectives, testing students to gauge their mastery and ensuring a kind of standardized approach that avoids subjectivity and random variation from term to term.

I don't, however, think that I am capricious or random in my instructional approach. I have the prescribed goals carefully outlined in my syllabus and I certainly test student mastery of desired learning outcomes with my exams. But I do not try to anticipate in advance whether a particular class needs more or less emphasis on a particular concept or set of concepts. Every sample from the student population is different in some way from every other. Every semester I need to find out their aggregate strengths and weaknesses and attempt to direct my instructional efforts in the direction that seems the likeliest to do the most good. It's not exactly a science, of course, and it's certainly not predictable. My crystal ball is way too cloudy for that.

I have a grudging admiration for my colleague's industriousness in generating all of her course material so far in advance, but it's mostly the credit one gives to prodigious labor, whether or not the result strikes one as praiseworthy. In addition to being awestruck when I witness the massive delivery from repro services, I also shudder with horror.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

God loves a good splatterfest

An anniversary meditation

The media are full of stories about the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Without the slightest hint that they are aware of the irony, Christian extremists are eager to lay special claim to the various memorial services. For example, Catholic League bully boy Bill Donohue is furious that New York City's official commemoration event will not feature religious observances. In classic Donohue fashion, he says that we should demand to know “why Bloomberg decided to censor the clergy from speaking at the 9/11 memorial ceremonies this Sunday.”

“Censor”? Donohue clearly does not understand the word. Bloomberg is heading up a secular municipal government ceremony and decided that sectarian prayers did not belong at such an event. No one, however, is “censored.” The various priests, rabbis, ministers, imams, and snake-handlers are free to conduct as many worshipful memorial services as they like—whether or not Bloomberg thinks it's a good idea. Donohue, however, would like a nice Christian—preferably Catholic—prayer at the event and might even settle for some words mumbled by a rabbi. He still can't get over the idea that religious faith is not as privileged in our society as it used to be. (The secularists who left God out of the U.S. Constitution might be smiling, if only there were an afterlife.) The 9/11 perpetrators shouted prayers of their own; how odd that some people think the main problem is that it simply represented fanatical devotion to the wrong religion. So we need more prayers—of the right kind. (Thank God for the absence of religion-driven violence among Christians!)

Catholic Radio has certainly not been intimidated by Mayor Bloomberg into avoiding the topic of 9/11. They appear not to have noticed the supposed censorship (although I'm sure at some point one of the EWTN programs will point a microphone at Donohue and allow him to complain in public about what he calls the mayor's “gag order”). Just this afternoon I heard a snippet of a program in which a man was interviewed about the way in which religion comforted him on 9/11. This particular individual made his way to St. James Church, where he found solace. Soon afterward, he visited another church: “One of the great things about New York City is that there are churches everywhere!” he told his interviewer.

Then he said, “I felt the presence of God all day on that day.”

I pondered that for just a moment, then realized he was making excellent sense if his God was the deity of the Bible. The God of the Bible is particularly fond of mass murder, whether by his own hand or at his instigation. Such a God would, of course, show up for the slaughter in the Big Apple. He probably brought popcorn, too, because nothing seems to please the Lord as much as a nice splatterfest. Just consider:

“And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.” (Gen. 6:7)

“And Moses said, Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (Exodus 11:4-5)

“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Sam. 15:3)

“Is not this David, of whom they sang one to another in dances, saying, Saul slew his thousands, and David his ten thousands?” (1 Sam. 29:5)

“And when he had removed [Saul], he raised up unto them David to be their king; to whom also he gave their testimony, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will.” (Acts 13:22)

Be advised: If your kill ratio is too low, God will oust you and find someone more likely to slake his thirst for blood.

I am certain that many Christians would hasten to point out that the above quotes are either from the Old Testament—when God was more of a bastard—or from a New Testament verse that looks back to Old Testament lore—since in Acts the reference is to King David. I find this unpersuasive. First of all, it's not as though Jehovah God of the Old Testament lost his re-election campaign and was replaced by a kind and loving turn-the-other-cheek Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It's an article of faith with Christians that it's all just one (triple-headed) God. Thus the Christian deity can't escape responsibility for mass murder in the Old Testament. Second, Jesus was all too happy to implicate himself:

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34)

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

It is sometimes said that Christianity is a “religion of peace.” Actually, it sounds like Homeland Security should keep a closer eye on those who take their God's advice a little too seriously. It's only a quirk of translation that “jihad” is not in their book.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The power of prayer

God hates Texas

P.Z. Myers is pointing out that Rick Perry's prayers to God are going unanswered. After all, back in April the governor of Texas summoned his fellow citizens to grovel before God and beg for an end to their unprecedented drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor map makes it abundantly clear that prayer doesn't work. Either that, or prayer just pisses God off. In that case, Gov. Perry's prayers have been answered, and the answer is clearly, “Go to hell!” (which Texas is currently a good approximation of).

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The gravity of the situation

A major contender in the stupid sweepstakes!

All reasonably rational and intelligent people have had occasion to groan in pain and palm their faces in astonished contemplation of the inanities that come from the mouths of creationists, religionists, and other “believers” who rely on faith rather than knowledge. Once they have hung their tiny brains on the peg of revealed wisdom—usually derived from some sprawling and clumsy tome (like the Bible, Koran, or Atlas Shrugged)—they are smug in their ignorance and beyond the reach of reason. Is it even possible to recover from the weapons-grade stupidity displayed by Noah Hutchings and Jerry Guiltner in this exchange from the August 30, 2011, broadcast (at 13:28) of Southwest Radio Church's Watchman on the Wall?
Hutchings: Now, Brother Jerry, we hear all about this Big Bang. That's how everything has come into being. Now some of these heavenly bodies you see out there really have no atmosphere and yet they are perfectly round. Now all the planets are perfectly round. Our moons are perfectly round. The stars are perfectly round. Our sun is perfectly round. Now you mean that they mean to tell us that there was a big explosion at the beginning and all these heavenly bodies come out perfectly round? Now can you explain that?
Yeah. It's gravity.
Guiltner: [Laughter] I wish I could. I can't even explain why intelligent people would believe that. That it's just amazing that these folks that claim to be as smart as they are can't see that— You know, someone said, Brother Hutchings, that it takes more faith to be an evolutionist than it does to be a Christian and I believe that they may be right because that just simply makes no sense at all to me.
Pardon me for pointing this out, Noah and Jerry, but did you realize people occasionally hear things when you broadcast them on the radio? That's right. Folks are going to find out how stupid you are.

Fortunately, most of those who are listening are just about as brain-damaged as you are!