Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A failure to communicate

She said ≠ She heard

My colleague and I were making light conversation in the faculty room as we checked our mail-boxes.

“I see you have a clique of my former prealgebra students in your compressed algebra class,” Professor Turin observed. “I saw them hanging together before your class.”

“Oh, were they yours last semester? Most of them are doing pretty well,”

“I'm not surprised,” she said. Then she hesitated. “But how is Kara doing?”

I sighed.

“Poor Kara. Not well. The pace of the class has her quite stressed and she makes lots of mistakes. She really should have picked a more regular schedule.”

“That is exactly what I told her,” said Turin. “She was keen to take your class because of the compressed schedule and I warned her that it was a bad fit. She freaked out several times during my prealgebra and it was always about her fear of falling behind. I wish she had listened to me and enrolled in a regular section.”

“Yeah, well, what can you do?”

It was less than a week later that Kara read the handwriting on the wall and visited my office hour to inform me that she was cutting her losses and dropping my compressed algebra class.

“I could really use the time better on my other courses, Dr. Z. The class goes too fast and it's hard to understand.”

“That's a perfectly reasonable decision, Kara. It's important to make the best use of your time. You should do better next semester in a regular section of algebra.” I paused before asking her a question. “Did you talk to your prealgebra instructor before enrolling in my class?”

I deliberately did not mention my colleague's name or otherwise indicate that I had already discussed the matter with her. Kara brightened up immediately.

“Oh, yeah! I did! Turin said I could definitely do well in your class. She said I was all ready for it, but I guess things just didn't quite work out as we had expected.”

My eyebrows wanted to go up and my eyeballs wanted to bulge out, but I think I managed to control my facial features and maintain a mien of serenity.

“Well, yes, Kara. Things didn't work out this time. Better luck next time.”

After Kara left my office, I stalked the hallways looking for my colleague. Turin was in her office. I recounted my conversation with her former student. She was dumbfounded.

“That doesn't sound anything like the conversation we had. I tried really hard to warn her she was making a mistake!”

We considered the matter for a while. Clearly Kara had a ferociously effective data filter that allowed only good news to impinge on her consciousness. Since it is Professor Turin's nature to be encouraging and as positive as possible, I was certain she had sprinkled her cautions with snippets of praise that had been the only things Kara had heard. Eventually, Turin reconstructed her comments and we identified Kara's post-production editing.

What Turin said:

“You're a good prealgebra student, Kara, but Dr. Z's compressed algebra class would be a tough challenge. I'm certain a regular algebra class would be perfect for you.”

What Kara heard:

“You're a good prealgebra student, Kara, but Dr. Z's compressed algebra class would be a tough challenge. I'm certain a regular algebra class would be perfect for you.”

There's no simple cure for this. Certainly Turin isn't suddenly going to stop offering her students positive feedback, even if only as mitigating factors in a negative review. Equally certainly, Kara is not going to stop selectively hearing what she wants to hear. I fear the set of solutions may be the empty set.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Publish and perish?

Wisconsin GOP channels Joe McCarthy

There's this history professor back at the University of Wisconsin, ensconced in an endowed chair at the Madison campus. He decided it would be nice to start a modest little blog. He even had a catchy title: “Scholar as Citizen.” You can already see that it was a fail-safe proposition. Soon the hit-meter would be recording Internet traffic on a gargantuan scale. No doubt.

He posted his first blog entry on March 15, not even a couple of weeks ago. Its title was as irresistible as the name of his blog: Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (I've probably lost you now; the title is so seductive you've certainly already clicked on the link.) The inevitable happened: over half a million hits in a handful of days.

I am so jealous.

But I don't envy what happened next. The Wisconsin Republican Party decided that UW Madison's Bill Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies, is a dangerous radical who must immediately be stifled into silence—even, ideally, hounded from academia. The state GOP filed an open-records request with UW demanding access to Professor Cronon's e-mail, hoping to find something embarrassing if allowed to root through his archives. (Remember, a handful of words in a private e-mail can be inflated into an international scandal if ideologues are willing to clutch their pearls and shriek in affected outrage; the ginned-up “Climategate” furor proved that.)

Cronon has published his own detailed commentary on the Republican fishing expedition, correctly pointing out its McCarthyist antecedents and winkling out the purely political motivations of the GOP's incipient smear campaign by closely reading the text of the Republicans' open-records request. He declines to be intimidated.

Smart ALEC

Cronon's greatest sin appears to have been his discussion of the American Legislative Exchange Council. What, you've never heard of ALEC? As Cronon pointed out in his original post, ALEC much prefers to lurk in the background. Its on-line archive of “model legislation” is not open to the public and membership in ALEC is strictly controlled. (Are you a right-wing elected official or a deep-pockets teabagger with money to contribute? Come on down!)

ALEC drafts legislation which Republicans are wont to introduce in their various state legislatures, pulling ready-made extremist boilerplate off the ALEC shelf to add to their bill drafts. It's like “writing” a term paper by downloading an Internet document, except that technically it's not plagiarism. ALEC is eager for legislators to attempt to enact the components of its political program.

While ALEC tries to hide in the shadows, its influence on public policy is potentially revealed whenever its model legislation is actually published as a legislator's introduced bill. Cronon was rude enough to connect the dots and expose ALEC's influence in recent Republican legislation, especially in Wisconsin. But ALEC's close-mouthed membership and blocked website prevent the average citizen from peeking at the man behind the curtain. What else might these right-wing ideologues have in store for us? How can we find out? Must we wait till the legislation actually appears?

I may be able to help a little. You see, I have a copy of ALEC's Source Book of American State Legislation. It's in the form of a small paperback that I glommed onto while working as a legislative aide in Sacramento, where some ALEC-friendly Republicans were pushing draconian tax-cutting measures like the infamous Proposition 13 and the subsequent (and lesser-known because it failed) Proposition 9. I no longer recall precisely how I acquired it (my boss was hardly likely to have been one of ALEC's favorites), but I suspect I picked it up out of curiosity from the discard pile outside a Republican legislator's office and decided to keep it.

The book begins by offering a bogus quote from Abraham Lincoln, the long-since refuted litany that begins, “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.” Perhaps it's significant that ALEC's book opens with a hoax, especially given the hollow-shell justifications of Republican politicians who claim that collective bargaining must die if workers are to prosper. I presume they will soon introduce measures to establish more prisons and workhouses to manage the poor.

Is the old ALEC paperback out-of-date and of little use to us today? I think not. Although it carries a publication date of 1980, the 92-page booklet is oracular in its contents. The nutcase wet-dreams of yesteryear are the standard policy planks of today's teabagger politicians. Here, for your edification, is a sampler of the Source Book's list of model legislation. The headings are from the booklet and the descriptions are excerpted from the actual text. A few may seem like motherhood and apple pie (both of which, come to think of it, are now more controversial than they used to be), but there are some real nuggets of crazy in here. The first item is especially pertinent (complete with Wisconsin reference!).

Controlling the Bureaucracy

Public Services Protection Act. The suggested Public Services Protection Act prohibits contractual agreements between all governmental subdivisions of the state and any public employee union or association. This prohibition safeguards against the incidence of public employee strikes which are inseparable from the collective bargaining process and present a danger to the health, safety and general well-being of all state residents. Since 1959, when the first compulsory public sector bargaining legislation was enacted in Wisconsin, there has been a dramatic increase in public employee unionization and in the incidence of public employee strikes.

Enterprise Zone Act. The suggested Enterprise Zone Act establishes a mechanism for the establishment of enterprise zones—areas of inadequate population and limited economic activity which have been released from most government controls and regulations in order to promote economic and population revitalization.

Fiscal Responsibility

Tax Limitation—State Constitutional Amendment.. To prevent taxes from increasing year after year, a state constitutional amendment has been suggested that would limit the total amount of taxes that can be imposed by the state. The tax revenue limit would be an appropriate percentage of total annual personal income in the state, and has ranged between 6 per cent and 14 per cent in those states where the amendment has been proposed.

Spending and Debt Limitation Amendment. The suggested Spending and Debt Limitation Constitutional Amendment would limit the growth of state spending to the estimated growth of the state economy as established by law.

Death Tax Reform Act. The suggested Death Tax Reform Act remodels the state estate tax computation system. Reform of this system is necessary in order to ease some of the financial burden imposed on a decedent's estate, thus providing that more of the value of the estate be passed on to family and other heirs. [Various thresholds on estate taxes protect families and small businesses, but these are deemed inadequate by those who want to protect inherited wealth by completely eliminating what they insist on calling the “death tax.”]

Fundamental Rights.

The Right to Work Act. The suggested Right to Work Act establishes public policy with respect to compulsory or “closed shop” unionism. The Right to Work Act protects the right of each person to join or decline to join any labor union or association without fear of penalty or reprisal.

Sagebrush Rebellion Act. The suggested Sagebrush Rebellion Act establishes a mechanism for the transfer of ownership of millions of acres of unappropriated public lands from the federal government to the states.

Student Freedom of Choice Act. The suggested Student Freedom of Choice Act would prohibit the collection of mandatory student activity fees in state-operated colleges and universities.

Criminal Justice

Crime Victims Compensation Act. The suggested Crime Victims Compensation Act enables the creation of District Crime Victims Compensation Boards to hear claims and to make monetary awards to innocent persons who suffer catastrophic loss as as result of violent criminal victimization.

Improving Education

Textbook Content Standards Act. The suggested Textbook Content Standards Act establishes the requirement that textbooks and teaching materials adopted for use in public schools accurately portray American history, tradition and values. Abraham Lincoln said, “The philosophy of the classroom today is the philosophy of the government tomorrow.” [There's no citation, of course. Is this another bogus Lincoln quote? If so, how nice to find it in an item about accuracy in textbooks!]

Honor America Act. The suggested Honor America Act requires that all public elementary and secondary school students recite the Pledge of Allegiance during each school day.

Governmental Affairs

Washington, D.C. Amendment Rejection Resolution. The suggested Washington, D.C. Amendment Rejection Resolution provides legislatures with a formal method of detailing their reasons for opposition and rejection of the proposed Washington, D.C. Constitutional Amendment. [In other words, the black citizens of D.C. are disenfranchised and we want to keep it that way.]


More American Energy Program. Tight supplies of crude oil and refined petroleum products have stirred a great deal of interest in the increased production of domestic conventional fuels and the development of alternate fuels and renewal energy resources. [This entry starts off well, outlining a seemingly reasonable program of tax incentives for solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energy projects. It includes elimination of redundant bureaucratic regulation—sounds good, but could mean deregulation in practice—and one-stop permit processes. Then comes the next “reform,” which is the poison pill in the mix.] Requirement that state departments of energy regulations and standards meet, but not exceed in restrictiveness, those required by the Federal Clean Air Act of 1977. [ALEC loves states' rights except when California enacts stricter air standards than those promulgated by the feds. Right.]


Voluntary School Prayer Resolution. Resolved, by the Legislature of [name of state], each house concurring, that this legislature respectfully urges the Congress of the United States to propose a constitutional amendment authorizing the several states to enact legislation permitting voluntary, non-denominational prayer in their public schools.

Plus ├ža change

As you can see from the above compendium, ALEC's 1980 legislative program is not only alive and well, much of it is already embodied in measures introduced or enacted across the country. It was impolitic of Prof. Cronon to point this out. He dared teach us some contemporary history. By the terms of ALEC's accuracy-in-education standards, he would have been well advised to concentrate on adumbrating our nation's Christian heritage and the anti-union convictions of the Founding Fathers.

Let us all be grateful that he didn't!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why wait till 2012?

The San Francisco Chronicle's “Bad Reporter,” Don Asmussen, neatly pots the crazy Minnesota congresswoman with an anticipatory cartoon. I'm just concerned it will give Bachmann ideas. Run for president a year early? It's just crazy enough to work!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another non-miracle miracle

Get well, Allen Wright

I hope Allen Wright beats the odds and experiences a full recovery from the hit-and-run accident that put him in the hospital on Sunday, March 13. He's the teenager who received some previous publicity for his invention of “A Note to God,” an iPhone application that delivers messages to ... well, no one. However, users of the application get to enjoy sharing their prayers anonymously with other believers (and only God will know who they are). It hardly seems necessary to acquire an iPhone app to send God little notes, but what-the-hey, it's a digital age.

Anyway, today's headlines report that Allen is out of the eight-day coma that followed the accident and he is responding—apparently with some comprehension—to family members and medical personnel. It's a very encouraging sign.

But it's not a miracle, despite what some devout people want to believe. Here are some comments posted by believers on the website of the Sacramento Bee:
Miracles do happen...Awesome....

God always has a way of turning a negative situation into a positive one!

My first thought is, "God has answered your letter Allen".

It's a miracle from god that he brought Mr. Wright out of his coma.

to God be the glory! Yes, there is power in prayer. And I guarantee, that every one of you reading this post, would begin praying when ANY family or friend becomes ill or experiences an accident.

That news gave me the chills. What an awesome God we have.

Divine Intervention.
Did the “awesome God” who allowed Allen to wander into the path of a speeding car decide to tidy up his own mess and divinely intervene to restore his victim to consciousness? Did he repent of his plan to take out the boy who was spamming him? The Bee tells a slightly different story. The doctors at Mercy San Juan Medical Center injected Allen with drugs to deepen his trauma-induced coma. It was an attempt to protect the patient by reducing brain swelling, giving him time to heal without suffering the additional trauma that brain-swelling would induce. After one week, the doctors withdrew the sedatives. Within hours, Allen opened his eyes.

Not exactly a miracle, but still an encouraging sign. He then demonstrated that he could respond to questions by sticking out his tongue. Quoted in the Bee, neurologist Kavian Shahi said, “One of the most important things we like to see from patients is whether they follow commands. It indicates they can understand language and react to language. It takes a lot of brain power to do that.”

The Bee reporter asked Dr. Shahi if Wright's awakening was aided by the prayers offered up on his behalf. The doctor gave a discreet response:
“Sometimes I think it does. Sometimes I think it doesn't,” he said. “I don't actively encourage it. But in my opinion, it never hurts to pray.”

No, it never hurts to pray. I encourage all believers to do so regularly. It keeps them out of trouble and out of our way. Praying for Allen isn't going to do him any good, but it might calm the nerves of those who pray. I guess that's good. Sort of.

Allen's brain, which probably still thinks there is a God, may be on the mend. Let's hope so. But I won't bother to pray.

Allen Wright's recovery, whether complete or partial, is certain to be difficult and probably lengthy and expensive. A fund has been set up: Allen Wright's Foundation for a Better Life, Wells Fargo, 6047 Sunrise Boulevard, Citrus Heights, CA 95610.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Scholastic solidarity

On the ramparts

I am a math teacher.

I teach in a public school.

I am a union member.

All of these things are good things, at least in my opinion. I realize that some people think otherwise. First of all, math is clearly an unpopular subject, despite its beauty and utility. When you admit to being a math teacher to a stranger, prepare to hear, “Oh, I could never do math” or “Math was my worst subject in school.” You will surely die of asphyxiation if you hold your breath waiting for the first person to say, “Math was my favorite subject!” They are few and far between.

Then there are those people who snidely refer to “government schools” when speaking of public educational institutions, as if they are somehow inherently inferior to private or sectarian schools. Actually, when you allow for our non-selective open-admission policies, we do pretty well. Our best students are as good as any you'll find anywhere else. Our worst have no counterparts at the private schools because they were never allowed in in the first place—but we do the best we can to help them anyway.

And the people who say “government schools” don't seem especially to mind driving on “government roads” or eating “government approved” food or drinking “government filtered” water.

Finally, of course, there's that business about union rapacity and the efforts of union members to destroy our way of life...

Excuse me? What folks so fondly imagine as “our way of life” is a union product. Really!

Look for the union label, idiots!

The forty-hour work week? Paid vacations? Who invented those? Not the robber barons. Not the corporate executives. Civilized work hours and reasonable recreation periods are the result of union efforts and collective bargaining.

Want to go back to the “good old days” before unions? Good luck! Planning to take your kids with you and put them to work to support you? (Those child-labor laws are so restrictive! Five-year-olds used to be really useful in those factories!)

The supposedly liberal mainstream media does a pretty lousy job of covering stories about labor unions and working conditions. Look how supinely they parrot right-wing smears: Why call an upset teacher a “union demonstrator” when you can call her a “union thug”? Why refer to a union executive as a “union leader” when you can tag him as a “union boss”? I once wrote a letter to my local paper to complain about a reference to “union bosses” in what was supposed to be a straightforward news report. Why, I asked, are my elected union officials being described as “bosses,” as if to suggest criminality and racketeering? The newspaper published my letter, but I've never seen any improvement in its coverage.

Sometimes I get snarky comments from acquaintances (seldom from friends, since I avoid making friends with idiots) who whine about the cushy jobs that teachers have. They tend to focus on things like summer vacation (we don't get paid for summer months, you know) and supposedly short hours (as if we're off the clock when our in-class hours are done). They look at a fifteen-unit load and express amazement that we work “only” fifteen hours per week. (Like I said: idiots.) They have no clue at all.

When they tell me I get too much time off, I tell them they get too little. Get a union, I suggest.

Of course, a lot of us still have to work during those summer “vacations” to make ends meet. Perhaps our rapacious union reps didn't extract as many concessions as the uninformed segment of the public thinks. Time to take to the streets again!

See more at Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions! Thanks to Steve Lazar for kicking this off.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lumpers and splitters

Considering a “stupiphany”

The secondary school math curriculum used to be extremely predictable in the middle decades of the twentieth century. High school freshmen took elementary algebra, sophomores enrolled in geometry, juniors refreshed and extended their first-year curriculum with intermediate algebra, and college-prep seniors took trigonometry. That's just the way it was in many places across the United States (and certainly when I was in high school).

Eventually, though, many changes occurred. While that old-fashioned core curriculum survives in many ways, it certainly drifted. Algebra trickled down into middle school and high school seniors started taking introductory calculus (or something called “analysis”). Perversely, however, the old high school courses also migrated into the college curriculum, where we originally called them “remedial” and then relabeled them with the less pejorative “developmental” tag. I think that such remedial courses used to be the province of what we call “continuation” high schools, but today most developmental math is taught in community colleges. My college, for example, teaches more developmental math than anything else. We even teach basic arithmetic to those who failed to learn it in elementary school.

And we teach developmental math over and over and over again to students who fail it the first, second, or even third time. Success rates hover between fifty and sixty percent for most of the classes, indicating the degree of recycling that goes on. It's maddening to both students and instructors.

Most of my colleagues in the math department know the secrets to success in a math class. In fact, they're hardly secrets because we share them constantly with our students: attend class regularly, pay attention, study the material, do the homework, and ask for help when you're stuck. While luck plays a role (catastrophic illness, financial distress, and family emergencies can derail anyone), most student failure is based on the neglect of those fundamental guidelines.

Of course, we don't just enunciate the principles of successful math learning and then sit back and wait for our students to succeed. We try to meet them halfway (or more than halfway). We offer tutoring centers, accommodations for learning disabilities, on-line support, and different course formats. These days the traditional classroom-based lecture class is often supplemented with on-line instruction or hybrid classes that combine in-class and on-line elements. Students may be able to enroll in self-paced computer-based math labs, too.

And then there are the “splits,” which try to slow down the pace of the curriculum by slicing the courses in half. Students having trouble with our one-semester elementary algebra might be permitted to take half of the course during fall semester and the second half during spring. You can spot these courses in college catalogs where they bear labels like “Algebra 1A” and “Algebra 1B.” Many schools have even done this with arithmetic. You can struggle during the fall to learn your times table and save fractions till spring.

I wish I were kidding, but I exaggerate only slightly.

Guess what? The students who enroll in the splits aren't particularly more successful than those enrolled in regular lecture classes, on-line classes, or math labs. Are we rescuing a few additional students with each new approach, or would they do as well (or as badly) if we just ushered them all into a classroom and made them sit in rows?

I believe we do achieve some marginal additional success with the multiple formats because students do learn in different ways and one-size-fits-all is almost never true. Still, I wish the benefits were more than marginal.

This reflection on student success and failure in developmental math was stimulated by a recent post by a pseudonymous community college dean. “Dean Dad” traveled to California last month to attend the San Diego meeting of the League for Innovation in the Community College. He was particularly struck by the remarks of a Bay Area faculty member:
Prof. Myra Snell, from Los Medanos, coined a wonderful word: “stupiphany.” She defined it as that sudden realization that you were an idiot for not knowing something before. The major “stupiphany” she offered was the realization that the primary driver of student attrition in math sequences isn’t any one class; it’s the length of the sequence. Each additional class provides a new exit point; if you want to reduce the number who leave, you need to reduce the number of exit points. If you assume three levels of remediation (fairly standard) and one college-level math class, and you assume a seventy percent pass rate at each level (which would be superhuman for the first level of developmental, but never mind that), then about 24 percent will eventually make it through the first college-level class. Reduce the sequence by one course, and 34 percent will. Accordingly, she’s working on “just in time” remediation in the context of a college-level course. There is definitely something to this.
Um. Under the given assumptions, I can't fault the math (0.704 = 0.2401 and 0.703 = 0.343), but it is just a tiny bit simplistic. If we squeeze all the remediation into one course, then we'll be rewarded with a 49% overall success rate at the end of the college-level course. Yay!

Except that it certainly wouldn't work.

This is a classic optimization problem—the kind that you see in calculus. Two countervailing factors have to be balanced in order to achieve the best possible outcome. For example, if you want to enclose the maximum possible rectangular area with a given length of fence, you have to balance the contributions of length and width, because one can be increased only at the expense of the other—yet both contribute equally to area. (Thus the ideal figure turns out to be a square. Big surprise!)

In the case of developmental math classes, the splits offer more failure opportunities. On the other hand, they reduce the curriculum to bite-size chunks that more students might be able to master. The more you cram into a course, the more likely the students are to be overwhelmed. The trade-offs are rather obvious.

(Frankly, I prefer that split classes be taught at the same pace as regular classes, because stretching them out to semester length attenuates the reinforcement that most students need. At the halfway point the successful student moves on to the second-half split while the unsuccessful student repeats the first-half class without having to wait till the next term.)

I don't think that Prof. Snell's “stupiphany” is quite as significant as suggested by Dean Dad, although I presume her presentation would be more nuanced at greater length than it is in a one-paragraph summary. (She did, apparently, couch her presentation in terms of timely intervention.) The tension between length of sequence and course content will continue. The experiments will certainly continue. In fact, I can even tell you the direction in which they will go. The splitters having had their day, the lumpers anticipated Snell's observation and are putting accelerated curriculum into place. Courses are being designed and curriculum is being implemented. Hang on to your hat as developmental math tries to speed up.

That's probably a future post.

Friday, March 11, 2011

There ought to be a law

Does tea cloud the mind?

California has been the beneficiary of a series of wet winter storms that dumped snow in the mountains and rain into rivers. After a period of drought, the water is welcome. Nevertheless, we did get used to the advantages of dry weather and heavy rains create circumstances to which we had grown unaccustomed. Various school districts in central California had to cancel classes or postpone the start of the school day to deal with flooded roads.

Apparently most of the school districts have adopted a code system. Parents need only know that it's going to be, for example, an "A" day if classes are cancelled and a "B" day if there's a one-hour delay (so don't expect the school bus at the usual time). Of course, that's only one example. An adjacent school district might use "A" to indicate a normal school schedule and "F" to signal cancellation. Each region has its own system.

This irks my mother no end. Given the sprawling size of our family, Mom has grandchildren and great-grandchildren in a variety of school districts. She takes her role as family matriarch quite seriously and keeps an eye on the various weather reports, road-condition alerts, and school-closure bulletins. She takes the patchwork quilt of codes as a personal affront.

“It's so confusing! Everyone should be using the same system! It only stands to reason! Someone should do something about it!”

That's my right-wing mother complaining that no higher authority like the County Board of Education or State Superintendent of Public Education has intervened and imposed uniformity. As a good son (most of the time), I neglected to observe that she normally takes local control as a sacred principle of government and often denounces state regulation as the next thing to socialism. (Dad goes one step further and equates it to communism or Nazism, depending on the nature of Glenn Beck's most recent rant.)

I guess this kind of “socialism” is okay if it advances your convenience. Otherwise it's the gateway to totalitarianism.

Yes, it all makes sense now.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Browser bigamy

Double your pleasure

Firefox knows that I am Zeno, remembers all kinds of things about me in its cookies, and enables me to post blog comments under that name with a minimum of difficulty. I can go traipsing through the ScienceBlogs and the Discover blogs and Facebook with my Internet identity firmly established (an on-line identity, by the way, that actually dates back to the pre-Internet era—no kidding!). My browser's memory preserves my preferences and smooths my on-line excursions.

Except when it doesn't. I need my real-life identity when I check into my faculty website or my personal Facebook page (not to be confused with my blogger Facebook page). Before I hit on a convenient solution, I found myself having to log out of various accounts and log into others. It was a minor nuisance. I especially didn't like it when I would be finishing up a post or comment, only to discover upon trying to publish it that I was operating under the wrong handle. (My students really don't need comments from some stranger named Zeno.)

The solution arose rather naturally. My school district has (big surprise!) standardized on Microsoft Office products, so all of our computers default to Internet Explorer. On my campus computer, therefore, I became accustomed to accessing the college's website using IE. When I finally prevailed upon our microcomputer support people to give me installation rights on my own office computer (not a particularly easy task, by the way), I promptly installed Firefox. While beginning to use it to log in to my favorite sites (like the aforementioned ScienceBlogs, for example), I paused to consider whether to use my real-life persona or my blog identity. Soon I realized it was easy to let Firefox be Zeno's browser while retaining IE as the real-life math professor's browser.

I set up a similar configuration at home. These days it's not unusual for me to have two different browser windows simultaneously open on my desktop. Google Reader tracks my favorite blogs in Firefox while IE keeps an eye on my college pages. Depending on which browser I'm using at the moment, I'm either real-life me or Internet me. I am such a power user!

Um. Not really. A genuine power user would configure different personalities within the same browser program and toggle back and forth at need, but I've never taken the time to learn how to do that. This is as much a story of “good enough for now” as it is a story of browser bigamy. It reminds me of the glory days of Lotus 1-2-3 (remember that?). One of the officers of my local computer club revealed that he didn't have a word processing program. He was using the 1-2-3 spreadsheet to do the job. He'd create wide cells, format them as text, enable word-wrapping, and type each paragraph of his document into different cells. He was very proud of himself, even though it sounded like a cumbersome and jury-rigged system. But what the heck. It worked, and he was comfortable with it. My computer-club colleague and I aren't quite Rube Goldbergs, but we have our delusions of adequacy.

Speaking of which, now it's time for me to pop over to my IE window. I just graded an exam and discovered that one of my chronic underachievers didn't bother to show up to take it. Zeno can't drop him from the class roster, but real-life math professor can!