The Voldemort of Calculus Classes

This year, I encountered the world’s worst calculus class, a mutant-frog specimen of undergraduate mathematics: UC Berkeley’s Math 16B. It’s an exercise in cynicism; a master-class in spite; a sordid and cautionary tale of everything that can go wrong in curriculum design.

16B is my blood-born nemesis. Neither can live while the other survives. Continue reading

Wealth, Acclaim, and Fancy Catered Lunches (or, Why I’m a Teacher)

Occasionally, friends ask me why I teach.

You could ask the same of any profession. Why did you become a grant-writer, a therapist, a sanitation engineer? Why dentistry? Why human resources? In crude and reductive terms, I see four basic justifications for any vocation:

  1. Compensation. Take air traffic controllers. They work longish hours in a maddeningly stressful workplace, but take home excellent money (over $100,000 per year) and can look forward to a long, well-pensioned retirement.

  1. Perceptions. Compared with air traffic controllers, most professors earn less money. But they draw another sizable benefit: prestige. Humans are social creatures, invested by nature in what others think of us. High status is no small thing.

  1. Quality of life. A pleasant workplace, friendly coworkers, reasonable hours, a short commute—all those little frills around the edges of a job sometimes matter as much as the job itself.

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Ray Bradbury is My Anti-Vonnegut.

My Vonnegut phase lasted from ages 22 to 25. I read every book he’s written, even the crappy ones (hello there, Slapstick). I loved his voice, his humanism, the jokey poetry of his anecdotes. I’d often argue that Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is only his fifth-best book (beaten by Cat’s CradleJailbirdGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater;  and Mother Night).

By the time I hit Breakfast of Champions, though, I’d fallen out of love. His cynicism grew stale, and his dark, dry wit began to feel like knee-jerk pessimism. Vonnegut felt like a guy at a party I’d spent too long talking to. We’d run out of things to say. His negativity was beginning to grate.

So here I am, age 26, in need of a new literary imagination to commune with. I want somebody who, like Vonnegut, writes science fiction but transcends the title “science fiction author.” Somebody with an imagination as vast as Vonnegut’s, with a voice as distinct, but with a poetic idealism to replace Vonnegut’s vernacular realism. Vonnegut growls. I want somebody who sings.

Enter Ray Bradbury.

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