Mad-Lib Mathematics

To start the year, I wanted to see what my students thought of mathematics. Is it pleasure or pain, hobby or hurdle, adventure or adversity? Or is it something else entirely, something that perhaps doesn’t come in alliterative pairs?

So I gave them a survey, asking them to complete the following six sentences.

  • Mathematics is
  • Mathematics is not
  • Mathematics is useful for…
  • Mathematics is useless for…
  • My favorite thing about mathematics is…
  • My least favorite thing about mathematics is…

Their answers spanned the whole spectrum of attitudes, from rapture to resignation, from joyful to jilted. (Apologies for the alliteration; I can’t contain it. Clearly.) Here’s a small sampling selection smattering collection of their answers, in all their silly wit and strange variety.

 

…playing with numbers.

…a long word for “maths.”

…the best!

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The Lesson I Learned from Hating on the SAT’s Guessing Policy

Man—I had a whole, scathing essay written and ready to go.

The title: The SAT Changed Their Guessing Policy to Appear Fairer, But It’s Actually Less Fair. “With the ACT pulling ahead in the admissions test Cola Wars,” I wrote, “I struggle to greet the SAT’s announced changes with anything but cynicism.”

I was halfway into the boxing ring when I realized I was on the wrong side of the fight.

This little fable is about the SAT’s “guessing penalty,” and while it’s a tale full of technicalities, I promise it’ll end with a moral. A moral so obvious, it’s surprising.

Or perhaps vice versa: so surprising, it’s obvious. Continue reading

Elegant, Simple, Coherent, and… Oh Yeah, Totally Wrong

In a Labor Economics class, I had a great TA named Peter. He taught me a deep truth about labor markets: namely, that TAs sometimes teach better than professors.

If people looked like bad drawings, he’d look like this:

He also taught me one of the most enduring lessons I’ve learned about economics, modeling, and the limits of theory to explain the social world.

But the lesson wasn’t about those things. Not explicitly. It was about the minimum wage. Continue reading

Letters from a Calculus Class

Dear Newton,

C’mon, dude. You already get credit for the laws of motion, that cool apple story, and the tasty fig cookies. Let me have this.

-Leibniz

 

Dear Student,

I know it stings to fail a test that badly. But hey, silver lining: you’re so far into the area below the curve that you’re practically an integral.

-Teacher

 

Dear Student,

I’ll put it this way: You don’t seem to understand me yet, but you keep getting closer.

-Limits

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“Dead Poets Society” for Skeptics (or, How to Inspire Your Way into a Godawful Mess)

“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
–Mr. Keating

Last Friday, after a long day walking around London, we ordered curries and sought a little cinematic comfort food. We settled eventually on the quintessential Inspirational Teacher film: Dead Poets Society.

I remembered the movie as fun but philosophically naïve. As guiding principles go, “carpe diem” seems to have all the intellectual heft of a Dos Equis commercial. I mean, I’d love to seize every moment, but when am I supposed to fit in laundry, groceries, and thank-you notes?

As a teacher, I’ve found my work nourishing, and occasionally magical, but never terribly heroic. It’s a quiet, daily grind. So where does Hollywood conjure up these human motivational posters? Isn’t the inspirational teacher just soothing movie gibberish, like talking animal sidekicks, or One True Love? Continue reading