“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

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.

Continue reading

Mailbag: STEM Stereotypes, Intellectual Inadequacy, and the Crocodile Tears of the Math Student

Every so often, I comb through the Google search terms that have led people to my blog. Then I reply to them as if they were letters. It’s a thing.

Q: top 100 romantic kiss photographs?

A: You must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere on the internet. Common mistake. Just reverse course and keep walking until you see a sign marked “Buzzfeed.”

Q: I feel inadequate that ive never taken high math.

A: In reply, anonymous sir or madam, I invite you to meditate on the opening lyrics from Disney’s masterpiece The Lion King:

From the day we arrive on the planet
and blinking, step into the sun
There is more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done…

This year I learned (or tried learning) to play the guitar, to rock-climb, and to write fiction. Next year I hope to travel, cook, and read more graphic novels. In college I studied cosmology, constitutional law, and evolutionary psychology. As a good friend recently told me, “You’re a dabbler at heart.”

But man, the things I haven’t learned yet! Continue reading

I think the SAT’s scoring system is gibberish.

Two weeks back, I wrote a piece at Slate (edited by the wonderful Laura Helmuth) arguing that the SAT should stop giving different scores to virtually identical performances. In particular, I advocate a switch from increments of ten (500, 510, 520…) to increments of fifty (500, 550, 650…).

The basic argument is simple: Reporting “510” and “520” as distinct scores suggests that they’re meaningfully different. They aren’t. When you retake the SAT, your score typically fluctuates 20-30 points per section on the basis of randomness alone. A 510 and a 520 are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.

I’ve seen lots of thoughtful counterarguments to my piece—some strong, some weak, some dripping with that mucus-like film of nastiness that coats internet comment sections.

Now—to reply! Continue reading

Star Trek with Bad Drawings (by me, age 6)

EDIT: Apparently this is my 100th post! This blog has gotten a totally implausible 1.9 million views in its first year. Thanks so much for reading. Today, I pay tribute to my 6-year-old self by showing his bad drawings to the world as well.

I found these drawings in the basement of my childhood home. Apparently by age 6, I had already achieved 95% of my current drawing abilities, as well as developed into a pretty serious Trekkie.

I’m traveling right now, so rather than rap about math education, I’ll take this post to reflect on Star Trek villains. Don’t worry: my thoughts are as clever and provocative as my drawings are beautiful.

star trek - borg ship

Apparently my phonetic interpretation of “Borg” didn’t require an “r.”

The Borg were cyber-zombies, half-robot and half-humanoid. At age 6, they terrified me. They kind of still do. Continue reading

Math is always hard… until it isn’t.

Learning new math is always scary. It may feel opaque, frustrating, contextless—the playing field is changing beneath your feet, and you’re not sure you know the rules anymore.

But you’ve been here before. Look back to something you can now do without thinking—chances are that at one point, you didn’t find it quite so easy.

Math can go from “impossible” to “obvious” much faster than you think. What now seems inscrutable will one day be quite scrutable indeed. Have faith, struggling students: It’ll All Make Sense Someday.

Continue reading