Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tell me again why we're here

We just hit the midterm yesterday. And I mean we ran right into it like we didn't see it coming. We were just toolin' along, singing in our atonal kind of way with the tune in our head when—BAM!—we smacked full-on into week six. Or is it week five? See? We hit midterm so hard I've lost my ability to count.

I have a classroom gem I would like to share with you. For matters of clarity, please recall that I teach mathematics. Everyone on board? Let's go...

Me: What questions are there on the homework assignment (inside my head voice: that you have had for a week and probably haven't looked at yet) that is due tomorrow?

One of Them (OoT): I'm not sure how to start number three.

FYI: #3. Find all the points on the graph of y=x^2 that are a distance of 1 unit away from the point (1,2).
Me: Hmmm...(thinking about how to nudge OoT along without sharing the answer outright) ...

Another One of Them (AOoT): There's only one.

Me: There is at least one. There are definitely more.

AOoT: Well, sure. If you want to get into the numbers.

Yes, why would we want to do that in this—of all places—a math class?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

FrenchieF, this one's for you

Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them they translate into their own language and forthwith it is something entirely different ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(I wish I could hang this on your office door myself.)

Care to rephrase that?

I was able to hear Dr. Georgia Dunston, Director of the Molecular Genetics core research unit at the National Human Genome Center, speak the other day. She is passionate, brilliant, and driven. As I listened to her talk, I thought how little I would want to be someone who had to say to her, "Sorry, but I'm not done with that task yet."

Her work deals with using information gleaned from the human genome to address health issues. As she tells it, she is still looking for answers to the question she had as a little girl: What makes us different? A fair question, to be sure. What I found interesting, however, was a particular way she had of asking this question during her presentation. Couched in the framework of describing how she started on her career path and life's work, she asked instead "Who do you say I am?"

This stuck with me. Clearly this woman has worked hard to get to where she is today. She has earned degrees and titles and respect and recognition. Her work revolves around the innermost make-up of humans, the DNA and chromosomes and genes (98%+ of which is no different than that of an earthworm). Yet, even with her focus at that level of one's individuality, she phrased her question in terms of how others see her. She didn't simply ask Who am I? Nor did she ask What does this say about who I am? She asked Who do you say I am?

That is more power than I want.

And yet at other times I take the power on and use it so easily I do not recognize that I am wielding it. A different conversation happened the same day, about an hour after the presentation. Our school year has just started. We're not even 10 days into the quarter when I run into the women's assistant basketball coach and academic counselor. I have three of these young women in class. We talked for about 5-10 minutes about these players as students and how they are doing in class. I have to admit that I had little positive to say regarding their classroom performance thus far. While not incapable, I didn't think they were working very hard. I saw no evidence of interest or concern about their assignments. During class, if there is a hum or a murmur of a decidedly non-mathematic bent, it is probably coming from their corner of the room.

And it was oh-so-easy for me to categorize them as immature, and lazy or disengaged instead of simply young and possibly overwhelmed (there was also a dash a miscommunication thrown in). I lumped them in with other students who I believe/-ed were in school because they did not know what else to do and were stuck in a class they could not care less about. I have honest empathy and concern for students show an iota of responsibility for their grades. I have zilch for those who show zilch. I perceived these women to be showing zilch.

On the tail of Dr. Dunston asking Who do you say I am?, I didn't realize my students may have been asking me the same question. And where I shuddered and backed away from answering the former due to her titles and aura/presence, I raced ahead and categorized the latter without a second thought.

The quarter is still so young and I've already learned something. Go figure.

Audio book ad - click on the picture for more detail.
Where would this ad go in a women's room?
Speaking of ad placement, someone wasn't thinking—or were they?

Monday, October 02, 2006

One small word, one huge document

Today's blog is brought to you by the letter 'A'. More specifically, I mean the word 'a' that was not lost in the transmission of the first words from the surface of the moon, spoken by Neil Armstrong. Turns out he didn't flub it and the apparent redundancy in his oft-repeated quote can be chalked up to transmission static. Hmm, I'll be blaming my next mis-step on transmission static. Is this the 1960's version of "the spam filter must've deleted your email message?"

In this same vein, I want to point you to a very cool offer regarding some other words being forgotten, ignored, mangled, warped, bent, and just all-around trod upon. As a collective, these words are known as the Constitution and the Amendments and they're good reading. I have a way cool pocket-size copy of these words, as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and it was (practically) free. For less than a latte, you two can own an ultra-portable copy.

I found my cool book while looking for a small copy of the Bill of Rights (like I couldn't just print myself one, right?) Some enterprising folks out there are selling metal, wallet size Bill of Right plaques. I love the fact that they're metal and sure to set the teeth of any TSA personnel on edge. Since I have been targeted for [ahem] random searching four out of the last five times I've flown, I think this is a great idea. I have been one of the lucky winners of the "back of my hand" special touching. Years of Sesame Street education telling me what to do if ever touched inappropriately have been cast asunder. Listen lady, you touch me with the back of your hand one more time, you're damn right I'm going to request a private room. And there is no way that the TSA's puff machine would ever be put into service if it inadvertently dropped men's pants rather than raised women's skirts as it does its thing in the hunt for explosives. Dumb machine, dumber people.

Somehow, I have digressed. Back to my cool little book. I was flipping through the book and the quotes and anecdotes about long dead men when a blurb on the back catches my eye. I must've been tired because this is what I read:

Which Supreme Court Justice said of obesity, "I know it when I see it"?

I didn't know the who but I knew I couldn't argue with him. Truly a timeless, living document.