Saturday, September 17, 2011

Math Rant: College Professors

The subject of this particular rant is a few years behind me, but the effects linger. And now, the horrors are being inflicted on my former students, and it's enough to make me want to inflict something of my own—a forceful *headdesk* on the perpetrators.

Through my undergrad and graduate schooling, I encountered a number of college mathematics professors. Here are two facts:

#1 Many of them are absolutely brilliant mathematicians.

#2 Hardly any of them can teach to save their lives.

I even had a few classmates who were likely to join their ranks in the future. Kids who could do multi-variable calculus without breaking a sweat and thought abstract algebra was a great weekend activity. Kids who could not teach it.

Make no mistake. Doing math and teaching math are two entirely different skill sets. Thing is, the teaching skill requires the doing skill, and then some. (Do I get tetchy with the old "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" line? Don't get me started.)

A former student came by to visit the school the other day and we chatted about how her first semester at a new college is going. Because she has issues with test-taking, she didn't do so hot on her placement exam, which landed her in a math class that's dirt-simple for her. She understands the material, but then the teacher goes and confuses her by insisting she use his methods, which she didn't understand. She tried to ask a question to clarify, and he cut her off.

Okay, this particular girl is very assertive and kind of blunt, so maybe she could have handled the exchange better. I don't know—I wasn't there. Then there's the fact that he tried to hold her interpreter back after class to talk to the interpreter about the student needing an attitude adjustment. (Grr... don't get me started on that, either. That's a rant for another time.)

Bottom line, this student didn't expect the same kind of bend-over-backwards-to-help teaching she got in high school. She just wanted to understand.

If there's one thing I remember about several of my college math classes, it was the clear undercurrent: If you don't understand the magic I'm performing on this blackboard, it's your own fault, because you must be too stupid to grasp it. No one ever said it in words, but you felt it.

Thankfully, they're not all like that. I found a handful who didn't just want to get their teaching hours out of the way so they could get back to their "real" work. The kind you could ask a question, and they didn't just repeat their last two statements. They elaborated on the in-between step, or what justified some conclusion.

If you find college math professors like that, add them to your Christmas card list for life. They're rare, but they're also golden.


Francesca Zappia said...

Oh God, do I understand this. My Calculus professor is absolutely brilliant, but he goes through things so fast that half the class doesn't even realize he's gone through a section of the book until he's already on to the next one. Luckily I took AP Calc in high school and I already know most of what he's teaching, but most of the rest of my classmates (the ones who aren't the brilliant, 'multi-variable calculus is fun!' students) are left in the dust.

R.C. Lewis said...

So glad I'm not alone in this, Francesca. :)

I mean, I *do* think math is fun, and I think that attitude helps my students feel like it's more approachable. But especially because my priority is making sure they understand, even if I have to explain the same thing four different ways.

(And believe me, coming up with the third or fourth way to explain can really make my brain hurt.)

Big Brother Mike said...

You briefly touched on something that maybe is also a more significant factor... Language barrier. Now in the example mentioned, clearly the student (and interpreter) worked to some end to try to overcome that. Then I think about my experience at then-UVSC with Asian math teacher Ya Li. I don't doubt that she was excellent at College Algebra, but English was clearly not her first language. Several student and I would stare blankly at the board and try to figure out the steps and process just from what was there.

Even when we could understand her, I think she still lacked teaching experience to be an effective teacher. This could be because she may have had difficulty learning to be a teacher from non-Asian professors.

R.C. Lewis said...

Generally, yes, that's definitely a possible factor. I remember in one of my classes, I was lucky to figure out the professor was basically reciting the textbook, because understanding through the accent didn't work so well.

In this particular situation, the student is a "talker," so the language barrier for her was reduced from what it might have been.

Masako Moonshade said...

*shudder* The same here. At the school I attend, we've got a particular class that all liberal arts majors have to pass in order to graduate. 75% of them fail the first time, and that's an optimistic that considers everybody that got private tutoring or had a predisposition for math. Part of the problem is that it's taught in a way that a lot of us can't understand-- they give us crap about marbles and playing cards, when we understand the same concepts perfectly when they're talking about human beings (calculating a 35-year-old woman's probability of getting breast cancer, as opposed to calculating her probability of drawing a red marble out of a bag. Somehow the difference in framing actually changes how well Lib.Arts majors answer. Guess which one's on the test.)

It doesn't help that, at my school, at least, they'll cram hundreds of these lost and confused students in with a single prof.

R.C. Lewis said...

Ooh, *shudder*, Moon.

That randomly reminded me of one of my courses—it was either multi-variable calc or differential equations. Half the students were engineering majors, and the other half were math ed majors (like me).

That teacher was actually one of the pretty good ones, but the poor guy didn't have a chance. Every time one of the math ed majors asked why something worked, the engineers protested that they just wanted to know how to use it.