Mathochism: Brovaluation time

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Between going on vacation and other issues, it took a lot longer than I expected to get an evaluation to the Brofessor. But I finally wrote it, and sent it, and, in a fit of evil, blind-copied the department chair. I do wonder if he is going to answer.

Dear {Name Redacted},
I didn’t get a chance to fill out the evaluation sheet you attached to the final on June 9, so I thought I would e-mail you my feedback now.
Before I begin, let me give you a better idea of why I took your class in the first place. I’m a journalist, and have been writing for various Southern California newspapers for the last 15 years. I have a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College and a master’s from the University of Southern California.

Two years ago, I left a longtime staff position at the Press-Telegram in Long Beach to write a book and freelance. Last year, I decided to improve my web programming skills, and enrolled in computer classes at {college name redacted}.

While I was looking through the course catalogue, I saw that the math department offered high school level math classes. I have been a math phobe since junior high school, not only hating math but also fearing it. My math phobia has not affected my journalism career, but it killed any early dreams I had of becoming a scientist.

Since my schedule is more flexible now that I’m freelance, I thought I would tackle my math issues directly, and signed up for Pre-algebra. I surprised myself by doing really well, and continued to Algebra. I surprised myself once again, and signed up for Algebra II. By then, I had decided that, as long as I passed and understood the concepts in every course, I would try to see if I could make it through Calculus.

Now I’m not so sure. Though I feel I was able to master most of the new concepts in Algebra II, last semester was often frustrating and disappointing. And frankly, you are the main reason why.

I’ve had enough experience in academia by now to know that my learning style will not always mesh with an instructor’s teaching style, but I believe there is more going on here. Allow me to elaborate:

1) Homework assignments: While I understand why an instructor would assign even as well as odd problems (the solution manuals make it very easy to cheat), it is very frustrating to spend time on dozens of problems every week without having any idea whether you have done them correctly or not. Since you only check to see if a student has done the work, but don’t correct it (and I understand correcting 200+ problems a week from 35+ students is a huge job), your students will never find out if they did okay or not.

Perhaps you would consider handing out a sheet with the answers (not worked out solutions, just the answers) when you return the homework? While I see your point about even problems making a student have to think about whether the answer seems right or not, I would like to point out that, at this very basic level of math, most students have likely not developed that sense yet. Also, in time-consuming problems such as matrices, a simple arithmetic error at the start can derail things very quickly, so having an answer is helpful.

2) The supplement: I understand that this is a department requirement, but it does no good to assign homework on material you have no plans to cover in class. Moreover, it undermines student confidence and makes them feel they’re wasting their time.

3) Returning tests promptly: You often took several weeks to correct tests (and never even returned the chapter 8/9 test to the class). Again, I sympathize with the time it takes to correct them, but if you’re going to expect students to hand in large homework assignments on deadline, it is good policy to meet deadlines yourself.

4) The constant digressions: I am not the only student in your class to find your habit of spending a lot of class time discussing any subject except math difficult to stomach. This became particularly annoying in the night class, where many of the older students have already worked all day at a full-time job, and would rather get through the material quickly so they can go home to their families.

There were several times when you actually stopped in the middle of a problem to do this, and while I understand you were concerned you were losing your audience, I would like to point out that a) these are college students, and if they’re sleeping, that’s their problem and b) for those of us paying attention, the digression simply meant it took twice as long to try and learn the concept. You may know the material, and can drop it and pick it up at any time, but your students may not have that ability.

5) The general lack of enthusiasm for the material: From the very first class, you made it very clear that for you, teaching Algebra II is not enjoyable. Between the rehash of algebra concepts and the subject’s lack of applicability, I can understand your boredom. However, even the most ardent math student is bound to be infected by a teacher’s malaise, and for those students who hate math already, it is an excuse not to even try. I understand that is easy as a teacher to burn out on material, but please try to remember that for your students, it is a one-time experience (or for older returning students, a second time after a long time). Your attitude — every teacher’s attitude — makes a huge difference.

I hope that helps. I also hope you are now happily settled in your new home, and I wish you the best of luck with your actuarial aspirations.
Sincerely,
–A.K. Whitney

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

6 comments

  • Awesome! I hope the department chair takes that letter into consideration when it’s time to distribute courses.

  • That would be great. But I’m not holding my breath.

  • I’m sorry you had such an inadequate professor. I had one like that in high school, but not in college.

  • Oy. I minored in math in college and every math class was a complete bore – and I like math! I spent most of my time staring out the window and wishing I was somewhere else. I’m glad you took the time to delineate his inadequacies, since most college students never take the time. I wish I had written about my professors like you did.

    My first year I spent three hours locked in a tiny room with the smelliest, most unkempt man and nine other math students. He spent the entire class detailing proofs that none us recognized and the only goal we had was to get there first in order to breathe fresh air next to the only window. It was the most nerve-racking experience of my life. I was convinced that I was such a failure for not understanding his lectures, but now I see it was his fault, not mine.

  • Yikes, Grant. That sounds awful. At least he tried to teach, though. Imagine if he’d also kept you trapped in a room for 3 hours talking about his dull life and airing all his opinions on completely non-related topics? You know, kind of like being cornered by the bore at the cocktail party with no escape?

  • Yes, that sounds much worse, though my definition of boring is different from most folks (I like reading dictionaries, for example… yeah, I’m weird).

    It’s amazing that students who pay money and are eager to learn still have to fight so much bullshit to make it happen.

    I just read that your quest has ended – am very sorry to hear that. Just a thought, but a math tutor may be a better option, unless it’s the certification that you’re looking for. Just make sure you find a good one!

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