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comment by Devac
Devac  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  parent  ·  post: Pubski: August 23, 2017


I'm tasked with helping two other undergrads get their calculations and theory straight. It pains me to say it, but the contrast between normal and individual track on physics is just staggering. I wouldn't say that it feels like putting someone from AP course into a remedial class, but it's close at times. One knows almost nothing about the group theory so while I was explaining that, the other took those two hours to attempt solving a filtered diffraction problem. Note the 'attempt', it was wrong and he couldn't see why. So there was more explaining to him while the other one was solving group theory problems I left her. Again, not without mistakes but with a depressing lack of rigour.

I spent about forty hours in total (last and this week) on helping them and I only feel more and more like an arse. It takes conscious effort to not ask either of them "what were you doing for the past two years?" It's exhausting on every possible level. I have to take my own work to home with me. There's not a single twenty-minute span in time when I can focus on it without them orbiting around.

Is that a glimpse into the world of a PhD student?


Postwar was depressing. And intriguing. In an unexpected way, it was uplifting. I would even go as far as to say fascinating and worth revisiting. Which brings me to a few questions: How the hell is it even possible for teachers to make history boring?! Are they required to complete something akin to kolinahr before taking a class on their own? The contrast between history in school and history told, apparently, anywhere else is simply mind-boggling.

The rest goes slowly, but consistently, forward. Hindered by the stuff I talked about earlier. I might have to go the audiobook route.

lm  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Unfortunately, most students haven't been taught mathematics well at any point in their lives. The week before the fall semester starts I teach an algebra review class to incoming freshmen, and I'm amazed at how poor some of their math skills are (for example, confused why 1/x + 1/y is not 1/(x + y), or reducing (5 + x) / (5 + y) to x / y).

It's a travesty that students can get this far in life without really understanding what's going on, but I don't think it's all their fault either.

Fortunately, they have you! Better late than never, as they say. So here's my advice on teaching mathematical rigor to people:

1. Be as excited as you can be. Rigorous argument is not necessarily the most enthralling of things, but people pick up on whether you care about something and that can make a big difference in their opinion of the topic.

2. Be patient. You've, perhaps subconsciously, spent years developing the understanding you have of the subject; they have not. That can change, but it won't happen right away.

3. Ask them questions. Building connections between ideas might come naturally to you, but it does not to everyone. Try to nudge them to see relationships between things, even if you/they don't fully explore that relationship and why it exists right away. Walk them through your process of seeing why a solution is right or wrong.

4. Think about what guides your intuition for problems and explain what you can of that process.

kleinbl00  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    1. Be as excited as you can be. Rigorous argument is not necessarily the most enthralling of things, but people pick up on whether you care about something and that can make a big difference in their opinion of the topic.

This is so important. My precalc instructor was boring AF and I remember none of it. My DiffEQ instructor got so carried away that the prof next door would come over and tell him to stop banging on the chalkboard. As a result, I think DiffEQ is the fundamental magic that makes the world go 'round.

veen  ·  301 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Well, that's also because engineering is like 50% differential equations. My diff course was pure math and zero applications and it was the. absolute. worst.

kleinbl00  ·  301 days ago  ·  link  ·  

It's funny because mine was math so pure that the final was

"Imagine a function that does xxxxxxxxxxx. What would happen if

A) yyyy?

B) zzzz?

C) ppp ddd qqq?"

No numbers. Fuckin' essay-style with roll-your-own functions and derivation. It was eye-poppingly hardcore.

The rate of attrition in that class was such that 15% of the people who started it finished it. I got a 25% on the one assignment he gave all quarter and immediately asked him what I could do to resurrect my grade. he said "relax! You were in the top 20%!"

When all of us were heads down and desperate on that final he said "if you take it home and study I will give you an A."

Fuckin' A I'll bet I could teach Diff EQ even now and it's been 20 years. That class was goddamn amazing.

veen  ·  301 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Maybe it was my professor - he was basically like "here's a Laplace and this is how you calculate a Wronskian so go do that now okthxbai". He never explained why things were done that way properly, so I had to resort to fucking Khan Academy more than once to understand what was happening.

kleinbl00  ·  301 days ago  ·  link  ·  
Devac  ·  301 days ago  ·  link  ·  
This comment has been deleted.
Devac  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Thanks. I'm trying. Believe me, I'm doing my best here. I've been tutoring people for quite a while and I agree with all that you've said. I'm excited, doing what I can to be patient and try to prompt them where and what questions one should ask. There's some improvement already. It's just tiring.

But there is a massive problem where I don't know if I can give them a boost: my track was thrown into the deep water from the start. From the day one, I was solving problems that were too hard for me by design. I once described to you what I was doing as a freshman:

Tackling problems on your own, without having to be prompted, takes years of practice and some mental independence. I can give them the gist, and I will, but it's an entirely different way of thinking about tasks. Sorry for being on a Star Trek reference binge, but this whole assignment feels to me like Kobayashi Maru test. The teacher must experience futility and yet remain optimistic.

Do note that I have never said I'm giving up on them. It just seems like no matter what I do it feels half-arsed and exhausting.

lm  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Yep, it is exahusting especially if, like me, you're an introvert and any kind of interaction with people takes energy. On top of that, it's unlikely that you'll really see the fruits of your work -- the foundation you build with them now won't really begin to show until they build on it in higher-level classes (and maybe even projects/work after they graduate).

Since I stuck around at the same university for undergrad and grad school, I've had the pleasure of running into senior students that I tutored or taught when they were freshmen and having them tell me just how much they benefited from my efforts. That's one of the best feelings in the world.

So, keep at it! Things may seem futile now, but in the (very) long run they will be better people because of you.

veen  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Do they not teach the trick to expand 5x to xxxxx? I still use that whenever I'm in doubt.

A few years ago I tutored high school kids in math and physics and I wholly agree with your points. I had a few strategies that worked well depending on the kind of student. One was to break a problem into its smallest constituents, to ask basic questions about those problems (which they usually got right) and to then assemble it into a bigger picture.

Another is to attack a problem like you're Sherlock: what do we have here, and what do you know about problems that look like this? In my opinion, getting a student from doing math to understanding math is by asking the why question again and again and patiently teaching them the underlying fundamental principles.

lm  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I think the formatting engine got both of us on mathematical notation =]

mk, we really need a TeX math mode so I can stun you all with my abuse of fonts, font faces, superscripts, subscripts, and various brackets and unpronuncable symbols!

kleinbl00  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    How the hell is it even possible for teachers to make history boring?!

The more controversial a subject, the more abstractly it is taught. The more recent a subject, the less it is taught. Armenian genocide was 100 years ago and the quickest way to start a gunfight in Glendale, CA is to say it never happened out loud. Judt writes about the Yugoslavian conflict in Postwar and says, in no uncertain terms, that it's the Serbians' fault. Try that in high school and you're making the national papers. I mean, here it is, 150 years after it happened, and we've got people being murdered over whether or not confederate monuments are consolation trophies for losing slavers or commemorations of the noble sacrifices of a proud antebellum culture.

The personal cosmology of most humans organizes history into "who are villains" and "who are heroes" and teaching history is extraordinarily boring when you're making every possible effort not to aid and abet that effort.

And if you aid and abet that effort you get fired.

veen  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

what do you mean Postwar "was" depressing

I was gonna boast about how I read 290 pages in 8 days. But as the Dutch saying goes, there's always a bosses' boss.

Devac  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Don't beat yourself over it. I read fast and need less sleep than most people. Plus the notion of history not being a slog through dates and unconnected remarks is so new to me that I'm going through this stuff on sheer novelty and enthusiasm alone.

veen  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I am also surprised by how much I'm enjoying reading this one. Usually, the audiobooks I read are 8-12 hours long and anything above that feels like a slog. I'm glad Judt writes as well as his phenomenal longread on Belgium that nobody read here:

Postwar reminds me a lot of what a breeze Destiny Disrupted was, so if you haven't read that one I quite recommend it. It has a bit more name calling than Postwar but it also has a conversational tone throughout.

kleinbl00  ·  302 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Destiny Disrupted is Fred McFriendly's Fun Facts about Founding Friendly Factions compared to Said's Orientalism. Ansary takes the viewpoint "man, you white people sure have fucked up Islamic history" while Said is basically "and you did it deliberately because you crackers be racist."

The problem is Said nails it. You cannot get through that book without some deep introspection. I now feel guilty for liking Kipling.

veen  ·  300 days ago  ·  link  ·  

For the geography majors, Orientalism is required reading. If I did more courses back then I would've already read it, but as of now it's on my reading list.

By the by, would you recommend something like Zinn's A People's History to me? Is it comparable to Postwar? I dropped history halfway through high school so U.S. history was never covered. I'm not sure if Zinn it would be a good introduction.

kleinbl00  ·  299 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Zinn is fast and easy reading. It will give you a perspective on US history that American kids don't get very often.