Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Hippie T.A. and The Nuclear Mathematician

In 1974 I was a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. I was working as a teaching assistant and the first semester of the school year was assigned to help teach the Business Calculus class. However, at this 30,000 student diploma factory the actual professor for the class did absolutely nothing. He didn't give any lectures or administer any tests or grade any papers or assign any grades. The entire class was taught and administered by the teaching assistant. That was ok with me. However, the class was held at 8 am Monday thru Friday so it was going to be fun trying to get there.

I had been a T.A. the previous two semesters and was thoroughly fed up with the lack of attention, study, attendance, and every other aspect of the students I had come in contact with. Very little learning was going on at this institution and, it appeared, a whole lot of partying and snoozing through class (especially math class) was going on. Plus, I hated how much time the professors were making the students spend on taking tests. On the part of the students the emphasis seemed to be on getting enough credits to graduate, go home, and get a job. On the part of the faculty the emphasis seemed to be on doing as little work as possible.

So, the first day of class I stood before my new students dressed in Hippie garb with long flowing hair and announced that everyone would be getting A's. I made it clear that they didn't need to attend class to receive an A. Everyone would get an A regardless. However, I also made it clear that those who did attend class would be studying Business Calculus - not reading the school newspaper, chatting, or snoozing.

The students divided along three lines - those who took me at my word and chose not to come to class, those who didn't believe me and came anyway, and those who believed me and really wanted to learn the math. I think the whole thing simultaneously scared and fascinated them so they tended to pay attention just to find out what was going to happen. Anyway, I had about 2/3 turnout on a regular basis and the class was very focused on learning Business Calculus. Except for those few mornings when I would launch into a demonstration of yoga or a tale about some Hippie adventure.

I lived about 25 miles east of Gainesville on Cowpen Lake just off Hawthorne Road. In order to get to class by 8 am I'd have to get up around 5:30 am, row my canoe across the lake, hide it in the bushes, and hitchhike to Gainesville. This proved less arduous than you would expect as I soon had a regular set of commuters who recognized me and picked me up regularly.

This course was a requirement for Business Administration majors and was designed as a "cookbook" approach to Business Calculus. That is, the textbook we were using did not go into the theory at all but simply provided a "use this formula for this type of problem" approach. I could have taught this material to 5th graders who could memorize. We progressed rapidly through the material and some of the students were really getting interested in the math. I started explaining more and more about differential equations - at least as much as I could to students who had never had the Calculus background necessary to understand it.

Everybody, including me, was having fun and learning a lot. The students were turning in their homework on time and correctly done. I was pretty pleased with myself and thought what a great way to teach. A lot of the anxiety students have is, I believe, due to grades. Remove that as a worry and the mind can focus. I think it even carried over into other classes as some students were really worried about flunking out or losing their parents support or whatever if they didn't get an overall C average. Getting an A in math meant they had less anxiety about the other classes and were more focused there as well.

So, everybody was having a gas and learning some math. Toward the end of the semester I had covered the entire textbook and started giving the students harder problems mostly to do with environmental issues but with a business angle. Like, suppose you are the King of Sweden. You know the Swedish fishing fleet can catch so many fish per day. You also know about how many fish are in the schools and their reproductive and natural death rates. How long should the fishing season be in order to simultaneously maximize fishing fleet revenues and minimize damage to the schools of fish ? Or, you're the Governor of Michigan. You know the rate at which water enters Lake Michigan, the rate at which it exits, and the concentration of pollutants in the lake. The EPA is requiring your state to clean up the lake. If you stop polluting today, how many years would it take to satisfy the EPA requirements ? If you gradually reduce emissions from the surrounding factories, how long will it take ? That kind of thing.

I would also bring in guest lecturers on dull days. One morning I met an interesting fellow doing hand stands on the quad. He had fascinating stories so I brought him in to "lecture". He taught the students how to get to India for free, where to go there, and how to live among the people. You should have seen those wide eyed kids - they couldn't believe this was college math class.

The final was held out on the grassy quad. I had promised that if they all did their homework assignments I would teach them to do the series of yoga asanas called the Salutation to the Sun. That morning I had my entire class on hand and, at 8 am, we were gathered out on the lawn in front of the library. There we went through the Salutation to the Sun and everybody got an 'A' on their final exam. I turned in the grade sheet to the Math Department office - all A's in purple ink.

Over the Winter break I hitchhiked to Coconut Grove then bummed a ride on a biplane delivering mail to the Bahamas and got a ride on the mail boat delivering mail to one of the outer islands where I camped out in a stand of coconut trees. Some of this adventure is written up in the story "Satan's Claws".

When I returned from my adventure in the Bahamas I had a note from the Math Department office that they urgently needed to see me. Uh oh. I delivered myself to the office where I was instructed to come back at 3 p.m. as Dr. Bednarek wanted to meet with me. Dr. A. R. Bednarek was the head of the Mathematics Department at the University of Florida at that time. He was a very famous mathematician and had worked on the development of the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

I returned at 3 and, immediately upon entering the lushly carpeted large office and closing the door behind me I was bombarded by a stream of invectives shouted at Spinal Tap volume. From behind his huge desk this large man was hollering "What the f*** do you think you're f***ing doing you worthless f***! You're screwing up the entire department curve! You're fired! I never want to see your f***ing ass around here again! Get the f*** out of my office!" And so on.

At first I was just too astonished to talk but as I watched his face turning redder and redder and darker and darker I figured I had better say something before he busted an artery. "Calm down" I say. "Let's talk about this. Let's be rational. We can reason this out." And so on. Finally he says, ok, what have you got to say for yourself. I launch into an explanation of my teaching theory and how well the students have learned Business Calculus and such. He informs me that the Business Calculus requirement is not there to teach Business Calculus. Nobody needs to know Business Calculus and nobody is going to remember it anyway. The Business Calculus requirement is there to flunk 15% of the Business Administration applicants so that department is not overwhelmed. If I didn't flunk 15% then I failed at my task.

I told him that I did not know that was the case and that I had just tried to teach Business Calculus as best I could given the situation. Further I informed him that my students had learned Business Calculus very well and that they really did deserve A's and that I could document my claims with work the students had done. At this he relented a bit. He told me I could bring in my evidence and, if satisfied, he would not fire me if I lowered the student's grades to fit the department curve.

The next day I brought in the student's homework and other projects I had collected. In addition I had the office make me copies of the teacher evaluations the students had done for this class. Dr. Bednarek leafed through the homework assignments and class project papers but stopped and read the evaluations more attentively. These almost universally said stuff like "This was the best class I've ever had" or "Mr. Record is the best teacher I've ever had" or "I've always hated math but now it's my favorite subject" and so on.

So, he offered me my job back but only if I would lower some of the grades to match the department curve. I told him I would so that I could keep my job for the next semester as I had a Hippie commune of about eight folks living back at my place and mine was the only income. However, I had already talked to a friend who worked in the office and she told me I could retroactively raise a student's grade over the next semester for various reasons. A grade could not be retroactively lowered.

I adjusted my grades to fit the curve and resubmitted them. Then I started submitting two or three a week to be raised back up to A's, usually with the reason "clerical error". Over the first part of 1975 I raised all of the grades back up to A's then, at the end of the semester I quit my job as a T.A. and dropped out of graduate school. I was pretty disillusioned with the system at that time. I mean, not only did the faculty just sit on its ass and not teach but it turned out the purpose of the classroom was not higher learning but some sort of filtration system to weed out the bottom 15%.

My attitude changed years later when I found myself again a teaching assistant in a Mathematics department only this time at the University of California at Santa Cruz. This was a complete 180. The faculty were dedicated to higher education, well prepared, inspirational, fun to be around, and excellent teachers. The students were excited to learn in this astoundingly beautiful environment , worked hard at their homework, and asked all kinds of pertinent questions. It turns out it was just the University of Florida and Dr. A. R. Bednarek that were bum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good story mate. You can always come teach a class here in Sidney. Don't let the bastards grind you down.