Friday, March 13, 2009

The Triage Lecture

There's all these war metaphors—we speak, even in public, of classroom work as "in the trenches"... well, I feel like this battlefield surgeon confronted with (classrooms full of) casualties of the Math Wars in various states of woundedness and there's far more than I can handle. And so some are gonna get only the most perfunctory treatment: typically those with the lightest and the heaviest "wounds".

Students competent with stated prerequisite material, and ready for some frustration and hard work in taking on the new material... the ones the courses are ostensibly designed for... are typically presented with a course that's actually too easy for them. In order to have anybody left at the finish line, we teachers will sometimes settle for a few "rote" calculations (knowing fullwell that the "knowledge" thereby demonstrated is in many cases fragile as hell and probably won't connect up even with the next math class for many of these poor devils [and never mind connecting up with anything in real life so-called]).

Actually this is putting it much too mildly—we're actually expected to do this—certainly by many of the students, and typically (to venture an ill-informed but not altogether ignorant guess) by many administrators as well. But then, we're also expected to deliver the course as it appears in the catalogue and the syllabus and the textbook and so on: the one for the students who "get it" so far. But on top of that, of course, there's the Horribly Wounded... the ones who make us earn our money... and you'd better believe we're also expected to help them along (somehow).

We are the human face of the institution. Now, I happen to think it's a pretty ghastly institution for the most part... and that what we're doing—I'm implicated here along with everybody else in the trenches—is running a con on, anyway, most of the "remedial" cases around here. "Borrow a bunch of money and hand it over to us (to pay a pittance to Vlorbik and rest of the talent with, and give the bulk of the rest to the already-rich); we'll get you to the next level of earning power." But they're never going to get this math and the AA degree isn't worth a thing in the "market" anyhow.

Let me hasten to add here that this was already a con long before everybody found out how sick the economy was (and had been for quite some time)... and that, indeed, now that the entire socio-economic system is in collapse, there are sure to be lots of totally unforeseen new opportunities. And in whatever emerges from the ashes, folks understanding Algebra will tend to be useful members of society; math teachers will still tend to be very useful members.

But then, when I get into the wrong mood (several times a day sometimes alas) that whole battlefield surgeon vibe comes upon me and I realize I'm just fixing this lot up so they can go back into the meatgringer. And maybe the best place in this war metaphor is over the hill: if I can't save anybody else around here, maybe I can still save myself (it's not just the rats that leave a sinking ship).

Anyhow, I take this "human face" duty seriously. Probably too seriously. Sometimes the right answer really is, "sorry buddy, I can't help you with that" even if, let's say, the person in question is a current student (in a class of one's own). But a lot of people overdo it: "that was a prerequisite; we shouldn't even be talking about this" (whereupon, I'm all, "...and you call yourself a math teacher?"... but of course keep it to myself).

When you feel yourself being manipulated and go along with it so as not to have to act, as it were, out of character, that's weakness. Knowing when to go all cold around the heart and play emotional hardball is at some level part of the game. But for god sake. Don't forget I'm a math geek. What do I know about running con games on each other? That's what I've spent my whole life running away from.

Anyway, you can see where a lot of people would just learn to blame their role as the teacher and say: these are the rules, that's it, toughen up kid, this is college—and here I mean they learn to act this way by default... their way of "teaching college math". These would be the ones not taking the "human face" role seriously, I suppose. Everybody needs to play this card from time to time, I suppose. But dammit, it's a community college and a certain amount of "social work" should probably be considered as built into our job description. Remedial classes pay the bills around here and a good team member wants to pull his own weight.

So I'll break my heart for these kids again and again and be resented for it from above and below and torture myself even more for being so spectacularly lousy at doing it and I'll thank God for the privilege because it's part of being a math teacher and I'm lucky beyond belief to have found something socially worthwhile to do for a living.

And the kids in the middle get a pretty good show. And I'll get some more practice with our campus math elite in my upcoming Calc III class (stand by for announcement of new blog). What was I complaining about again?

Something to do with these mood swings...


  1. Struggling with math is common for me but so is hard work. I can say that in every math class (except the current), hell any GEC class for that matter I've heard a lot of comments that I needed to work even harder (not sure how with the time available) AND "this IS college". I cannot stand that, do they really think I didn't know where all my money, time, sweat and hard work go to? I do not care if it is some sarcastic joke, its bullshit to me! I am the customer and thats what *some* professors need to realize, but without failure there will be students falling to their power in fear of failure which is fuel to their fire. You've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything.

  2. that "customer" language makes a lot of people
    around here pretty touchy and i suppose i'm one...
    we're *fools* if we're in this for the money.

    still, i think i can go along you to the extent
    that teachers refusing to work with the students they get
    as if this were in the interests of the students they wanted
    are violating, not only what *should* be the academic norms
    ("how do we get good reading and writing to happen")
    but also flat-out *business* norms (like "customer service").
    these aren't mutually exclusive, of course...
    the trouble starts when people try to pretend
    that they're the *same thing*...