Monday, October 11, 2004

Open Letter to My Counterparts in Other Departments

Yes, I agree. It would be nice if today felt both like a Monday and a Friday. Yes, it would be lovely if I could spend tomorrow laundering my summer clothes, putting them on high shelves, and getting my sweaters out of my cedar chest. And delightful if I could laze about on Wednesday reading for pleasure. And then, recharged, I could make progress on my research on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. But fall break is only Thursday and Friday. It's a four-day weekend, not a six-day weekend. And now that you have cancelled your classes for Wednesday, you have made my life more difficult.

The whining students are not the problem here. "Why won't you cancel class?" can easily be blamed on the Math Department. The problem is that a lot of students will decide to go home today or tomorrow and will not come to my class on Wednesday. I know you're thinking that they would skip their Wednesday classes anyway, but they wouldn't. Well, some of them would, but not as many of them. As cynical as we might be about these freshmen, they do have standards: it's easier for them to skip some of their classes than all of their classes. I'll bet you money that a large fraction of the students with no cancelled classes will go to their classes on Wednesday. Conversely, the more of a students classes that have been cancelled, the less likely he or she is to attend the remaining ones. And my attendance data shows that after the first missed class that students are more likely to skip future classes.

Why do I care whether or not they come to class? Aren't they adults, able to make their own decisions? Responsible for their own educations? It's my job to make sure that they know more math in December than they did in August. And poorly-prepared, math-hating freshmen need to see math in frequent, small doses in order to learn it. Math is not well-suited for the ebb and flow of slacking then cramming. And from their homework and their notes, it's clear to me that they are not well-motivated independent scholars with the wisdom to choose appropriate intellectual opportunities. Remember, to be in my class requires a very low score on the placement test.

So now your students will miss the demonstrations that I've prepared for Wednesday. They will have to use their limited geometric intuition to imagine what happens when a punctured inner tube is turned inside out. They will have to look at the example in the book that illustrates how to transform a ring passing through two holes in silly putty to only passing through one (without detaching any of the silly putty). Is a linked, two-holed torus equivalent by deformation to an unlinked one? They'll have to figure that out on their own.

I only have 42 chances to show them the power and beauty of mathematics (and to cover the material on the syllabus!). When you cancel your class the Wednesday before fall break, then you take one of those days away from me.

Rudbeckia Hirta, Math Department