Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Watching Television for Work

I like to simultaneously knit and watch television. Mostly I listen (rather than watch) because I haven't gotten around to getting new bifocals (I have worn bifocals -- with line -- since I was 17 years old), but that doesn't mean that the knitting is primary and the tv watching is secondary; they are equal activities.

My tv watching is sort of an anthropological study, and I see it as a bit of training for teaching. I have no problem teaching courses at and above the level of real calculus, but I struggle with the lower level courses.

Have you seen Beauty and the Geek? In general, the lower level courses are populated mostly by "beauties" and the highest level mostly by "geeks." (The mid-level courses, like Business Math, are a difficult-to-categorize mix of averageness.) I'm not really exaggerating. My lowest-level courses have enrollments that are around 90% female; most of the women in those classes clearly put a lot of time and effort into their appearances. Calculus classes tend to run 90% male; fashion is not their priority.

Beyond the gender distributions and the level of the classes, it's also a difference in values. (Have you read the nerd essay? If not, go do that now.) The calculus students are my people: I understand them, and they understand me. When I teach, I give a lot of cues about "playing the game," and they pick up on them. The lower-level classes don't pick up on these cues. At first I thought it was because they were stupid, but now I've realized that they don't care. They just don't buy into my intelligence-based value system. And they're frustrated too -- just like I don't understand how much "hard work" they put into their appearance/popularity/social lives, they don't understand what it takes to learn and understand mathematics. For the first time in their lives they may be realizing that they can't have it all (in this case, both an acceptable social life as well as acceptable grades), and they are not happy about it.

So to try to figure out how to earn the respect of my lower-level courses, I'm watching a lot of television. I'm a quick learner, and I'm hoping to make a lot of progress this summer at identifying the techniques of Dr. Phil and of the nannies on Nanny 911. I'm keeping track of what makes the contestants on reality shows get mad at each other and hold grudges. (I can not watch Average Joe because it's just too mean. I don't know who to root for: losing is like winning because when they go home, they're no longer being humiliated on national television.) As the only way to learn something is by practicing, we shall see how well these techniques work when I start trying to use them in the fall.