Reading the Comics, July 23, 2016: Familiar Friends Week Edition


This past week was refreshing. The mathematics comics appeared at a regular, none-too-excessive pace. And some old familiar friends reappeared. Some were comic strips that haven’t been around in a while. Some were jokes that haven’t been. Enjoy.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 17th is the first use of the meth/math lab pun to appear in the comics since September 2014 by my reckoning. And only the second in my Reading the Comics series. I’m surprised too. For all this goes around Twitter and other social media I’d imagine it to make the comics more.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater gets back in my review here for the first time since April, to my amazement. Used to be you couldn’t go two weeks without Hilburn looking for my attention. And here’s the first Roman Numerals joke since … I don’t quite feel up to checking just now. I’m going to go ahead and suppose it’s the first one since the last time Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse was here.

It’s anachronistic to speak of Ancient Roman students getting ‘C’ grades. Of course it is; it could hardly be otherwise. It’s a joke; how much is that to be worried about? But if I haven’t been mislead the use of letters, A through E-or-F, in student evaluations is an American innovation of the late 19th century. It developed over the 20th century and took over at least American education, in conjunction with the 100-through-0 points evaluation scale. And in parallel to the Grade Point Average, typically with 4.0 as its highest score.

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse makes a comfortable visit back here on the 20th. It’s another counting-sheep and number-representation gag. I love the third panel’s artwork.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 22nd is a joke about motivating mathematics study. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but there was a lovely bit on The Mary Tyler Moore Show along these lines once. Fantastically stupid newsman Ted Baxter was struggling to do some arithmetic until Murray Slaughter gave him the advice: “put a dollar sign in front of it”. Then he had the answer instantly.

Nat Fakes’s Break of Day for the 22nd brings back mathematics as signifier of the hardest homework a kid can have, or the toughest thing someone can have to think about. Fine enough stuff, although it isn’t really that stunning to think a parent might not understand what the kid’s homework is about. Often the point of an assignment is not to learn how to do something, but to encourage thinking about ways one could do something. That’s a hard assignment to create, and a harder one to do, and a very hard one to help with. As adults we get used to looking at problems as calculations to identify and do as swiftly as possible. That there is value in wandering around the slow routes needs remembering.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 22nd riffs on … I’m not sure exactly. The idea that the sort of meaningless nonsense that makes for good late-night dorm conversations when you’re 20 comes back around to being the cutting edge of theoretical physics, I suppose. It’s funny enough. A complaint often brought against the most cutting edge of theoretical physics is that it’s so abstract that there aren’t any conceivable tests that would say whether a calculation is right or not. In that condition mathematics and theoretical physics merge back into a thread of philosophy and its question of how can we know what it is for something to be true. Once we have a way of discerning whether an idea might happen to be true we’re ejected again from philosophy and into a science. And then the scientist makes a smug, snarky comment about the impossibility of testing philosophical conclusions.

Since the late 19th century much cutting-edge physics has involved counter-intuitive results. Often they have premises that strain intuition, as see relativity, or that seem to violate it altogether, as see quantum mechanics. But they turn out so very right so very often it’s hard not to feel excited and encouraged by this. Who wouldn’t look for a surprising and counter-intuitive explanation for the world as thrilling and maybe even right idea? I don’t blame anyone for looking to a wild idea like “what if the universe is made of math”. I don’t know what that would mean exactly unless we suppose we do live in a universe of Platonic Forms, in which case perfection runs counter-intuitively to me. I do understand being excited by the question. But the answers probably won’t be that much fun.

What Do I Need To Get An A In This Class?


After writing my bit about how to figure out what grade you need to pass your class, I thought some more and realized that while everything in it is true, it’s not necessarily helpful, because people get panicky at formulas. So I thought to make up some tables showing what you need, if you go in with a certain grade, to pass, or get a B, or an A, or what not, for different weightings of the final exam. That’s easy enough to do especially once I set up a Matlab (well, an Octave) script to build the tables for me.

Continue reading “What Do I Need To Get An A In This Class?”

Complex Experiments with Grading Mathematics


While I’ve never managed to attempt an experimental grading system as the one I enjoyed in Real Analysis, I have tried a few more modest experiments. The one chance I’ve had to really go wild and do something I’d never seen before, sadly, failed, but let me resurrect it enough to leave someone else, I hope, better-informed.

The setting was a summer course, which the department routinely gave to graduate students as a way of keeping them in the luxurious lifestyle to which grad students become accustomed. For five weeks and a couple days I’d spend several hours explaining the elements of vector calculus to students who either didn’t get it the first time around or who wanted to not have to deal with it during the normal term. (It’s the expansion of calculus to deal with integrals and differentials along curves, and across surfaces, and through solid bodies, and remarkably is not as impossibly complicated as this sounds. It’s probably easier to learn, once you know normal calculus, than it is to learn calculus to start. It’s essential, among other things, for working out physics problems in space, since it gives you the mathematical background to handle things like electric fields or the flow of fluids.)

What I thought was: the goal of the class is to get students to be proficient in a variety of techniques — that they could recognize what they were supposed to do, set up a problem to use whatever technique was needed, and could carry out the technique successfully. So why not divide the course up into all the things that I thought were different techniques, and challenge students to demonstrate proficiency in each of them? With experience behind me I understand at least one major objection to this, but if the forthcoming objection were to be dealt with, I’d still have blown it in the implementation.

Continue reading “Complex Experiments with Grading Mathematics”

Real Experiments with Grading Mathematics


[ On an unrelated note I see someone’s been going through and grading my essays. I thank you, whoever you are; I’ll take any stars I can get. And I’m also delighted to be near to my 9,500th page view; I’ll try to find something neat to do for either 9,999 or 10,000, whichever feels like the better number. ]

As a math major I staggered through a yearlong course in Real Analysis. My impression is this is the reaction most math majors have to it, as it’s the course in which you study why it is that Calculus works, so it’s everything that’s baffling about Calculus only moreso. I’d be interested to know what courses math majors consider their most crushingly difficult; I’d think only Abstract Algebra could rival Real Analysis for the position.

While I didn’t fail, I did have to re-take Real Analysis in graduate school, since you can’t go on to many other important courses without mastering it. Remarkably, courses that sound like they should be harder — Complex Analysis, Functional Analysis and their like — often feel easier. Possibly this is because the most important tricks to studying these fields are all introduced in Real Analysis so that by the fourth semester around the techniques are comfortably familiar. Or Functional Analysis really is easier than Real Analysis.

The second time around went quite well, possibly because a class really is easier the second time around (I don’t have the experience in re-taking classes to compare it to) or possibly because I clicked better with the professor, Dr Harry McLaughlin at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Besides giving what I think might be the best homework assignment I ever received, he also used a grading scheme that I really responded to well, and that I’m sorry I haven’t been able to effectively employ when I’ve taught courses.

His concept — I believe he used it for all his classes, but certainly he put it to use in Real Analysis — came from as I remember it his being bored with the routine of grading weekly homeworks and monthly exams and a big final. Instead, students could put together a portfolio, showing their mastery of different parts of the course’s topics. The grade for the course was what he judged your mastery of the subject was, based on the breadth and depth of your portfolio work.

Any slightly different way of running class is a source of anxiety, and he did some steps to keep it from being too terrifying a departure. First is that you could turn in a portfolio for a review as you liked mid-course and he’d say what he felt was missing or inadequate or which needed reworking. I believe his official policy was that you could turn it in as often as you liked for review, though I wonder what he would do for the most grade-grabby students, the ones who wrestle obsessively for every half-point on every assignment, and who might turn in portfolio revisions on an hourly basis. Maybe he had a rule about doing at most one review a week per student or something like that.

The other is that he still gave out homework assignments and offered exams, and if you wanted you could have them graded as in a normal course, with the portfolio grade being what the traditional course grade would be. So if you were just too afraid to try this portfolio scheme you could just pretend the whole thing was one of those odd jokes professors will offer and not worry.

I really liked this system and was sorry I didn’t have the chance to take more courses from him. The course work felt easier, no doubt partly because there was no particular need to do homework at the last minute or cram for an exam, and if you just couldn’t get around to one assignment you didn’t need to fear a specific and immediate grade penalty. Or at least the penalty as you estimated it was something you could make up by thinking about the material and working on a similar breadth of work to the assignments and exams offered.

I regret that I haven’t had the courage to try this system on a course I was teaching, although I have tried a couple of non-traditional grading schemes. I’m always interested in hearing of more, though, in case I do get back into teaching and feel secure enough to try something odd.