Monday, July 27, 2009

I don't negotiate with the uninformed 

They say never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. But I'm a teacher, so let me help a student out for a moment.
Yet, the real racket is math. Yes, I failed the placement exam and am in Math 70 this summer. I realize that math is important, but looking in my book at the chapters ahead I realized that Math 70 is sufficient for college students and anything beyond this is just nonsense and a waste of money for students not majoring in the sciences, economics or engineering.
Now if you've read this blog for any length of time you know my opinion on this: To be considered a college-educated student, college algebra is as basic to your education as English, philosophy or physical education. (And we could have a discussion about PE, if you like, but I'd defend it.) Math 70 is our remedial class called Basic Mathematical Skills. The placement exam this student failed was the one that makes it possible for you to take a finite math course that is our university's math requirement. That's right, we don't require the algebra here at SCSU. (It is now required of our majors, after many years of debate, even though a plurality of undergrad economics programs require some level of calculus.)

I've discussed Math 70 before. A student who takes it has already had a low score on his ACT, and either failed or didn't take the placement test. But somehow this student thinks that by "looking in my book at the chapters ahead" he knows what is sufficient for someone to know who's not going into a math-intensive field.

He'd probably do well as a government-single-payer health insurance administrator.
Why on earth would I need to know how to do the following in the world of journalism: 9+-3{(2)x=-14-13x}; what is x? Will I ask this to a police officer or a musician or a politician or an athlete? Will such an equation come up when trying to crunch numbers in investigating racketeering stories? Perhaps, but most people would probably use a good old calculator.
First off, I'm pretty sure you wrote that equation wrong given the unbalanced parentheses or {}. Second, it's basic to not only getting in to a good college but to surviving an ever-changing world and job market. You simply don't know enough to hold any job in which you have to manipulate symbols or values by a set of logical rules. You would really want me to believe you can be a writer without control of logic?

There are sources on the internet to help you out. Robert Niles, for example, offers a small statistics primer. I clicked through it, and it's a good start. (Many readers here probably think it's too simple -- trust me, dealing with journalists has taught me it's not.) But if you can't do college algebra, will you be able to grasp any of the books he's recommended at the end? I have a copy of Statistical Analysis with Excel -- I doubt this student columnist would have been able to use it. There's a whole collection of where writers have done math badly, including a whole section just devoted to the Harry Potter series. (Example.) JK Rowling may laugh all the way to the bank while being bad at math, but it's not likely she's proud of it, and she isn't successful because she's bad at math.

And if that's not going to work for you, could I suggest some books about math that are more literary in nature? Here's a list someone wrote on Amazon; I've read three of those, and I'd read just about anything Ian Stewart wrote. (Does God Play Dice? is the only book on chaos I liked better than Gleick's.) We teach a version of economics for non-majors, using books that purge the graphs but keep the intuition.

You don't know enough to know that what you don't want to learn is good for your writing.
Of all the classes I have taken at SCSU, none required of me more than the basic use of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
I suspect you're right, and for that I apologize on behalf of the faculty. We have done you an ill service by not expecting more of you.
Now, for the teachers and students who think Math 193 is important for all students, I ask why? Students who appreciate it are probably going to actually utilize such a craft in their job fields and the teachers will say it is important because all students (by that, every student at SCSU) will need these skills (they won�t). Friends of mine who have graduated and have gotten high paying jobs have attested to me that what they learned in Math 193 has never been a part of their jobs.
I doubt you know who to thank for many of your abilities. I know how to tie a bow knot. I don't remember who taught me, maybe it was Boy Scouts, maybe Dad. All I know is I can do it. I know how to think logically. I cannot possibly tell you where I learned that lesson. It's the stock of learning from the flow of many classes, many problems, many teachers. And the one thing about which I have no doubt is that practice sharpens your skills. I haven't done a geography geometry proof in years (or I should say "hadn't" since I had to help Littlest with a few two years ago) but I know that part of how I solve an economics problem builds on connecting thoughts in exactly that same way. Writers do them too, connecting sentences that link one paragraph to the next.

Just because you don't type ax=b doesn't mean you don't use algebra. And just because you don't know you're using it doesn't mean you're not using it.

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