Saturday, November 07, 2009

Subterranean Homework Blues: an open letter to Calc I students

Dear Calc I folks,

Well, it's another exciting homework-filled Saturday night, and I'm about 4/5 of the way through my Calc I students' textbook problems. (I've yet to get into the similarly-sized pile of differential equations applications.)

More than half of my sixty-odd students have clearly spent a fair amount of time during this past busy busy busy week putting together honest and authentic solutions to the assigned problems. They've shown their work, and though they've made occasional mistakes, they've carried those mistakes through to a "wrong, but consistent" end. They may not earn perfect marks, but their work is, as I said above, honest and authentic: they've gotten out of the homework what I'd hoped they would.

The other dozen or so folks who submitted solutions...not so much.

Believe it or not, my young friends, I don't assign homework in order to give myself something to do on the weekend. I'm only human: there are definitely other things I'd rather be doing at 9:28 on Saturday night than working my way through a four-inch-thick stack of calculus papers, especially when a dozen or so of those papers are little more than sloppily copied versions of the solutions manual so readily available in the Math Lab.

Believe this, too: I assign the homework for you. Not for me. Presumably, if you're in my class, you're in it because you want to get something out of it. Maybe it's been your passion to be a physicist, or an engineer. Maybe (I hope, I hope!) you've always wanted to take up serious study of mathematics. Maybe you're not sure what you want to do, but you thought you'd give math a chance and try Calc I on for size.

Whatever your reasons for being with me for 200 or so minutes out of every week, the homework I assign is meant to help you out. It's meant to give you a forum in which you can apply the ideas we discuss in class in order to refine them, explore them, and take them out for a test drive. It's meant as a place in which you can practice. It's meant as a place in which you can learn.

It's not meant to be an eight-hour time-sink for either of us.

Yeah, I'd estimate that I spend something on the order of four to eight hours per weekend grading homework, and I suspect that the most diligent of you spend roughly that same amount of time per week on the homework and on going over class notes, putting together projects, and preparing yourself for the time we share together in the classroom. For these people, the homework serves a real purpose (see above), and it's to these people my grading is dedicated.

To the rest of you, I have the following thoughts.

First, to those of you who take your answers straight from the solutions manual: please give these exercises a shot. The homework is worthless, both for you and for me, if you aren't really doing it yourself. If you've fallen behind in your work a little, now's a good time to catch up again: the sections we're working through right now are pretty straightforward, interesting, and useful ones, and students generally find that they're quite fun. Give them a shot, huh? I promise you you'll get something out of it.

Second, to those of you who've clearly (as evidenced, for instance, by your exam scores) got a grip on the course material but who for some reason just can't seem to find the time to do the homework: wake up. Classes come a lot harder than ours, and you're not going to be able to coast through them not doing the work. You might be able to get by on minimal effort now, but minimal effort will only take you so far.

Finally, to those of you who feel as though you're putting your head into a wall every time you open your textbook, please, please, please come and see me. A little struggle is good: without at least a little bit of struggle, you're not making progress, and you're not learning. But a lot of struggle is bad news: it's distressing and debilitating, and it can sap your confidence like nothing else. (A propos of very little, I hope soon to post on my thoughts on one of Alfie Kohn's essays I just finished reading, on self-esteem.)

The same offer I make to you all: come and see me. Talk to me. Ask me questions. I'm open, I'm approachable, and I'm friendly. As one of my 280 students said to me by e-mail today, I'm human. I want to see you succeed. Hell, I want to see you soar. I know that not every one of you is going to be a math major (though I hope a good number of you will!), but whatever your goals, I want to help you achieve them.

With that, my friends, I'm going to get back to grading. Wish me luck.

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