Professor Alfred Doesn’t Know What is Wrong with the Homework

(At a regional public university)

That’s right, he really doesn’t.  I know because he told me.  I will tell the story here.  It is not nice to make fun of Prof. Alfred (a real person but made-up name), and that is not my purpose.  (He is actually a very nice person.) But it is important to understand him.  His story – along with others I will post as soon as I have time – helps explain the process by which many of today’s high school teachers, and many others who go to “college”, don’t learn much.

Before I start, I recommend the reader review my post No Jobs for Ph.D’s?  Depends on what you mean by Ph.D.  It’s the “what you mean by Ph.D.” part that is important.

Alfred was a full professor (and later department chair) of the math department of a regional state university.  I taught there for a while.  It was my assessment that, though several faculty were certainly mathematicians, about 20%-30% were at about the level of mathematical ability and/or background as Alfred.  In my opinion, this was enough to effect the entire department – especially when two of them were chairs of the department.

One day I was talking with Alfred and he said that he was glad that Jack was going to teach the introductory algebra class for computer science majors. (Jack was a new professor who was a very good mathematician, and whose field was algebra – and by “algebra” I mean something well beyond what a normal Ph.D. learns in grad school, which is well beyond any course called “algebra” that is for Freshmen or Sophomores.)  I asked whey he was glad that Jack would be teaching it.  Alfred replied that, though he had been teaching it for five years and could now tell when a student had done a homework problem wrong, he still couldn’t always tell what was wrong with it. He said that was why he was glad an expert in the field would be teaching it.  For those without experience in mathematics, that is tantamount to a professional chaefuer saying that he is glad a race driver will be driving on the highway now because though he can now stay in a lane he wasn’t sure how to switch lanes.

I was shocked and wanted to know how Alfred got here, along with others.  It started becoming clear to me (again, I remind you to read my post No Jobs for Ph.D’s?  Depends on what you mean by Ph.D.)  I knew that Alfred had been a math major at a decent school (in the 60’s, I believe) and that he had gone to a decent state shool for a Masters, and then get Doctorate in Math Ed. at a well-known state school.  All of that was at a time when this country was pushing for more math and science grads, and more people to staff all the newly sprouting colleges to give everyone access to an “education”.  Still, I didn’t fully understand how someone with such little ability could get these degrees until one day at lunch Alfred told the following story.

He said that he had been sick before the mid-term in Algebraic Topology in grad school.  He said that when he took the make-up test he didn’t realize that there were so many partial derivatives in Algebraic Topology.  There aren’t.  He just didn’t know enough about the subject to know that the same symbol is used for something different in Alg. Top.  He said his prof. told him not to worry about the exam since he was sick.  Then when it was time for the final, he said he and a friend didn’t know anything, were scared half to death, and talked to the professor.  The professor told them it was ok, they would get a B and didn’t have to take the final.

Now I understood.


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