I believe in God now

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I figured I'd hijack this thread to also whine about university. I was going through some scans I made today of old math notes and noticed one particular problem from a practice exam. The argumentation of the solution was perfect, except in one existence statement I wrote "b[n] < epsilon" instead of "0 <= b[n] < epsilon", and the grader noted that as a mistake, even though the first line on the page repeated the definition of b[n]: "b[n] = |a[n]|". In a real exam that could have costed me the exam because they always structure them as 4 problems and to get a passing grade you have to have 2 problems solved perfectly. FFS. It's shit like that that made me conclude it wasn't worth the effort.
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I kind of feel bad for y’all. With maybe two exceptions my university professors have always been at minimum competent, and most of them were excellent.


Bad Story 1

When I first signed-up for Linear Algebra, the professor walked in to the large green chalkboard, faced us momentarily to say something like “Let’s begin” and then turned and grabbed chalk in his right hand and an eraser in his left.

He then began talking nearly inaudibly as he wrote with his right hand and erased with his left.

I immediately stood up and left. Two or three lucky souls followed.

Took me all of ten minutes to drop that course.

(The next year I got a much better professor.)


Bad Story 2

The first time I took Design & Analysis of Algorithms I didn’t really understand the material. I did pretty well with a couple of algorithms, but most of the time I was fairly lost, and I always scored poorly on exams. (This was before the last story.)

The professor was supposedly some kind of algorithms savant, but he couldn’t teach. His communication really was terrible.

He would often start to explain a concept but never quite seemed to get through any important points. Instead, he most just stood in front of the class and told dirty jokes to the (admittedly cute) young women sitting in the front row. (They often wore “broh, huh, gotta put up with more of this crap but gonna smile my way through it” expressions.)

I eventually stopped going (it really was a waste of time) and instead spent my time trying to figure out the course materials (the textbook he selected for us was garbage too).

I’m pretty sure I failed that one. I have no idea how anyone else did in that course. I bet the girls all got passing grades though, even if they were just as lost as the boys.


Good Story 1

So, I think I can’t leave you with just bad stories. Two of my absolute favorites each spent time as head of the CS department. One of them, Sunil Shende, taught me Design & Analysis of Algorithms.

It was a tough course. But he took the time to walk us through the material and push us to really understand the principles behind each concept. He treated us as people who had brains and expected us to use them, and always cut to the core of what was important.

I remember one day near the end of the course, when we were all feeling stressed, he sat down with us and just talked to us about the learning process. I remember him saying, “This stuff is hard! I remember struggling with it when I was learning it.”

And then he looked at each of us and said, “But you can do it. It’s a lot easier for me now,” he chuckled, “because I’ve been doing it for years. And if you stick with it the same will happen with you.”

I think everyone in that class did well. Not because the material or the grading was easy. He was strict! It was hard!

But because he took the time to do it right and treated us as adults capable of eventually growing to his level.


Good Story 2

The other favorite was Jean-Camille Birget. He always made the material fun and simple to follow.

But he always took an interest in his students as well. He helped me navigate my major more than any other person.

I took a number of courses with him. I remember, in particular, taking an exam in Graph Theory. We had to draw a graph for the answer, but the answer paper was just one sheet and it was fairly crowded already.

So, in the middle of the exam, I raised my hand and asked for a blank piece of paper. He naturally asked me why. I said it was so I could figure out how to draw my graph before drawing the correct answer on my exam paper.

He laughed and gave me one. Then, he asked if anyone else wanted extra paper. One or two other students also took an extra sheet. I think he asked because one of the other students very obviously wanted to ask for a piece also, and probably would have were he not pre-empted by Dr. Birget asking first.


Heh, it’s really late now and I’m out of story-telling pep. Until next time, I guess.
faced us momentarily to say something like “Let’s begin” and then turned and grabbed chalk in his right hand


That reminds me of my A level Further Maths (Pure and Mechanics) teacher. There was only 4 of us in that class and the only time we saw his face was when we had to stand when he entered the room. The rest of the time he spent facing the blackboards and chalking on them. It was common for him to cover at least 6 boards in a 30-minute lecture with only a few words spoken. He was un-approachable outside of class so if we had issues (often!) we asked another maths teacher. We had no text book for the course. He certainly knew the maths, but his teaching skills were very lacking. I blame him for only passing Further Maths as whilst I could do the pure stuff without many problems, I struggled with the Mechanics part due to his lack of explanations - and just a few pages of scribbled equations!

NB. At univ, the Systems Analysis lecturer was just the opposite. He talked for the whole lecture - moving left and right across the front - while talking and talking and talking. For every lecture for the whole semester, not a single word was written!

PS I didn't do Linear Algebra at Univ as that was really part of Numerical Methods which I didn't take. The compulsory maths class covered complex/trig/calculus/series. The spec said it also introduced Linear Algebra but we never got round to it in the time. The only Into to Linear Algebra I had was part of Further Maths when we covered simple eigenvalues/eigenvectors (which totally confused me until I got out a book from the local library for that 'Ah yes of course' moment).

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To be clear, I think most of the professors and TAs were fine. What I said above is the result of the mathematics department's policies. They could set a grading scheme that didn't enable the person grading you to totally screw you over for a not-really-a-mistake, by not being completely merciless. They just choose not to.
And I'm not exaggerating. That "you didn't explicitly state this, so the solution is not perfectly correct, even though the reasoning assumes it and it's correct, and the result is correct" happened to me more than once. Another time it was something absurdly obvious about a parabola. Something like "here you're assuming without justification that this negative-vertex positive parabola is >= 0 on two intervals".
If you put problems in the exam that require creativity to solve, don't make me justify in complete detail absolutely every step of the way. I can be anal and mechanical or I can be creative. I can't do both at the same time.
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yes. the first school I tried was like that, you could lose more points on a problem than it was worth because they could take off points for unrelated things like not showing your work or using the wrong approach or just disliking your handwriting, anything went.
Get this.. multiple choice math tests, but they would take off points on top of the scantron result. I recall they took off when I used multiply instead of divide for a derivative because 'the problem was meant to see if I memorized the useless division "formula" '. Later a physics prof called me to his office to chew me out for using algebra to solve a simple problem because he wanted to see calculus.
Huh. It must be something in the requirement for being a prof. In my maths I got marks deducted for being 'too verbose' and 'long winded' - even though I used correct methods and got correct answers.

Then there was the time we had to factorize into real x^4 + 4. Using difference of 2 squares that's trivial (almost do it in your head) but the prof expected it to be done using complex and de moivre. I think he marked it as about 4/10 until I complained that the question didn't mention any method to use.
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to factorize into real x^4 + 4

Well, I could factorise it into complex factors, but not real ones.
x4 + 4

(x2 + 2)2 = x4 + 4x2 + 4

so x4 + 4 = (x2 + 2)2 - 4x2
= (x2 + 2)2 - (2x)2

which is difference of squares so
(x2 + 2 - 2x)(x2 + 2 + 2x)

which are real factors.
Ah, I see. I thought you meant all the way down to linear factors. But your quadratic factors are good.
Yeah - the prof first expected 4 complex factors using de moivre then 2 conjugate pairs combined to give the 2 real factors. When he marked my above effort I've never seen so much red ink on a single page....
I wrote "b[n] < epsilon" instead of "0 <= b[n] < epsilon", and the grader noted that as a mistake, even though the first line on the page repeated the definition of b[n]: "b[n] = |a[n]|"

This reminds me of my AI professor who marked my answer wrong because I didn't circle it. I showed it to him and he proceeded to yell about how he said he wanted the answer circled.

The question was worth 16 points and he offered to give me back 4 points. Every point correlated to a full percentage point of your actual grade in the class. I failed that first exam pretty badly due to his boggling grading.

I think he was thoroughly surprised and embarrassed when I not only didn't drop the class when he told me to, but proceeded to pass his class when he thought I had no chance.

I've made many AIs and I understood the concepts well, but the way he grades shows he didn't care if you understood or not.

Later a physics prof called me to his office to chew me out for using algebra to solve a simple problem because he wanted to see calculus.

I'd of chewed him out for using calculus where algebra sufficed.

So, I think I can’t leave you with just bad stories

I suppose I always leave it off at bad stories!

One of my best professors was this lively lady named Viktoria that I had for Calculus 2. The sweetest person. Most students had taken trigonometry in college (it's before calc), but I had a high enough score in placements to go straight into calculus. So she made it a point to explain the trig she used when doing the regular calculus problems.

She also HANDED ME BACK a midterm after I handed it to her. She noticed a mistake, eyed it, and gave it back to me to fix.

She was one of the best, rare for a math department. I've had other good professors too, but usually for general education classes, like English.

Though God help us if that Afro-American Studies "professor" I had is still "teaching".. She deserves nothing less than to be stripped of any teaching licenses/privileges.
I'd of chewed him out for using calculus where algebra sufficed.


It was departmental. We talked for a bit and came to the truth of the matter: most of the students were struggling to do tough calc in bulk on a timed test, so he had to keep the problems simple enough to do in the timeframe for the majority of students, and it was not a math test, it was intro level physics test, not up to him to make sure they knew how to handle weird math. So for the typical student to do the calc efficiently over many problems, the problems tended to be doable via simple algebra.
I did a couple of derivatives for him and agreed to use that on the next tests, and he gave me all the points on the first one. I think he thought it was funny but couldn't admit it. I got my A, and the prof was one of the good guys.
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