Saturday, January 30, 2010


My abstract algebra class has a clump of students in it who were also in my linear algebra class, and I've noticed that the dislike I felt towards them in linear algebra has carried right over to the new class. I think I actually hold them in contempt, which is definitely uncharitable of me. But I've been thinking about why this is.

I initially thought it was because I view them as stupid. Viewing people as stupid because they are confused in a class, and then finding them contemptible for it, is definitely not an attractive trait. But I don't think it's actually that, because I certainly don't always dislike (much less feel contempt for) other students who seem to have trouble with the material. A lot of people in my advanced calculus class struggle, some noticeably more than I do, and I respect them.

I think there are two things these algebra kids do that I dislike. First of all, they talk to each other helplessly about their difficulties. In advanced calc, the conversations go something like

A: Man, this series stuff is hard.
B: I know, dude. Did you do the homework?
A: Some of it. Did you get #3?
B: Yeah. I talked to Dr. X about it and he said to use [xyz].
A: Oh, duh. That makes sense. I was totally stuck on that.

By contrast, these algebra kids have conversations more like

A: This class is impossible.
B: I know, right!
A: That homework didn't make any sense at all.
B: Totally. There was nothing like that in the notes.
A: I just don't get this kind of stuff.

The other thing they do that bugs me, and this was greatly on display in our last class together, is blame the professor when they are confused. This was the group of people who always got angry after the exams because they didn't feel like they were adequately warned of what kinds of questions would appear (despite our receiving several practice exams that were similar to the real one each time). They seem to view any expectations they can't meet as unfair and wrong.

Most of the time, it doesn't occur to me to blame a professor when I'm confused. I guess I could, if the material were completely out of line with reasonable expectations (like that one stats class Sally took years ago), but generally, I assume it's my own problem to solve. Since these students don't ever seem to mention anything they've tried (like studying, or working extra problems on their own), one gets the sense that they want absolutely everything spoon-fed to them.

I remember once in linear algebra, one of them asked our prof for a recommendation of some sample problems to try at home. She pointed out the relevant section of the textbook, but that wasn't enough - they really wanted to be told specific problems from the section that they should do. I don't really get that.

It's not that I'm such an awesome student, always studying and doing everything that I should in order to understand the material. I'm decent now, but I have really sucked in the past. But I've always known that my sucking was about me, and not about the unfairness of the universe.

I'm starting to feel that in general, the question, "What have you tried?" (or, to yourself, "What could I try?") should be asked more often. I definitely find it a helpful one when I start to feel helpless.

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