Could it be? Have we reached so far into the darkness that we must contend and content ourselves with such a recollection as this? Please, something, anything, everything other than this unbearable reprehensible tale.
Stop your whining. You’re going to listen to this story, and you’re going to like it. This is the first, and quite likely the last time I will ever put this story in anything other than oscillating air. Personally, I think it sounds better in air, but maybe you have one of those nifty things that’ll make your computer read to you… If that’s the case, then I must in all fairness apologize now, because there will be a word or two in this story that will offend your ears, while for everyone else it will only make their eyes bleed for a moment or two.
That said or read, cabbage begin.
As I have shared before, I was once a math professor at Texas A&M University with the dubious honor of teaching a freshman level business math survey course. As it was a survey course, we never spent much time on any one topic, and tended to move quickly and without substance through many classical topics in mathematics, settling at the end of the semester on probability and statistics.
So for the last exam before the final, there are quite a few probability questions. Traditionally students don’t do well on probability, so traditionally the average on this last exam is quite low. I do not curve. I set the bar, and I encourage my students to attempt the jump, but I will not change my standards after they jump just because they don’t succeed. Instead, I encourage them to take the jump again.
So after retaking the test, we went over each of the problems in class. It is during one of these reviews that our story takes place. One particular semester, in one particular section of the class, I had 80 something students in a stadium seating classroom. And we came to a problem that my students found particularly difficult. The problem went something like this.
I have a can of fruit cocktail. The can of fruit cocktail has 56 fruit chunks, 4 of which are cherry halves. What is the probability that the 7th fruit chunk I eat is a cherry half?
A woman in the back of the class raised her hand, “A friend of mine who is a grad student in math says that this problem is way too hard. He says you’d have to make a tree that’s seven levels deep and compute all kinds of weird fractions and stuff and that it would take at least 45 minutes to do.” She stopped, waiting for me to see the error of my ways and beg the unmerited forgiveness of the class.
“Who is your friend?” I asked, with genuine concern. “Why?” she responded in the first wise move she’d made during the conversation.
“So I can have him kicked out of the program for being an idiot.” Her face in an appropriate state of anger, disgust and confusion, I continued.
“Clearly the fruit cocktailness of the problem is too difficult, so let’s take something a little easier to grasp.” I held up my hand in front of me, palm up, “I have a deck of cards, 52 cards, 4 of which are aces. What is the probability the top card is an ace?”
The class correctly answered “4 out of 52”
“Correct, what is the probability the bottom card is an ace?”
Again the class in its corporate astuteness, “4 out of 52”
“Quite right, now I’m going to throw the top 6 cards across the room, what is the probability the next card is an ace?”
After a few moments of blank stares and quiet contemplation, one student observes “We need to know what those cards were.”
“No, you don’t, let’s back up. I have a deck of cards, what is the probability the top card is an ace?” “4 out of 52”
“and the bottom card?” “4 out of 52”
“right, and the probability the seventh card is an ace?” “4 out of 52”
“certainly, now I’m going to pick up the top 6 cards ever so slightly. What is the probability that seventh card is an ace?” “4 out of 52”
“and if I lift them a little more?” “4 out of 52”
“and if I lift them to here?” as I raised my hand a few more inches. “4 out of 52”
“and if I eat those six cards?” and again, I’m met with a quiet if not seemingly confident “4 out of 52”
At this point, I think I’ve made a breakthrough, that my students finally understand the concept I’ve tried to drill into them, that probability is just about taking what you know and putting a number to it. You never know everything, if you did, it wouldn’t be probability, it would be the ones and zeros, the trues and falses of history. We’re trying to quantify our ability to predict the future, even when we don’t know everything about the past.
But one of my students says, and the others agree with nods and grunts of affirmation, “What does that have to do with fruit cocktail?”
In my growing frustration, yet still in the hopes of drawing a quick parallel to the deck of cards and the fruit cocktail, I tried to change the setup of the problem, “Fine, here’s what we’re going to do. I have a can of fruit cocktail. I’m going to pour it out on the desk and line the fruit chunks up in a row in the order I’m going to eat them.”
“Why would you do that?” from a student whose confusion was likely growing at a rate comparable to mine.
I realize now that what this student was asking was “In an exam situation, when confronted by a ‘fruit cocktail’ style problem, how do you know that the way to approach the problem is to line up the fruit chunks in your mind?” But what I heard was “When eating a can of fruit cocktail, why would you line up the fruit chunks on the desk in the order you were going to eat them?”
In frustration on the verge of anger I replied, “I don’t know, I’m an anal eater!”
If you have one of those things that makes your computer read to you, now would be an appropriate time to hit pause, not because of what is coming next, but because that’s exactly what happened. The entire class stopped, as we all tried to figure out what exactly it was I had just said. And when we did, we all laughed for a while.
The release of the tension helped clarify the point somehow, and nearly everyone at least pretended they understood the problem.
And so we continued, until we arrived at a combination/permutation problem. For those of you unfamiliar, the difference between the use of the two is notoriously difficult to teach. After this particular semester, I stopped teaching permutations at all. Everything can be handled just fine with combinations and factorials. Whenever one of my students would ask why I hadn’t spent as much time on the nuances of the differences between combinations and permutations, I would only reply with “We don’t P in this class.”
But I digress… so we were reviewing an exam problem which dealt with the combination/permutation dilemma and I was once again trying to describe the difference between the two, when one of my students finally let the last straw land on her camel hump.
Her name was Kate Rapier. I remember this because she had curly red hair. I remember this because of the movie “Kiss Me Kate” which is a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” The Kate of the movie had curly red hair and they were always discussing her “rapier wit”. I had asked her once if she’d ever seen the movie “Kiss Me Kate”. She thought I was hitting on her when, in fact, I was calling her a shrew. Can you ask for an insult more delightful?
Again, I digress. Miss Rapier exploded “You’re the worst prof ever. You’ve tried to explain this three times and I still don’t understand. I can’t believe I paid for this class. I’m going to fail and it’s all your fault.” et cetera.
I couldn’t do anything. Not out of fright or confusion or remorse, but because I had been told to not single out any students during your class. If they get upset, you’re supposed to let them rant until they stop and then you’re supposed to ask them if they would like to have a discussion with the department head. But she was quite long winded, so I couldn’t do anything.
After a minute or so of her tirade, a woman on the other side of the class room stood up. Kate’s side of the room was generally anti-Fuwjax, while the other side in general didn’t dream of chopping me up in little pieces to feed me to sea gulls. This woman stood up and said, “Girl, don’t nobody like you in here. Why don’t you just take your @ss on out of here?”
At this, the class exploded. Students on Kate’s side of the room stood and started shouting about how awful I was, how the dean of the college should be fired for allowing me to have a job, how they would never let their children come to A&M if I was still teaching. The other side stood and started in on how I was hard but fair, how they wanted to buy me a beer, or a bottle of whiskey, or bear my children, and how they might fail, but at least they learned something.
I had no clue what to do. I couldn’t stop laughing. They don’t tell you how to deal with a riot in your classroom during the orientation seminar. I finally just got everyone to sit down and got myself to stop laughing. “I think we’re not going to get much more done today, so let’s call it a day.” and dismissed the class.
A man from the back of the room came up to ask me some questions. It turns out the department had a course evaluator sit in on my class for the day. I hope he made commission.
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I did have a ruckus or two in just about all of my classes, but there was only one fruit cocktail riot, so if it sounds familiar, you were probably there.
It’s sort of a shame that it’s been so long since I’ve told these stories. I can’t remember exactly word for word what was said any more. I do remember the comments leading up to the riot were some of the funniest comments I’ve ever heard uttered, but other than that, all I can remember is the gist. All the joys of old age.
I have a few more class stories that I ought to get posted soon, assuming I can remember enough about them to post them.
Sorry about the grammar mistakes, the brain’s a little fried.
I believe I was in the class your talkin about. Either that, or all your classes had major ruckus raised. Anyway, I was one of the ones in my seat laughing at all insanity. It’s amazing how people can get so bent out of shape over a fruit cup. Just wanted to let you know I’m enjoying the stories.
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