The teaching-assistantial mind at work

So, this is how a mathematics course works: there is a big mighty lecturer, who twice a week delivers the Gospel of the Gaussites; and if his words and the reality of the world are at variance, so much worse for reality. Then there is the teaching assistant, who once a week meets all those that were (or were not) hearing the Gospel, and sees they receive the right answers to the week’s exam sheet of four to eight questions.

This is usually done by the method of “I shall now circulate a sheet; put a mark on each question you’d be willing to demonstrate at your fellow miscreants from the blackboard, with such squawkings added to your scribblings as are necessary. If necessary, I shall then reject your solution and substitute my own. Oh, and a percentage X of the marks are required to attend the lecture-course exam / the marks merely give you the possibility of scoring 110 on a course with a maximum of 100 points. Any volunteers to present a question of your choice? Fine, I shall look at the list and order some volunteers then, and order and order again (but no double jeopardy); and if there aren’t enough marks then gosh darn it I shall have to hand-wave and chalk-wave the remaining problems myself.”

Now, that was not my point — merely something to tell to annoy those whose work involves essays. Not that a spectacular misunderstanding of a problem, or a critical typo in the problem sheet, doesn’t sometimes cause a blackboard essay and a soliloquy on the hardness of doing the impossible, even if that is what Mr. Professor wants. (“But I can’t prove all integers are less than three!” — “It commands so on the Sheet! Do you suppose our Tenured One, caffeine be unto him, could make a mistake in writing the Sheet, his inspired Doctoreal word, you infidel humanitiestistic scum? A Fratwa on you! A Fratwa! Alpha Beta Gamma, never sleep at night! Tau Gamma Sigma, your bike a toilet paper mummy!“)

My point, and a particular illustration of how my mind works, is this: if there is a course, it is good to have a home page for it. One can put the times of the lectures and the demonstrations there; the exam dates, the possible course book few ever see (you scribble down what the lecturer scribbles up is enough), any course changes and peppy messages of goodwill, a picture of the TA skinning a cat, the problem sheets; maybe even some kind of model answers or answer clarifications, too. One tends to follow some kind of a pattern with these last ones — dullmaths1.pdf, dullmaths2.pdf, and dullmaths1ans.pdf, dullmaths2ans.pdf, and so on.

It is, I think, to be expected that sooner or later a clever mind might think to experiment with the URL, just to see if there’s an unlinked-to answer sheet to undemonstrated questions already on the server.

For that reason, I’ve for the present course (for which taking care of the course page fell to me) made sure to always have answers4.pdf on the server long before probsheet4.pdf has its day at the blackboard. The contents of answers4.pdf are something like this, in big letters centered on an otherwise empty page:

Nah, it’s not here yet.

Good try, though.

Here’s a gold star sticker, a barnstar and all!

Don’t know if anyone’s acted in ways that reveal this message of snide cheerfulness; don’t particularly care since my warm fuzzy feeling comes from the potential and not the actual discord. (The student lot at this particular course are a bright and cheerful bunch, so they’d probably tell me if their mercenary curiosity gave them this reveal.)

Still, it pays to have routine of updating where I never add a single link to the html without making sure the snidery pdf is bumped to next week’s numbers.

(Another alternative would have been a pdf that read “UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS ATTEMPT. Your IP address and username have been recorded, and course management has been notified. They will contact you at a later time.” But there’s a difference between a wink and waving your privates in someone’s face, right?)

(Well, depends on your chosen slang definition of a “wink”, really. Cyclopean snake wink and all that.)

3 Responses to “The teaching-assistantial mind at work”

  1. Bob O'H Says:

    Hm. How about putting the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in one of the pdfs? That should scare them enough to pay attention to marginal notes.

    (and wait, what’s all this pdf rubbish? Don’t real mathematicians use postscript?)

  2. Masks of Eris Says:

    Ah, but then the dept. secretary would come to me, and ask pointed questions about a student who went slightly over his print quota. “Ha ha, very funny. Now the printer is out of toner and Prof. Mumblescream needs to print. You know he tends to defenestrate recalcitrant technologies. If that happens, I’ll send Mr. Ferret of the computer center right at you — he’s the one who can’t refer to a mouse without shaking and saying ‘that thing there’ — and you know wherever he goes, legions of mud-trailing, slack-jawed freshmen follow, asking if giving their passwords to compterCentre @ blacknet.ru was a good idea. Soon the commotion’ll attract the attention of Headmasterus Rex, and with the sound of doom-doom and boom-boom in the air over the bridge he shall leap, flames rising up to greet him, a fancy overcoat spreading round him like a pair of wings and catching fire, and your advisor will be as a wizened old tree before the onset of a storm at the Rex’s advance, and a whip of flame and a sword of fire will leap out—”

    Erp. This then apparently again is how my mind works. (“Hello? Is the department of mathematics round here?” — “You shall not pass!”)

    (And, yes, real mathematicians use postscript. Or DVI. Or pure uncompiled tex because honestly after a few years you see how the jumble would read. A terminal mathematician doesn’t even need a tex compiler; he writes and submits and that’s that. But nth-year students for a somewhat small value of n… might have trouble in viewing postscript.)

  3. Bob O'H Says:

    If a student prints out Things They Are Not Meant to See, you get offer them a choice. Either they give a seminar explaining the maths they printed out, or they get to chat to the departmental secretary.

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