Saturday, December 6, 2008

more mountains

These pictures were taken on the way to church last Sunday. Can you find the Yeti?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

on to exams...

Mr Burchell Mr Burchell, what can I do to bring up my grade?

Last day of classes this semester.

My students are in desperation mode as the exams draw near and they start to care about their grades. I have enjoyed playing a different role in exams these past few years. As a teacher, I am on the side of accuracy and validity, and that role comes with its own responsibility and stress. The student objective in the situation is to somehow or other obtain a grade which favorably misrepresents their skill level. This desire for an A transcript with C work leads to many of the crises that dominate my interactions with students lately. They are not genuinely worried about seeing an unfair exam, but the idea of a fair exam has them all a little jumpy.

In a few of my classes today, the topic of negative marking was brought up by students. Part of their exam will be multiple choice, so they are concerned about negative marking. Anyway, negative marking was a hot topic because I quickly told them that it is a great idea, which made about three more of them look up with terrified eyes at the teacher who might take away their not-so-secret weapon on multiple choice tests: blind luck. I find that topics involving grades are fertile ground for effective discussions about math. Students care about their grades more than they care about most of the other topics we discuss, which is ironic, because if they paid attention to the other topics... but that's only my humble teacher opinion.

Negative marking represents another one of those badly misunderstood tools of education that bring out the irrationality of students.

I once wrote a monograph on the subject... a mere trifle, really. The subject of negative marking, that is, not the irrationality of students. And it's not really a monograph, but a handout. I am still researching the irrationality of students.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

recent reading

My sister just wrote about her recent reading, so I thought that I would. I recently finished another trip through 'The Complete Sherlock Holmes' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have enjoyed it more since living in England and wandering through London a bit. I also had an analysis professor at Lancaster who will always play the role of Sherlock Holmes in my mind as I read those stories.

Sherlock Holmes is built around a supremely powerful principle of writing that is rarely used to its full advantage. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes is bigger than the stories which define him. There are constant references to other cases, some of them which can only be hinted at by Watson, as their exposure would even now topple kingdoms. Stories frequently include some casual introduction to an unknown chapter of the detective's experience, an offhand comment about the most obscure of specialities, which implicitly releases our imaginations to wonder what the fellow does not know. I once wrote a monograph on the classification of the thirty-seven most common types of pencil lead... a mere trifle, really. We get the impression that we are seeing the slightest sample of the character. We are afforded a portrait that is less than comprehension.

A couple of years ago I inherited a fat book of Hercule Poirot short stories from some friends as they were moving. The book contained some fifty stories, and although I read them all, I was somewhat underwhelmed. Agatha Christie was supposed to be a great mystery writer and Poirot made for a poor introduction. I think that she went to such pains to make him the antithesis of Sherlock Holmes that he escaped without any personality or finesse. With Hercule Poirot, I was pretty sure that I saw the whole character and it was not very interesting.

Anyway, I just read Agatha Christie's story called 'The Witness for the Prosecution", and while it did not contain much in the way of impressive detective work, it did reveal an originality and imagination that was so wanting in poor Hercule's cases.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

roof of the world

We are always so refreshed when the days cool and the dust settles enough to see these mountains.
Usually we can see the nearby green mountains, but all summer long you would never guess there was a looming range of snow capped giants a little further out. We always feel like they 'come up' during the cool months, and it seems to challenge our sense of object permanence to admit their presence when we can detect no trace of them. We stand there and fill our lungs with the freshest air that this here subcontinent can offer, and it feels like it is rolling off the cold rocks and snow drifts.

These days are beautiful here in the mountains, and the evenings are sweet times of tea and woodfires with my darling, and sometimes a book. Last night it was full of grading calculus tests, and that was not as sweet.

Monday, December 1, 2008

the suicide bomber

It has occurred to me that most of the people in my own country have a notion of terrorist bombings in an action movie sort of way, but probably not in a daily newspaper sort of way. They are more common than I remember thinking before living here. The first time a young person hears of crowds of people being blown to shreds in a temple or butchered by car-bombs in a marketplace, it is a vivid exposure to a very dark side of humanity. After we grow up, we realize that such things are common in some places and we begin to regard those lands as savage or violent or otherwise unenlightened, and certainly altogether foreign.

The suicide bomber has on occasion shaken the Western spirit of security by its very foundations, reminding us to have a fear that we have long ignored. Our typical suicide bombers in the West have lost all reason, we say, we hope. Things have ended badly and as their tormented spirits cry for revenge, they kill their classmates or coworkers or families. In chilling contrast, the religious suicide bomber experiences no such breakdown of reason. They are meticulous and resolute, planning for months and proudly serving a purpose. Their actions are not viewed as a desperate departure from their upbringing, but rather as a focused culmination.

Their victims are helpless, fearful and passively accepting of the fate that may be hurtling toward them in the next rickshaw.

A killer gazes lucidly,
Plunging toward eternity,
Pleased with opportunity
And brazen with impunity,
Through trudging masses tired by fear,
Unaware he's finally near.

Rickshaw goaded through the crowds
To die in stillness with two shrouds,
Of smoking canvas painted gold,
Of burning hatred ages old.

Twisted bicycle, bloodied silk,
Crumpled cans and muddied milk,
Petrol in the drainage ditch,
Swirled with blood of poor and rich
Ignorant in blasting death,
Of piety that stole their breath.

Seeing nothing, feeling less,
Wander through the filthy mess.
Wonder if the brilliant flash
Of flesh and flame and pain will pass
From memories of sons and wives,
From streets and markets and the lives
Of people in the ancient land
Who always knew the heavy hand
Of seething war and slashing hate,
And all surpassing fear of fate.