This is in response to Michael South's description of the types of problems he includes in his class. He wrote:
"While teaching an applied math course at Texas Tech I put a question approximately like the following on an exam:
Assume that (don't remember the number I used) % of the population is HIV positive, and you engage in high-risk behavior (shaking hands, hugging, sitting next to in class, etc) with 12 randomly selected people. What is the probability that you will be exposed to HIV at least once?
Probably should have done a follow-up survey to determine how many people failed to detect the toungue-in-cheekness of the high risk behavior examples.
I used problems like this frequently on exams, sometimes humorous (in my opinion, anyway) ("Bob goes nightclubbing to try to pick up women. If he has a 1 in 20 chance of picking up a woman at any given bar, and he goes to 8 bars, what is the probability of picking up at least one woman?" Didn't put this on an exam, but used it as a classroom example, with plenty of humor to diffuse the obvious political incorrectness) and sometimes with serious overtones (as that above)."
I find the use of these specific problems and others like them really troubling. First of all, offensive remarks are made more, not less, offensive when the speaker acknowledges that they are offensive. It means that the speaker knows he is being rude and is deliberately choosing to be so anyway, hiding behind the fact that he is calling it "humor." Does he also include racist and anti-Semetic "jokes" in his problems?
Beyond that, I know from my own experience as a teacher that one has to be very careful about the use of such humor in a classroom. Some people don't relate to sarcasm in general; some students are so busy focusing on the mathematics of the problem that they don't pay attention to the fact that something is supposed to be funny, and then they read it straight; some students simply don't pay attention 100% of the time and then don't hear the fact that something was intended to be humorous; some students hear their peers laugh and feel that any other response (like being offended) would not be tolerated. My brother had a medical school professor who frequently made sexist jokes in his class. The fact that exactly half the class was female didn't stop him. Their expressions of outrage only seemed to encourage him to direct his remarks at them personally. So, in the name of what he considered to be funny, this professor made his classroom extremely uncomfortable at times, downright hostile at others, for 50% of his students.
In addition, HIV is very a charged issue in our society, and an awful lot of people do not understand how it is transmitted. To have a teacher, an authority figure, give incorrect information about HIV infection, even if that teacher means it to be a joke, is really disturbing and irresponsible. How many students who did not get the joke will be more confused about this now? And what about the possibility that one or more of the students in the class is HIV positive? I doubt that they would appreciate this "joke" any more than an African American would find humor in a racist joke.
Certainly there is a place for humor in the classroom, and certainly the use of real world examples, situations, and applications of mathematics is admirable. But please, please, be more responsible about both.