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Topic: Re: real world nonsense
Replies: 1   Last Post: Nov 28, 1995 11:14 AM

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Michael Paul Goldenberg

Posts: 7,041
From: Ann Arbor, MI
Registered: 12/3/04
Re: real world nonsense
Posted: Nov 28, 1995 10:07 AM
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At 8:58 AM 11/28/95, wrote:
>Michael J. South 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

>I apologize to everyone (you too Annie) for not dwelling on the mathematics
>I'm glad the author of this problem realizes his examples were tongue in
>cheek. However, this shows an obvious lack of consideration and compassion
>for the huge number of people who ARE living with HIV and AIDS--and I'm
>certain there are many on the author's campus, and possibly some in his own
>You may feel everyone will know that this was tongue-in-cheek, but there are
>FAR too many people who still think that these are ways one can contract the
>virus. There is already enough AIDS-phobia and attacks on people with AIDS
>to perpetuate it in this manner.
>If you want to write a problem such as this, PLEASE, either make sure you use
>REALISTIC examples, not sarcasm. Sarcasm is lost on many people, and in a
>case such as this can be far more damaging to your students than you realize.
>Eric Karnowski

Without making too much of this issue (after all, it's not "about"
mathematics, so I'm once again treading on thin ice), I have to disagree
with most of what Eric has written above. I think we are rapidly moving in
the direction of a humorless society, not because we've lost our sense of
the absurd, but because we're so damnably afraid of offending delicate

I'm not suggesting that the example presented by Michael South is without
potential concerns or pitfalls. But handled intelligently, it raises
several good points, both mathematical and social. People DO have
outlandish ideas about how AIDS (and other conditions and diseases) are
spread or contracted; people DO have inadequate understandings of
mathematical representations of this kind (along with many others); it
would be helpful for folks to understand the mathematics; it would also be
potentially cleansing for people to confront myths and superstitions.

Now, before someone jumps on me, I have NOT suggested that all teachers in
all circumstances should use Mr. South's example or one just like it: some
folks handle delicate social issues better than others. If you don't feel
personally comfortable raising social or political issues in your
mathematics class, by all means do not do so. But let's not demand a
monolithic approach to how such issues may be addressed by others.

Part of the essence of teaching (and learning) is risk, as Polya, among
others, has pointed out. What Eric appears to be calling for would
eliminate any risk-taking in mathematics classrooms that comes too close to
treading on any real-world but controversial topic. This kind of policy is
simply not tolerable or healthy in a democracy.

I commend Michael South for his courage, and I will give him the benefit of
the doubt in assuming that he understood reasonably well the risks he took
in both presenting this problem in class AND in posting it on this list. I
think a careful reading of his post will support the idea that he was being
neither blind nor frivolous. Certainly we need to reflect before, during,
and after presenting "controversial" real-world problems. And sarcasm, left
unpacked, may indeed be a two-edged sword. But as professionals, we are
entitled to our individual teaching styles and judgments. And as human
beings, we are entitled to use satire and humor, two of the greatest
non-violent weapons available, to help us cope with a reality that is far
too often bleak and grim.

|Michael Paul Goldenberg
|University of Michigan 310 E. Cross St.
|School of Education 4002 Ypsilanti, MI 48198
|Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1259 (313) 482-9585
|(313) 747-2244
|"Truth is a mobile army of metaphors."
|Friedrich Nietzsche

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