Thursday, April 21, 2011

a blithering irrelevancy

Tonight was a full house at YB Far, which is a bigger branch than YB Near, so I had a full complement of students this evening despite our being in the middle of spring break. YB Far is better about giving me older students (primarily because they have so many older students), but many of those students come to YB not to study for the SAT, but to ask for help with school subjects like chemistry, biology, calculus, Algebra 2, history, physics, and all sorts of other subjects I can't help them with.

This constant barrage of material outside my competence has finally driven home just how marginal my own field of study is. From the point of view of the typical American high schooler, it's hard to imagine what possible good could come of pursuing a Master's in religious studies. I often feel, as I struggle to remember something-- anything-- about factoring polynomials, that I'm little more than an appendage at YB: The Guy Who Can't Teach Much. In terms of curriculum, I'm more at home helping grade schoolers with basic math than I am dealing with algebraic matrices or balancing equations in chemistry.

While it's true that we all specialize as we get older, whether or not we follow a strictly academic path, I've only begun to realize just how specialized I've become. For the students I teach, I'm little more than a blithering irrelevancy, someone who, often as a joke, lamely mentions that he's been away from the regular core curriculum for so long that he can't help with course material that these students, even with their lack of mastery, can eat for breakfast. I'm limited to tutoring SAT verbal, middle- and high-school reading, basic math and English for grade schoolers, French on very rare occasions, and perhaps a bit of Algebra 1.

None of this is to imply that I now regret wandering off the beaten path to pursue my studies of first things, but I do feel bad that I've lost so much of the basic knowledge that most high school seniors possess: my ignorance limits my ability to help these kids. Still, I'm enjoying my job overall, and if the students think I'm incompetent, they can't be complaining too loudly about it (stayed tuned, though; for all I know, I'll be slammed with a progress report soon). I try to be up-front with the kids about the limits of my knowledge; I also admire and envy my coworkers, most of whom are able to handle a large range of school subjects with aplomb.

Not yours truly, alas. No aplomb here. Me, I spend a lot of time apologizing.



JSA said...

I aced both on the first try, with no study, but SAT Verbal is the elder statesman. So don't sell yourself short. I recently saw a study showing that people with extremely high IQs gravitate toward verbal things like philosophy instead of math, and it makes sense to me. The best math kids will still flunk verbal, but the best verbal kids can ace math if they want to. I'm an old man now, and I teach math kids when I can, but I'm still a verbal bigot.

I've seen you operate in religious studies/philosophy, and you have the raw talent. If you choose not to tutor on math, I suspect it has far more to do with lack of interest than with lack of competence.

"I'm more at home helping grade schoolers with basic math than I am dealing with algebraic matrices or balancing equations in chemistry."

FWIW, you can balance chemical equations as systems of linear equations (by using algebraic matrices). I'm not aware of any teachers who teach it that way, but it works just fine. It's a good way to convince students that math is boooring. Verbal is where it's at.

Anonymous said...

I'm now trying to choke down a caustic remark to JS Allen. A-hm.

OK, past that now.

It occurs to me that if, after confessing your relative lack of knowledge of something, the kids see you then do a bit of digging and thinking out loud, possibly assisted by them, that eventually results in figuring something out, that could be even better for them than a tutor who just says "Sure, here's how you do that" and then shows them. You'd be modeling something way more important than how to do a particular problem, you'd be modeling something important about learning in general--what to do when you don't know what to do. And their minds might be even more actively engaged, since they wouldn't be relying 100% on you to figure things out, they'd have to actively participate in the hunt.


JSA said...

@Addofio - You can go ahead and let me have it. My comment was kind of douchey, even though I am still a verbal bigot.

Balancing chemical equations with matrices is actually pretty cool, BTW.