Academic Poll: Appropriate Language

We did a lab yesterday that asked students to measure the speed of a ball leaving a spring-loaded launcher in a few different ways. this is a great way to talk about the difference between systematic and random errors and how those are dealt with. As a way of starting that discussion, I asked the students to calculate the speeds last night, and then enter their values in an Excel sheet when they came to class this morning. Since generating a sensible plot in Excel 2007 is such a gigantic pain in the ass, I used an older data set to set up a template, and made a graph of the quantities we were going to discuss, with error bars and all that, then I deleted the old data, so they were typing into a form that should automatically generate the graph, which I pushed off to the side of the screen so it wasn’t immediately visible.

This is, in principle, the right way to deal with Excel and its horrid default settings– I get occasional comments on past posts where I’ve complained about this calling me an idiot for not setting up this sort of template. So, this ought to work.

While the data was plotted in approximately the right way, the error bars were completely bizarre– only a fraction of the data had error bars at all, those points that did have error bars had both the vertical ones they were supposed to have and horizontal error bars that weren’t supposed to be there. I have no idea where any of the error bars were coming from, either– they certainly weren’t taken from the data columns that were supposed to be the source. And just to round things out, the scroll bars that should’ve been there, weren’t. I managed to get the graph on screen by dragging it to the middle of the window from the edge, but once I pushed the godawful mangled thing back off screen, I had no way to get back to the numbers.

My reaction to this, as you might expect, included some intemperate language. Which brings us to today’s poll:

While technology offers a number of interesting ways to enhance the educational experience, it also offers a bunch of spectacular new failure modes. Sadly, as much as I aim for the enhancements, I always seem to end up in one of the spectacular failures. Particularly when Microsoft Office is involved. But honestly, I hesitate to attempt this sort of thing with Google Docs, for fear that it’s just my karma, and it’ll just end up lowering my generally good opinion of Google products…

9 thoughts on “Academic Poll: Appropriate Language

  1. I would suggest that swearing and anger do not belong together in a classroom. If you feel like yelling , do not do that while cursing. On the other hand, if you wish to curse, it should be done in a quiet, polite manner. A quiet curse is funny and cathartic – a shouted curse is scary and threatening.

    Cursing and yelling are like radioactive isotopes – useful in their way, but if they’re too close together, things can explode quickly.


  2. My usual rules apply: swearing at people is right out, unless you are trying to pick a fight; swearing at inanimate things, or about people or ideas, is OK.

  3. In general, I’m not a big fan of swearing in class because it’s not, well, classy. However, I think that there’s a difference between the introductory courses when you have a bunch of freshman and in a smaller, more intimate majors course where you probably have known the students for a while.

  4. This is, in principle, the right way to deal with Excel and its horrid default settings– I get occasional comments on past posts where I’ve complained about this calling me an idiot for not setting up this sort of template. So, this ought to work.

    Never get involved in a land war in Asia, never agree to a battle of wits in which iocane powder is a factor, and never assume without extensive testing that Microsoft software will behave in accordance with your sense of logic.

  5. I would suggest that swearing and anger

    So long as it’s not anger at a student, it’s perfectly acceptable. I’ll admit to swearing in class, mostly as a means of scoring a cheap laugh during some of the drier, but necessary bits of teaching writing. There’s nothing that keeps students alert better than, for example, diagramming a sentence on the board and punctuating it, Mad Libs-style, with unnecessary and unexpected profanity.

  6. “Sadly, as much as I aim for the enhancements, I always seem to end up in one of the spectacular failures.”

    The experience wasn’t a total loss, because this is a real life failure mode. Whatever your students end up doing, they’ll probably be fighting Microsoft for decades to come. Or, if not Microsoft, they’ll be working with some computer system somewhere which is letting them down. Whether you’ve meant to or not, you’re teaching them that this is something that many of us deal with in our professions all the time. (And let’s not kid ourselves, as much as we like to complain about Microsoft, it’s not like all the other computer systems in the world work flawlessly all the time either.)

  7. Where you go astray, I think, is in treating powerpoint as more than a slide show program. Powerpoint (and Openoffice Impress) do slideshows well – and that’s the only thing they do well.

    It isn’t a drawing program. It isn’t an animation package. It certainly is not a data analysis application. It shows slides. Images and text. That’s what it does well.

    So anything you want in your presentation, make it with another application; an application that is meant for creating graphs or whatever. Let those apps create images, then paste those images into powerpoint.

    If you want an animation, you could spend a quality afternoon fighting powerpoint to make it import your movie, actually show it with the right aspect ratio, without stutter, with sound, and only when you actually want it to play rather than when powerpoint thinks you want it to play. Then have it all fail anyway once you’re standing in front of your audience.

    Or, you can simply open the movie in VLC or some other media player, pause it and keep the window behind your presentation. A quick alt-tab and your movie plays in glorious quality exactly when you want it to.

    Use powerpoit for slides – and only for slides – and both you and it will be much happier.

  8. Ugh, Excel directly; I thought for some reason you were importing a live Excel document into powerpoint for your class.

    No, Excel graphing is broken. How about a gnuplot script instead?

  9. There is a typo in the last poll option. I’ve fixed it below:

    As a being of pure intellect, I reject your limited languages and your meat-sack notions of obscenity. I love me some fucking radio-button polls, though!

    You should really be careful about such things, Chad. People expect proper grammar from a professional such as yourself. 🙂

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