Monday, September 9, 2013

Stump the Chump

I remember when I was in high school asking my dad for help with my Calculus homework many times.  He would typically be sitting at the kitchen table after dinner reading a history book when I would show up, unannounced and say something to the effect of, “Hey Dad, using the chain rule I’m supposed to differentiate y= log(4+cos x). I can’t figure it out.  Do you know the answer?” Then, with all my infinite patience I would wait a grand total of 10 seconds before deciding he didn’t know and shuffle away.  He would respond with, “What is this? Stump the Chump? At least give me a minute to think about it and let me see the textbook so I can remember this material.”  And just for the record, he always knew the answer.

Well, I have been having a lot of my own Stump the Chump moments here while teaching.  I absolutely love my students.  This is actually the first time I have ever taught freshmen, or first-years, as they are called here.  I don’t know if I just got lucky and have a good group, or if they are normally this attentive, but I really enjoy my class.  And seeing as that I have 126 students I didn’t expect them to be nearly this interactive.  I figured if anything they would take advantage of being one of many and use the opportunity to skate by and expend the minimum effort.  But quite to the contrary, they are interested in actively learning.

However, with their interest in learning comes a significant amount of questions.  Many I know the answers to already, but there are plenty which trip me up.  Keep in mind these are not totally random questions, but related to the course material and topic of discussion in class on any given day.  Here are a few examples of questions that have been thrown at me the last few weeks:
  •  Is Santa Claus black?
  • How much money does a butler make?
  • What is a convertible?
  • If there are no women in the village of Banzhushan why do the men stay there? (Oh dear!)
  • Why is Africa so small on maps?

Sometimes I wish I had someone in class videotaping my facial expressions and explanations because I have no doubt they are very amusing.  But, the last question about the presentation of Africa on maps is totally legitimate.  It turns out the Mercator map, which is the one we are all familiar with, was developed in the 16th century for nautical purposes.  By standardizing the earth using a linear scale it assisted sea vessels but grossly distorted the shape and size of most of the land.  The Peters Projection World Map was created in 1967 to more accurately portray the continents.  Here is a video from the old television show “The West Wing” which describes the Mercator and Peters maps very well:

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