To Be A Person, or, Not To Be A Person-With

I promised to address “person-first” language. (And my pal David promised to “rip the piss outa [me]”, for which I’m curious what-all he has to say. Then again, I’m really curious as to what all of you readers here have to say; just who ARE you people??)

Person-first language refers to saying things like “person with a hearing loss”, as opposed to someone “being hard-of-hearing’. The philosophy behind this is that the person is more important than an impairment they have; that a person should not be known by a diagnosis. This is a reasonable goal, but like anything, it can be taken to extremes and has been.

I think “person-with” makes better rational linguistic sense when the “with” is a temporary (or preferably temporary) condition, as in “person with broken leg” or “person with cancer”. Person-first language makes all kinds of sense when trying to avoid the bad hospital habit of saying “the emphysema in 402”. The ENT says I am a person with hyperacussis and tinnitus.

Actually, I would end up saying things like, “I am nearsighted and have Auditory Processing Disorder”, and skip the whole person-with scenario. “I am brunette” is infinitely handier than saying “I have (or am a person with) brunette hair”. It’s understood that it’s my hair color we’re talking about, and that a description of me is only slightly delineated by that descriptor – I’m more than my hair.

When the condition is rather a state of being — something fairly permanent, whether acquired or developmental — then it’s (noun) as in autistic, Deaf, gay, male, dyslexic, Canadian et cetera.

Person-first can be prissy and awkward and sometimes is simply benign earnestness at being polite – well-intended but treacly. Or, person-first can be Politically Correct at its most obnoxious, demonstrating a belief that the condition is “recoverable” and thus meaning something should be done about it. At its worst, person-first demonstrates a belief that the condition is shameful, to be avoided or hidden, such as a person with homosexual tendencies who just needs a good dose of religious correction and a burning desire to be morally uprighteous and “normal”.

Early in my life I started doing things left-handed, so they made sure I learned to write with my right hand. And I’m still left-handed. My inner right-handed person was never “recovered” from that pathological condition, because that imaginary person was never there. I’m a lefty who has learned how to be ambidextrous, which often means that I’m clumsy any way I go about it. Trying to pretend I’m really a right-handed person and calling me such never changed that. Likewise, autistics are not broken or diseased neurotypicals, anymore than gays and lesbians are not confused or immoral heterosexuals.

(I just wish there was a better term for “I have ADHD”; ADDer just doesn’t cut it for me. Maybe they’ll rename it – again – and we’ll have a more euphonic term.)


“It’s a ganglion cyst,” announced my doctor, after gently squeezing and manipulating my right index finger, and feeling the lump below the middle knuckle. I’d felt kind of silly going in to the doctor just for a stiff, persistently swollen finger, and had put off the visit for a month until I realized that it was not only getting worse, but also affecting my ability to grip things. Then the doc went and fetched a foam-padded aluminum splint and some bandage tape. So now my right index finger is immobilized through the middle of September, in hopes that without physical aggravation from everyday activities, the cyst will subside and I won’t have to see a specialist to have it aspirated or operated upon.

Fortunately, I don’t rely on my right hand for everything. In fact, there’s very little I can’t also do with my left hand, aside from obvious stuff like wear right-handed gloves or type YUIOPHJKL;NM,. Most lefties are ambidextrous just because they have to live in a world full of things designed for right-handed people (sewing machines being a rare exception). I have lefty scissors (which stay nice and sharp because no one borrows them), a lefty can opener, and my pen jar lives on the left side of my desk.

Which is odd because I don’t write left-handed. I’ve been writing right-handed for the past forty years because that’s the way I was taught, per my mother’s request. I could never figure out why some of the other kids in my classes got to use the lefty scissors, but I didn’t. She could never figure out why my penmanship was poor.

So here I am, learning to keep my pen in what has been, for penmanship purposes, not my dominant hand, but my dormant hand. Heaven knows which is my “dominant” hand (I need to ask my psychologist friend, David, what was the final analysis on that random question). The things I learned as a child I do right-handed, the things I learned as an adult I do left-handed, and many things I do with either hand.

I can write left-handed, but not surprisingly, my penmanship looks like a first-grader’s, and it’s slow going from lack of practice. I’m also finding, much to my surprise, that I have resurrected not only dormant writing skills, but also dormant writing problems: I get b d p q mixed up again. I know how to spell and I can read okay, but something gets scrambled in the writing process, not unlike the way my numerals get mixed up sometimes. The ways of the brain are mysterious, indeed.

Today is Monday, and sometime tomorrow I need to decide if I can either scribble fast enough or type fast enough on my laptop to take notes in my Thursday class, or else must request a note-taker via the college’s disability access department.

Which all is kind of humorous, in a cosmically ironic way. I’ve been a note-taker for other students, in classes where I was already very familiar with the subject, so I wasn’t spending quite as much effort understanding the teacher. Equally ironic is that this class I’m taking is on the “Exceptional Child” – it’s all about different kinds of disabilities.

Tying the Knots

A series of vignettes strung on a chain, now broken.

My mother just wanted a “normal” girl; maybe it was that entrenched social conformism. By 5th grade she kept stressing this idea, so I observed what girls were interested in, which was horses and romances. Therefore I ordered one each of horse and romance stories from the Weekly Reader book club, and found them to be profoundly disinteresting. I could not fathom either the attraction or the point! When I was a high school freshman, Mom decided that I lacked femininity and grace, so enrolled me in a “charm school” held at Sears & Roebucks, where we were taught the proper way to apply makeup, walk with a book on our heads, kneel to pick up an object from the floor while wearing miniskirts, sit down in a dainty and discreet manner, curtsy and such. Somehow this failed to make me more normal.

Shopping for my clothes invariably provoked more complaints; I was “so picky” about clothes, meaning there are many fabrics I cannot stand to touch or wear, not to mention the collar tags (which I now remove). I remember getting overwhelmed at the department store as a child, one of those seriously old-fashioned places with an elevator operator, glass display cases of merchandise, multiple floors of merchandise, and pneumatic tubes slinging upstairs to the cashier’s cage. One department, or maybe the dressing rooms, had high-contrast vertical striped wallpaper that gave me slithery-jangling-willies. Sometimes the floor seems to ripple; busy surfaces like speckled/tweedy commercial-grade carpeting or color-streaked linoleum or striped wallpaper acquire a quivering aspect, like wavelets upon great bodies of water. I know from repeated experiments (done as a child) that these surfaces do not really ripple or undulate, so I generally ignore the effect, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. I get vertigo and things seem to spin around, or close distances yawn far away from me. Mom hated dragging me with her, because I’d want to hide in the center of the circular coat rack, muffling out the noises and smells and colors in the darkness and comfortingly-heavy pressure of yards of dense fabrics. I was just trying to cope with the sensory overload, but all she could see was that I was being disobedient and an embarrassment to her from by attracting attention to my weird behavior …

Unfortunately, in the long run my mother seemed more concerned with assigning blame than resolving problems, and she decided that my long-standing academic difficulties were due to rebelliousness; I was just “acting out.” One day in high school, after I handed over the dreaded report card, she grounded me with the fierce proclamation that “All children rebel, but you are doing it ALL WRONG!” For her, there was one way things were supposed to be, and I did not fit her expectations: granted I didn’t drink or do drugs, but I also didn’t date, didn’t drive, and didn’t excel in school, sports or social activities.

There I was trying to rationally understand how people thought and interacted, and instead I had someone who was (alcoholic and) inconsistent, inexplicable, and unpredictable. I kept trying to wrap my head around making sense of what she said and did, and kept getting my mind tangled up in Laingian knots. What I needed was access to strategies that would allow me to learn how to meet my own needs. Instead, what I got was a denial that those needs existed. She could not, or would not understand that my needs were different than hers. Her denial, disbelief, or dismissal caused me to doubt my own self-understanding, and thus prevented me from helping myself. Years later I finally understand her actions as being narcissistic, for all she asserted that she was only trying to prove to others how hard she worked to “help” me. It wasn’t just about her “not understanding” that I was different, it was about my not being able to give her what she needed. It was all about what she needed. Repeatedly, the scenarios played out, as she:

  • Told me how I “really” felt emotionally or physically, or told me that I could not possibly be feeling something, that indeed I actually was feeling.
  • Discouraged questions, saying that they were either stupid, or that I didn’t need to know such things, or that everyone knew about ((whatever), and that I was foolish for bothering her to ask about things.
  • Asserted that I must be either crazy, lying or on drugs when I described experiencing colors while listening to music.
  • Said I was being “too picky” because I could not stand to wear some kinds of fabrics, or got sore spots on my neck from collar tags, or could not stand to have my bedroom curtains open on sunny days, or could not stand the noise when some kinds of woodshop machinery were being used.
  • Delivered me curious “compliments” that did not feel like such, “You know, if you just wore a little makeup, you might be kinda pretty.”
  • Denigrated my interests as being stupid because they were not “normal”; I should be buying cute hair ties or makeup instead of a Latin dictionary or an antique volume on structural design & engineering by the National Park Service.
  • Told me, “Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean!” (This to someone who misses out on so much unspoken dialog?)
  • Took to red-inking my personal diary and creative writing efforts for grammatical errors, ridiculed my social concerns as being absurd, and the story plot ideas as being stupid.
  • Periodically would go through my locker, purse, notebook or bedroom contents in an effort to find something incriminating (drugs I did not use, or notes from non-existent boyfriends), and then accused me of being devious because she could not find anything.
  • Would not admit when she was wrong; I was obviously confused, or lying, or making things up.
  • Accused me of stealing clothes when my Spanish teacher gave me one of her used blouses, then changed her story and said I had been lying to the teacher and misrepresenting myself as poor and neglected.
  • Considered my expressing frustration as being “rebellious.”
  • Disbelieved my scholastic problems when I tried to explain them to her, but then turned around and saying that I had been “hiding” problems when teachers or my school counselor told her about bad grades from unfinished tests, missing assignments, jumbled math homework, bad spelling and such.
  • Asserted that my problems from bullies were all because I had “brought it upon myself” and was causing the bullying, and simply being “whiny” and “just trying to get attention” when I told the problems to various teachers and the school principal.
  • Ridiculed my concerns about scholastic problems, and demanded good grade results but would not accept the fact that I needed help to achieve those goals, saying that my lack of results was due to merely being lazy and not trying hard enough.
  • Convinced others that that my problems were burdens that I created intentionally for her out of rebelliousness.
  • Denied my problems or belittled them as being much less important than any of her own problems.
  • Complained about the cost/ shopping effort/ need for basic school items (such as a required style of gym socks or graph paper for geometry class) as though these were unusual demands I had invented just to make her life more difficult.
  • Assigned guilt by association – badmouthing my father (her ex-husband) saying I was just like him.
  • Curtailed contact with others (my teachers or counselor, interest clubs) and discouraged me from doing things on my own, then said I couldn’t do things because I had no experience or skills.
  • Gave me responsibility and consequences of things getting done, without giving me the means to do them effectively.

As ever, she was more concerned with finding faults and assigning blame than with resolving problems, because it was all about “saving face” on her part. It was my fault; she was trying so heroically to help me, but I was just being stupid or stubborn or rebellious. “Damnit Andrea, you know what your problem is? You don’t have any self-confidence! That’s just so pathetic!”

Although I now understand the essential errors in this denial, disbelief, and dismissal, these kinds of statements are still things I run into once in a while, from other people. It is a shame, really. Once I began to make sense of the world, I kept trying to change the family dynamics, to improve things, to help her understand, but she actively resisted change, even on those rare occasions when she would acknowledge that things were not right. But, you cannot make people what you want them to be.

You can’t change the past, but you can change how you react to it.

Unreal World

“But what is he going to do once he gets to the Real World?”

I had to smile at my fellow paraprofessional, thinking to myself that having been out in the big, bad Real World, I was doing my darndest to get back into academia.

One of our students has dysgraphia problems, and gets a scribe when there are a lot of answers to write down on assignments.

“Then he’ll do what other people do:  type things on the computer, talk to people, make recordings, or do what people used to do – dictate stuff for a secretary!”

This is a not uncommon reaction when a scribe is suggested for a student because of their tortuously slow handwriting speed, and/or because the penmanship is outright difficult to read.  People are afraid that giving a student a scribe to write down assignment answers is going to mollycoddle them.

But really, we have to ask ourselves just what is being assessed.  Is this a test for penmanship, or are we trying to help the student get information and concepts cemented into the brain, or checking their understanding of such?  Because if the handwriting process is so laborious, then our student of question will not progress far into the assignment.  They will also get very frustrated from the effort, and likely not finish the lesson, especially if this is a student with a prior history of academic difficulties.  Naturally, both of these factors do not improve the learning process.

To be clear, a scribe is someone who takes dictation, not someone who does the lesson for a student.  Giving a student a scribe is a good example of changing the environment to fit what a student needs, rather than forcing them into a mold they don’t well fit.  When done correctly, providing this kind of help does not enable them to be lazy, but rather enables them to be more productive.

When we have students who are not being compliant or on task, it’s good to ask ourselves what the actual task is that’s not getting done, and what the end result is that is actually needed in the educational process.

Read My Clips

On the home front, we’ve recently adopted a new-to-us AT, and it took some nudging from me to get hubby to participate.

The most fabulous Assistive Technology (AT) in the world is useless unless it gets implemented.  An AT, for those unfamiliar with the term, is any kind of device that enables one to do the things they need to do.  A crutch is very low-tech AT, and a sip-and-puff control to operate a power chair is high-tech AT.

Being able to acquire a useful AT can be problematic for many people.  There are three common hurdles in this process:  firstly, being able to discover what exists; secondly, being able to give it a suitable “test drive” (oft times there’s a learning curve to a new device, so it’s hard to tell how useful it will actually be until you can try it out under fairly natural conditions, which usually doesn’t mean sitting in someone’s office or showroom); and lastly, there’s the dreaded funding issue.  A lot of ATs fall under the “quality of life” category, rather than the “medically necessary” category, so aren’t covered by insurance (totally ignoring that quality of life improvements frequently have long-term health benefits, including the user needing fewer support services – penny wise and pound foolish, as ever).

For hubby and I, it wasn’t a lack of knowing about or even affording the AT.  Having the AT was a partial issue, owing to the fact that my previous equipment was too old for this rather common function.  Likely no one under the age of 30 would think of texting messages via cell phones as being terribly exotic.  But the fact was that my old mobile could receive, but not send.  Anyone who knows me well will understand that being able to express myself is a major psychosocial need – being able to get messages but not reply just wasn’t going to cut it for me.  Having been around plenty of young adults at college and work, I realized that having that kind of function for myself wouldn’t be a mere cultural habit, but rather an AT.  It was getting time to renew the mobile contract anyway, which allowed me to buy a new cell phone really cheap.  (No camera, no MP3 player, just a phone – but it is green.)

I had one month of free texting before I got charged for such; a common marketing ploy, but also a necessary one from that “learning curve” standpoint.  I found that the actual learning curve itself was short; after two messages I was comfortable with the process.  The challenge, I discovered, was getting hubby on the other end of our figurative tin can and string!  He understood texting from technical and sociological perspectives.  He just didn’t see any need for it personally.  He wanted me to phone him so we could talk.

Now, that really made no sense to me; he’s hard of hearing, and I have auditory processing disorder, where my cognitive processing of what I hear sometimes gets blips, not unlike the way my mobile gets erratic signals in buildings.  You’d think that the usefulness of this bit of technology would be apparent as all get-out.  But his emotional reception was lukewarm; he’s a people-person, and prefers as little technical interface as possible.

Doing phone calls during my summer camp job was difficult for several reasons, including crappy reception inside the building, the lack of free time during lunch (we were getting lunch for our campers), and often the utter volume level – some of the counselors could carry on phone conversations during our typically noisy bus rides, but I couldn’t.  Thus, we weren’t able to dependably call each other up for mundane conversations like, “I’m going to the store after work; do we need anything besides bread?”

There’s more than one way to sell something.  I’d get a voice-mail, and after listening to it two or three times to understand the message, replied back in text.  Text messages have clarity, when-you-can-get-around-to-it convenience of e-mail, but with more of the live-time quality of phoning.  I could receive and reply more easily, with greater privacy, and in more places.  I found there were additional benefits, like being able to share phone numbers or reminders, and having those available in digital memory for later in the day.  That’s a big deal for someone with ADHD!

Soon we were texting messages instead of talking on the phone.  We were actually communicating more information, and doing so more often.  We also found that what the missives may have lacked in warm fuzzy voice tones, they made up for in reduced marital stress.

“Need toilet paper!  Home for dinner?  Love you.”

Five Weird Things

Meme-tag time. Given the incredible variety of unusual data shared by other AutismHub responders, it was hard to come up with stuff that would be considered “weird”.

I can wiggle my ears. They used to be kinda pointy, though not as pointy as aspie kid’s were. I feel a bit annoyed at the fact that my ear shape has “normalised” over time.

The only sport I ever got into was fencing. I’m not much good at it, as I have to slowly acquire one skill at a time, so my responses are entirely synthetic. On the other hand, there is a slight advantage to being a lefty fencer. It’s also vastly improved my sense of safe personal space, which is handy in my para job working with emotional & behavior disorder students. (No, I don’t go after them with sticks; the only time I’ve beaten any of the students is in chess games.)

My pet tarantula is named Rosie; she’s copper-colored, fluffy, and about 10 cm / 4 in long. She lives in a terantularium a couple feet away from my laptop. Hmn, maybe this doesn’t count as weird, merely uncommon. Trying again.

When making quilts, I used to listen to heavy metal. Actually, I don’t find that terribly odd, but at the time the kids claimed it was. I say “used to” because I’ve not had much time to work on quilts what with teaching classes, taking classes, and working a couple of jobs. (You’re shocked, I’m sure.) I also listen to jazz, blues, rock, classic and miscellaneous stuff, but no rap or twangy country. I’m musically synæsthetic, which is kind of like having a permanent Fantasia show if I close my eyes. Actually, that last part is probably the weird thing.

The only dancing I have ever had any skill at is bellydancing, because I don’t have to move my feet around. Bilateral coordination with both legs and arms has always been a challenge. However, being double-jointed was useful in this pursuit. Hmn, this is probably a not-so-weird item; this quiz is harder than I thought! Okay, one of the reasons why I’ve not done any dancing in a long time is that none of my stuff fits. Both times I had a child, I dropped a dress size postpartum. Due to that and other stuff, I was a size 12 when I got married, and am now a size 4. Apparently this is a very unusual thing to do, so I’ll stick with that.

I have a 3D CAD-like function in my head, and blew the lid off the block test score on my WAIS. I can fit more stuff into the dishwasher or a packing carton than anyone else I know. Not surprisingly, I really dig puzzles and construction sets. During insomniac nights, I mentally redesign gadgets to make them more user-friendly.

I think I’ll stick to my usual essays; they’re much easier to write.

My Top Myths in Teaching

I was going to do a Top Ten, but these are sufficient, really.  (Listed in no particular order.)

If all the students answer a test question correctly, the question is too easy and should be dropped. 

If the question properly assesses the mastery of knowledge, then when everyone answers the question correctly that means that the teacher and the students have all succeeded!  If one repeatedly drops such questions from tests over the years in favor of those that students cannot consistently answer, it may be that the students are not getting dumber over the years, but rather than the tests are getting more difficult.

Students nowadays are lazy and need more challenging classes so they’ll learn.
There’s a difference between challenging students and just making things hard on them.  Challenging students helps students by “scaffolding” them up to the next level in their learning by providing a level of difficulty that can be surmounted with a reasonable amount of effort on the part of the student and with the aid of the instructor.  Just making things difficult for students is pointless.

Student grade point averages should fall in a normally distributed bell curve, or else the grading scale should be changed to fit a normally distributed bell curve.
The normally distributed bell curve requires that for a number of students that do better, an equal number must do worse! It is not necessary that the curriculum be “dumbed down” for all the students to master the subject material. Nor is it required that good grades be a commodity in short supply. What is the goal of learning?  The goal is the transfer of knowledge.  This goal applies to all the students.  It is NOT wrong for all the students to do well! Likewise, if so many students are doing poorly on a test and the mass of poor grades need to be curved to create a new grading scale, then something is going seriously awry in the teaching-learning-testing process.

Student behavior is best shaped by rewarding correct behaviors with positive reinforcement and punishing incorrect behaviors with negative reinforcement.
If a student is not behaving (socially or academically) in the way we expect, we need to find out why.   Students who are having problems need to be helped, not punished. No long-term benefit is gained by reacting to the symptoms produced by a problem; the cause of the problem must be addressed.  “Helping” is not necessarily doing something for a person (which increases their sense of incompetence), but rather aiding them in figuring out how they can help themselves by either removing the cause of their problem or finding some way to compensate for it.  Teaching them self-help skills not only gives the student tools to solve future problems, but also builds self-esteem, which in turn improves the student’s ability to learn the curriculum.  Punishing the student for having problems not only further breaks down the self-esteem, but can also reinforce learned helplessness.  Furthermore, this kind of system turns the motivations from learning (intrinsic) to getting the reward or avoiding the punishment (extrinsic).

We’re not here to entertain the students!  
No, but we are here to engage them.  An instructor must have enough enthusiasm or thought-provoking information about the subject to create interest.

We need “flunk-out” classes like introductory chemistry or physics to weed out the less-than-stellar students.
Um, I thought the point of education was to teach students the things they don’t know?  The purpose of universities is to serve your student clients, not to remove them from the local populations within various colleges.  When students know (or just perceive) that there are “flunk-out” classes, this dismotivates them, and you end up with fewer students in necessary fields (like engineering), rather than more students and a greater diversity of students in particular fields.

Recess: Roadkill

Recess means we take a break and play. It’s important to do that once in a while.

This photo was taken several years ago in a parking lot in Dillon, Colorado. It made me laugh heartily, to the confusion of my husband.

I have no idea what the story is behind this, why someone would have such enmity against a geranium. And this is intentional; had the plant merely fallen off a balcony or a truck, it would have its pot around somewhere.

I love the way you can see the tread marks…


My phone rings, and I am scheduling with one of my new tutees. I am meeting with this particular person less for the more common “content” tutoring (explaining concepts in Biology, or editing strategies in Composition) than I am for “process” tutoring: figuring out what kinds or organsational methods will work best for her, and helping her figure out how she can solve future problems on her own.

I turn on my calendar program, as yet mostly comprised of blank squares for this month. “We can meet once a week for 90 minutes, or break that up and meet twice a week.”

“Well, what do other people do?” she asks, a tone of uncertainty in her voice. I wonder if the uncertainty stems from the scheduling logistics, from the process of getting tutoring, or some other element in her life. Maybe it’s just being tired from what she’d described as getting in late last night from a trip.

“It doesn’t matter what most other people do; what’s important is what you need,” I assert.

There is a pause while she digests this thought. Perhaps it’s a new and dangerous idea, where one’s needs outweigh having to do what everyone else does.

I explain the options a bit, “Once a week might work better because of time constraints, or twice a week might work better so you can review stuff and go to class and then review stuff again. We can also try it one way, and then as things change over the semester, try it the other way and see if that works better. I’m flexible. It’s not carved in stone.”

Perhaps the uncertainty comes from not knowing what her needs will be. That kind of prescience comes from experience, of which freshmen and sophomores have less.

This is, I have found, one of the paralyzing concepts facing people who don’t have as much experience in making decisions about their own lives. There is this myth that you should know what you’ll need in the future, and have to make The Best, Correct Decision – Right Now, and that once made, you’re stuck with it forever. That somehow there’s not enough grace in the world to change things and adapt them to your own changing needs, or your changing understanding of your needs. Worse, that if you make the Wrong Decision, or even a Less Useful Decision, then you have screwed up and this reflects poorly upon your character and your intelligence, rather than the fact that wisdom is a pathway trod throughout life.

We all want to do the right thing. We all need to learn how to make decisions about our lives and to advocate for ourselves. Doing that takes practice. Practice means that teens, young adults, and even older adults will need to have the opportunity to make mistakes along the way, learn from them, and then try again.

Practice means that one has a certain level of support system so we don’t fail to the point of endangerment. The baby learning to toddle is given a safe environment, a certain level of freedom, and encouragement. They are also the opportunity to fall down BUMF! on their diaper-padded butt time and again, to get up and cruise along the furniture until comfortable enough to strike out independently across the floor, and then eventually out the door into the big world.

What we don’t need is some people trying to keep us down by using the occasional failure as “proof” that a person is unable to be self-sufficient, and therefore must be bounded and trapped in “care” situations. As Carol Hanisch said decades ago (regarding the feminist movement), “We’re messed-over, not messed-up.”

My tutees are not the only ones practicing. I’m a practitioner because I’m also practicing. After a tutoring session I reflect upon what transpired to plan for next time. Sometimes I find that I must take different approaches than those traditionally recommended. This isn’t surprising, because the very reason I’m with these students in the first place is because the “usual methods” are often not adequate to their needs.

What this does is require me to come up with novel ways of applying what I know about the person and their situation. This means that for the student, the method I’m proposing has to in some way be partially based upon something they are already familiar with, so it will make sense to them, and so they can begin from a point of comfort derived from familiarity. Then we can take the method and do something different with it.

Much of doing this is an interactive process where I am providing the medium for the student to explore what they need, and how they can achieve that for their self. The end point is to help them learn how to problem-solve new kinds of situations, and thus eventually make myself “unemployed”.

Top Ten Things About Having Faceblindness (Prosopagnosia)

(Not in order of importance)

  1. You save a fortune not buying celebrity magazines because you’ve no idea who’s in all those pictures.
  2. You can go shopping without getting waylaid by chit-chatting with random neighbors/ coworkers/ fellow students/ workers from businesses you patronize. (Especially if you’re also autistic and avoid chit-chat anyway.)
  3. Never having to worry about losing ten pounds for lack of attending school reunions.
  4. You’re a safer driver because you aren’t repeatedly checking and touching up your makeup ( gals, and a few guys, too).
  5. Less clutter around the house without a gazillion photographs of relatives and relations.
  6. You develop an appreciation for science fiction because it’s easier to tell apart the different alien races (the Vulcan from the Ferengi from the Cardassian) than it is all the look-alike “beautiful people” in the soap operas.
  7. No obligation to bother studying the Most Wanted criminal notices tacked up at the post office.
  8. You are more likely to befriend the handicapped or otherwise morphologically unusual people.
  9. Security guards appreciate the fact that you’re a big believer in everyone wearing identity badges.
  10. You could identify familiar people at a masked ball just from their gait, mannerisms or voice.

This is humor; for information about faceblindness, see this following page, plus Web sites listed on the blogroll at left
I’m Strange, You’re A Stranger

“It wouldn’t be fair.”

Well, it’s that time of year again when I sign up for another class. Being that I’m taking this class at a different college, I have to once again go through the process of filing paperwork with the office that provides access services for students with disabilities. (I’ve long since learned to scan the diagnostic documents into pdf files so I can hand out copies, rather than risk losing or damaging the originals.)

Going through this process leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m relieved that someone takes seriously my persistent difficulties with some processes. I’m glad to finally get the accommodations I need. On the other hand, this whole process of getting accommodations, and indeed the system of special education, is a tacit acknowledgement that the current educational system simply doesn’t work well enough for large numbers of students.

The absurd part is that I really don’t need anything extraordinary in the way of accommodations. The things I need aren’t expensive, nor do they require the instructors to do anything radically different in their instruction methods.

My accommodations are to give me “preferential seating” (I sit up front to better see and hear the professor and the board they are writing/projection upon); to have the captions displayed when videos are shown so I can understand all the narration (the students with hearing impairments or who do not have English as their primary language also benefit from the captions); to get copies of lecture notes or PowerPoints so I can be sure of understanding and not missing any of the material being presented, and to have 50% extra time to take tests.

What these do is to allow me to do is to acquire the information being presented, and to demonstrate my mastery of the subject material, at levels on par with my peers. These don’t give me a superior advantage over the other students, but rather help bring me up to the same level. (If many of the other students find they would also very much benefit from these things, then the instructional and evaluation methods need re-assessing – there’s a difference between challenging students and making things hard on them.)

Much of the resistance I have gotten from instructors has been on the issue of “fairness”.

I have failed – flunked – big red “F” on the page – more math tests than I care to remember. Suddenly I am getting A’s in College Algebra and Calculus! So, I am not innumerate. But what the hell happened? I got much better teachers who were able to teach with a variety of methods geared for different learning styles, and they let me take the time I need to finish the tests.

Then I get to a graduate-level statistics course, and talk to the professor at the beginning of the semester, explaining my particular difficulties with transcription errors and such, and ask if I might be able to have extra time if necessary so I can finish my exams. He refuses. He feels that would be “unfair” to the other students. “Everyone gets test anxiety; you will get faster with practice,” he says.

I sigh heavily at this familiar refrain, and throw myself into the subject. Like calculus, statistics lives in a theory world of its own, but I find that I understand the concepts. I read the textbook. I take excellent notes in class (people like to borrow my notes when they miss lectures). I do all the homework. I join a study-group. I do the programming projects and get A’s on them.

Then I get D’s on the first two tests. (Oh no, not again!) I go back and explain my problems once again to my professor – I did not even have time to finish one of the tests! I ask him again for extra time, which he refuses. Finally in high frustration, I end up discussing the situation with my grad school advisor, who pushes through a class Drop (even after the official last-drop date; amazingly, it can be done). I retake the class the next semester, this time with my official paperwork filed so I can have half as much more time to take the tests, and therefore will be able to finish them and be able to double-check my calculations for transpositions and such. I get a perfectly acceptable B grade. I just wanted to be tested on my understanding of the material, not my computational speed!

“It wouldn’t be fair,” said the professor. He missed the point.

Ann Welch* makes some excellent distinctions about the different concepts that are lumped together under sometimes misleading heading of “fairness”.
Equality is about treating everyone the same way because people have the same rights.
Equity is about recognizing and responding according to the amount of effort given by or achievement of a student. Equity can be best determined when everyone has the same equal opportunity.
The third of course is need. Not everyone needs the same things. (After all, no one complains that it’s “unfair” that I get to use bifocals when the rest of the students don’t.)

Highly competitive cultures place great value on equity; you get what you deserve. (The corollary being that you deserve what you get, and if taken to extremes, that if you’re somehow “substandard” you must have deserved it. It’s the old sin model of disability.)

It’s not that people aren’t terribly concerned with fairness. Indeed, children are almost obsessed with fairness, watching every last gram of sweets being doled out, or time and opportunity with entertainments being shared. That sort of fairness is about equality.

Fairness is not just about treating everyone the same; it’s also about giving people what they need.

* Ann B. Welch. 2000. “Responding to Student Concerns about Fairness.”  Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, (2) 36-40

What’s So Damn Funny?

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” ~James Thurber

or more technically:

“Humor can be defined as surprise that softens our perception of adversity to a psychologically maneageable level.” ~Edward O. Wilson

Why don’t autistics “get” jokes? Do they lack a sense of humor as some people assert?

Humor is a reaction that developed to defuse rage or stress in a situation. It allows groups of individuals to continue coexisting by laughing together, rather than by attacking each other. It is also for defusing embarrassment/ shame, and thus allows an individual to “save face” (not lose their ego/ status) and not risk isolating their self. There is a big difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with someone. The latter is a functionally constructive adaptation.

If you are laughing, you cannot simultaneously feel stressed, angry, depressed, anxious or resentful at the same time. It maximizes positive feelings and reduces negative feelings and thus promotes overall personal health, in addition to promoting group cohesion rather than disharmony.


Humor can occur when we feel relief at a situation that was originally perceived to be a stressor, but at second look is not (e.g., discovering that a “snake” was in fact a dead branch).

Humor can occur when we “make light of” another’s (negative) action or comment by failing to accept it is intended importance. This “Teflon” quality is a form of self-defense, but can also promote group harmony by preventing hostility from progressing by reducing the power of the aggressor, especially if others also deflect the hostility in this manner. There are some kinds of power that only work if both parties “go along with” their roles as the aggressor and the suppressed.

Some humor is simply the delight in witticisms, e.g. puns, word play and such. Those people who are really adept at, and enjoy this sort of humor, often feel that it is rather not the “lowest form of humor”, but the highest, because it does not occur at the expense of another’s ability to “keep face” (maintain their ego/ status).


Some humor is “slapstick”, where the amusement is derived from the perceived/ potential, “fake” quality of actors pretending to hurt each other. The audience laughs partly from a sense of schadenfreude when something bad happens to someone else and the observer’s sense of (embarrassed) relief that is felt because it is happening to someone else rather than them. This stems from a sense of insecurity (if the action resulted from another person) or from general anxiety (if the action resulted from an impersonal, environmental act, such as my neighbor getting hit by a falling tree limb). The audience also laughs from a sense of superiority to the victim of the action, as derived from their own insecurities in being able to deal with problems and people in life (“Ha-ha, I am not that dumb!”)

Slapstick is “humor derived from pain”; it is personally not a form of humor that I enjoy. I did enjoy slapstick to some degree as a young child, but once I actually understood the dynamics of what was going on, it lost all potential for entertainment. I do not see anything funny in the “humor” of hurting others either physically or verbally. (Perhaps this is why many people find clowns scary, rather than funny, in addition to the whole generally strange appearance, and the inability to read emotional intent due to the face-paint?)

This humor from schadenfreude can sometimes be positive. It rarely is, being the humorous version of car-wreck carnage that everyone feels obliged to gawp at. But I think that some of the “I Love Lucy” episodes could be considered in this vein. We keep laughing as Lucy digs herself deeper and deeper into a hole, but fortunately she never gets truly hurt. Even as we shake our heads and think that we would never do anything so absurd as Lucy does, we also realize that in other situations, we too could end up behind that conveyer line, trying to cram chocolates somewhere, simply because we were too proud or too embarrassed to holler, “Stop the line, I cannot keep up!”


Likewise, there are some jokes that I simply do not get; I am “clobbered by the punch line” because I stand there looking confused (perhaps with a weak, apologetic smile) because I do not understand why others find the joke funny. Sometime this is due to my not understanding/ knowing the popular culture reference that gives it the necessary perspective. Of course, if you have to have this kind of joke explained to you, it loses all of it is “funny” because it is the element of surprise or incongruity that provides the funny! The other times I miss the punch line is when this is due to one of those peculiar social interaction “games” that (nearly) everyone else intuitively understands, but I am oblivious to. Once again, the joke is funny because it is the element of surprise or incongruity of what the others expect to happen, versus what actually happened in the story of the joke.

These are cultural jokes. Some of these cultural facets are common throughout most of the western societies, and because of this seemingly pervasive quality, are thought to be “universal”, even though the joke would, even if adequately translated, still fall flat in other, very different cultures. Likewise, there are some jokes that are only funny if you understand the cultural context, but because the cultural context is limited due to smaller population numbers (e.g. Deaf culture jokes), the joke serves an additional purpose of helping define cultural qualities by contrasting what “outsiders” would expect versus what the cultural “insiders” expect.

Autistics who sometimes feel a bit outside of the common cultural spectrum have these feelings of estrangement/ alienation reinforced because we do not “get” some of these culturally-based jokes. Once upon a time, I was accused of “not having a sense of humor” because I do not enjoy/ understand the humorous value of many of the jokes on the television show “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Many of those jokes were based upon characters insulting each other and other forms of personal pain. Indeed, I do not find these kinds of jokes to be humorous. However, I do enjoy the humor of word-play, or of people in painful situations who make jokes to confound the pain or turn the situations upside-down and break the potential pain of the situation (e.g. the television show “M*A*S*H”). In other words, I enjoy shows about people being clever, but not shows about people being mean or stupid.

I also love humor derived from absurdity. The joke is funny because of the element of surprise or incongruity of what the others expect to happen, versus what actually happened in the story of the joke. Absurd humor sometimes reveals something about ourselves, because it makes us aware of some familiar aspect of our social/cultural lives, and look at it in a way that we had not thought about it before.

For example, in Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” movie, the squire is making cloppity-cloppity sounds with coconut halves while the knight is skipping down the lane, and this reveals to us a set of nested incongruities … we know that on old radio programs, this was the way the “galloping horse” sound effect was made — but this is a moving picture show! There is initial surprise, followed by incongruity: we can see the sound effect being made. The joke gets funnier because the other characters in the scenes act as though this is normal — they are asking us to perform the “willing suspension of disbelief” (a fancy term meaning “just pretend”) for something on stage that is normally only done off stage, which is a further absurdism, or more incongruity.

The same also applies to sexual innuendo. In this case, the “pain” being thwarted is the frustrated desire (and/or sometimes the loss of face). In the movie “Young Frankenstein” there is a scene where a wench asks a guy if he wants to “roll in the hay.” We all know that this phrase is a very old euphemism for having sex. The joke is that when he indicates his interest, all the girl does is to … begin turning over in the haypile saying, “roll, roll, roll, roll…” taking the figure of speech literally. The humor lies in what the character and the audience expected (hoped) would happen, versus what unexpected event actually happened. How the character reacts to this frustration is also a bit of sympathetic farce — most guys can relate to having gotten their um, hopes up, and then totally dashed because the situation with the girl did not turn out as hoped. The humor is thus secondarily derived from coping with the pain of frustration.

Much of the humor in sexual innuendo comes from the innuendo part of it and seeing how far one can stretch a bit of word play. The British comedy “Are You Being Served?” is chock-full of this in the dialog of Mr. Humphries and Mrs. Slocombe.

The likewise supposed “lack of empathy” ascribed to autistics is rather either a lack of being able to identify other’s emotional responses, or a lack of understanding of the motivations that cause other’s emotional reactions. Indeed, I have great sympathy for the victims of slapstick or insulting humor (having often been the victim of such situations) and this is why I do not find it to be funny.
Another tangent to the psychological perspective of AS, is that sometimes others view this lack of understanding cultural humor or the lack of enjoyment of insulting humor, as being “lacking a sense of humor” altogether. The flippant comments about my perceived humorlessness reflect this: some of the incongruous things I find to be funny, others find quite strange, stupid, or humorless. But it is not a lack of a sense of humor on my part, but sometimes finding humor in different things.


Secondly, there is a big difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with someone. Attacking someone and then saying, “Oh it is just a joke; whatsamatter, can’t you take a joke?” is not true humor. This is “humor” derived from a feeling of superiority, using shame and derision.

Whether or not something is “truly” funny has to be evaluated. It is really interesting to watch old programs and then you realize that some kinds of humor do not age well. Political satire can be so topical that it is no longer funny or even intelligible a couple of decades later. Tastes in humor change, mostly due to evolving senses of what is appropriate for being laughed at. There are racial and sexist jokes that are only painful to hear, because it is embarrassing to realize that someone could have found their humor in the ridicule of others. When the “Jokes you cannot tell in mixed company” end up as “Jokes you wouldn’t even want to tell in any kind of company”, you get some hope that maybe society is growing up … just a little bit.

Making fun of someone and laughing at their expense is not funny. Although some forms of humor involve pain, but true humor is derived from averting or deflecting pain, rather than from inflicting pain. The ultimate (evolutionary) purpose of humor is to provide a coping mechanism and to reduce stresses (replacing negative feelings with positive ones) by reducing the importance of an event and it is perceived negative quality, and also to improve group dynamics.

Our feelings result not from situations, but from the positions we take or the values that we assign to situations. Likewise, it is often not particular situations that stress us, but the meanings or positions or values that we assign to those situations.

Humor enables us to change our perspective on situations, and thus how we can react to them. We laugh to keep from crying. We laugh because when we are powerless to act upon a situation, we are faced with either certain depression, or with using the one act of power left to us, the power to laugh at it.

Being able to laugh at situations improves our emotional and physical well-being (aerobics for the cardiopulmonary heart and spiritual heart both), and allows us to more successfully interact with and enjoy other’s company. When life gets too heavy, learn to lighten your load by shrugging off some of the pain. You cannot always prevent things from happening, but you can often choose how you will react to them.

Besides, the person who can laugh at their self will never run out of source material!

Small and Medium-size Talk

For me, “small talk” is analogous to cola. People all over the world dig these fizzy, sweet drinks. It makes their day, sometimes repeatedly, all day long. Every now and then I will re-sample some Coca-cola or Pepsi. Yeup, I still hate cola. I am not fond of carbonation, it is too sweet, and the flavor I simply cannot enjoy. Why do people love this stuff? They even enjoy the caffeine-free or sugar-free sorts, so that cannot be it. I have no idea.

So there I am stuck in some social occasion, with my tea or water-no-ice-please, or the hard to find ginger ale, holding it with an occasional swirl, hoping it quickly goes flat. I have those dire mental questions about this conversational dance:

Is it my turn to contribute something?

What would be appropriate to say?

Am I talking too much or not enough?

Don’t forget to make a little eye contact.

Are they really done talking? Whoops no they weren’t, oh dear.

Okay, that IS a pause … now it is a very long pause; am I supposed to say something, and if so, what about?

Are we done with small talking?

Should we move apart?

What kind of transitional comment am I supposed to make then?

The very-small talk of passing and greeting in the hallway, or waiting for a turn at the microwave, or for the coffeepot to finish brewing, is not so hard. One acquires a battery of general phrases to adapt to the particular day.

The big talk — actual conversation as exchange-of-information with persons whom you know or with whom you have things in common — during lunch time or at a meeting is okay.

It is the middle-size talk, the chit-chat, that is difficult. This is the sort one finds at dreaded office parties, dinners with fellow convention attendees, mixers with guests visiting the department, weddings, and such. These people often have some thin connection to one’s self, but for a topic of discussion it is too meager, and if we are near the end of the day there is nothing new to add, and besides by then people want to chit-chat about something else.

If you are standing or seated next to the spouse or “significant other” of the actual attendee, then you have nothing in common, at least nothing than can be perceived in a couple of minutes. Now, it may be that both of you have visited the same place, or have a passing interest in some obscure topic, but without some kind of handy visual “Index Of Interests” pinned to the lapel like military ribbons, who is to know? Perhaps in an hour’s time you will have discovered that spider-thread of connection, but meanwhile, there are countless bits of the dreaded small-talk to pick one’s way through.

And of course, there is the trap of somebody accidentally mentioning something that is a special interest of mine, and unless I am being especially self-aware, I am likely to data-bomb them with more information than they wanted. And of course, I usually cannot tell when “enough is enough already”. ::sigh::

Of course, my additional problem is that I have super-acute hearing for all the accessory noises in the environment, yet sometimes have difficulty understanding what people are saying. Or near the end of the day I am so over-stimulated with sensory input that I am beginning to blank out. The edges of my brain have the sparkle and wit of a bowl of oatmeal; there is the nearly overwhelming urge to crawl under the table drapes, or find a solitary chair and stare out the window at the clouds, or just put on my headphones and rock. And yet, this is the part of the event when I am supposed to be both engaged and engaging.

Chit-chat is deadly!

And if thy hand offend thee

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off.
~Mark (ch. IX, v. 43)

The current research into the genetic basis for autism includes not just understanding it as an intrinsic and permeating neurological difference, but is straying into the realm of being able to screen for babies carrying those genes, just as one can screen for (and thus not bear) babies with Down’s Syndrome.  (It should be noted that Down’s syndrome is a nonheritable genetic difference, but many other conditions are heritable.)

There’s an element of hatred in destroying an aspect of one’s self. The hatred is not always visible as stemming from fear, because the inherent paradox can be repressed. This paradox of virtue by self-hatred comes from a double-bind disguised as social responsibility: “Don’t you want to have a healthy baby?” How could this seemingly innocent question be a double-bind, an unwinnable situation? If you answer Yes, then you are at fault for not doing/having done the deed. If you don’t want to do the deed, then you are a worthless [future] parent because you aren’t Doing The Right Thing.

If an embryo carries a genetic trait, then that means you were responsible by having the genes in the first place. If those genes are undesirable, then that can be described as the genetic equivalent to passing on the sins of the fathers to the sons. Screening embryos for hundreds of “bad” genes is essentially seeking to perfect and breed better humans. People are uncomfortable with the fact that we can’t “fix” everything with science or social engineering, and remove all traces of perceived imperfection.

The genetic screening scenario presumes upon knowing which traits are bad and which are good, and ignores the fact that genetic diversity is necessary within a population for it to be able to adapt to new situations. We need people with different skills to fulfill different roles, some of which may not yet exist. Furthermore, the “usefulness” of particular genes is not always evident; having two sickle-cell genes makes one anemic, but having one sickle-cell gene confers resistance to malaria. Useful traits can occur because of clusters of interacting genes, and identifying all the players in the interaction is difficult; you may need some genes (that could be individually problematic) but work in synchrony with other genes to create useful traits.

Screening out embryos assumes that autism is a bad trait, rather than a variation caused by combinations of genes. It also assumes that having autistic children is tragic because there is a social stigma to having a defective/ crippled/ retarded/ autistic child — the child will never grow up to have a job and marry, but will ever be a burden upon the parents and society in general. Those “afflicted” are therefore undesirable and not-quite-human; people who are different are unacceptable. The whole “quality of life” issue given as the rationale for such efforts is presented in tragic, worst-case scenario terms. It paints disability as a fate worse than death that must be avoided at all costs.

Such disabled or nonstandard individuals must be able to “prove” their [monetary] worthiness to society to be acceptable, and thus deserving of the same rights and privileges as others. To be acceptable, the deviant people must do their best to “pass for normal”. One must straighten kinky hair, pretend you don’t have a gay partner, walk with braces rather than use a wheelchair, wear “invisible” hearing aids, and for heaven’s sake, not flap your hands in public when you get excited about something. Those perceived norms or desirable qualities state a lot about the implicit social power structures: only the imaginary “normal” people are okay, even though in reality there is no perfectly average, normal person.

Much of the disability seen in autism is from the extrinsic, socially-created problems. In essence, people are saying that genetic screening is a good thing because those children would have poor-quality lives, but are ignoring that such attitudes are a large part of what create difficult lives for people who are disabled or different!

The tragedy is not in having a baby that is in some way different, but rather in the thinly veiled disdain / loathing / fear of the public that is projected onto the baby, and therefore reflects upon the mother’s moral, genetic and social worthiness. It’s her fault if she declines to avail herself of current genetics testing (for any number of anomalies) and bears a “defective” baby.

Should women be required to produce an acceptably standard “product”, a baby that will conform to prevailing social norms of desirability and perfection? It seemed like a good idea during the American and German eugenics movements in the early decades of the 20th century …

Walking the Mine Field: Misadventures in Mathematics

Doing a complex calculation is not the simple matter than many people perceive it to be. “It’s simple,” I’ve heard repeatedly, “Just memorize the equation. Then it’s just ‘plug-and-chug’.”

In truth, performing calculations requires a great many steps, any one of which can be mistaken (or miss-taken), leading to disaster. It doesn’t matter if we’re doing calculus or statistics; either way, there’s a formula to choose and data to crunch through.

Identify the data from the problem. Not as straight-forward as you’d think; often there is extraneous data running around in there that’s not needed. We also run into charming instances of professors and books using different terms to mean the same thing, or handwriting that makes the same term look like a completely different character. “Is that a sigma or a delta?” Pro mea lingua Graeca est. For added entertainment value, let’s have a hand-written test.

Be able to correctly transform the data into the necessary forms, pre-flight. Are the numbers in the correct units? Do we first need to find means and standard deviations of the 30 values listed in the table? Do we need to flip through 15 pages of lecture notes and a chapter of textbook pages to find or verify the transformational technique? Yes, I have a page of formulae that I’m building. As we slog through the class, this is how I know what to put on the page. Let us hope that I don’t have a transcription error on my formula page!

Be able to correctly transcribe the data, without transpositions, morphing of numerals, or loss of data. This is often where I get into trouble – there’s a sense of spatial meandering as the numbers seem to wander around like ants. Pages with several problems on them make this worse, cluttering the search image. Sometimes I cover over parts of the page with index cards to reduce the visual clutter, but then I have to turn the pages… Double-check the numbers you’ve entered into the calculator before punching Enter. Oops, dropped a digit; re-enter all the numbers again.

Identify which procedure is being called for. Often indirectly stated, especially on tests. Once you know what you need to do, then you need to select which of that mass of massive, messy equations does that trick. It sure would be nice if the professors would spend less time explaining how someone derived the formula – for all I care, it could have arrived fully-formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Copying down all the steps someone used to transform one formula into another nifty new formula is not helpful to me – it just gives me pages of notes of half-cooked formulae that I need to puzzle through while trying to track down the one I really need. I’d rather they spent more time taking us through a flow-chart of how we determine which formula we need.

Transcribe the formula onto the homework page, without error. Then be able to correctly transcribe the data into the formula format, without transpositions, morphing of numerals, or loss of data. Stop and compare the numbers here with those in the problem. All systems “GO”? Clearance from the control tower?

Be able to remember where in the sequence of functions you are in the procedure. What was a bit awkward in “borrowing” during subtraction, became confusing in long division, and is downright maddening in regression analyses where each problem is a series of computational subsets. (I sure hope this problem doesn’t take more than one side of the page.) Sometimes I put labels alongside the subsets so I know what the pieces are, but sometimes writing ∑xy or s2 on the page only adds more ants. The page is already messy looking from several erasures. Flick rubber crumbs off the table.

Double-check the numbers you’ve entered into the calculator before punching Enter. Got “decimated” – transposed a zero and the decimal point. Re-enter all the numbers again.

Be able to correctly transcribe the correct data, in its proper transformation, without transpositions, morphing of numerals, or loss of data. Yes, we’re stuck in a loop of trying to keep track of a swarm of answers, some of which are raw, some of which are cooked, and it’s not impossible for one to roll off the counter and end up forgotten on the floor.

Next step of the procedure: double-check the numbers you’ve entered into the calculator before punching Enter. So now what do we plug this answer into?

Be able to interpret the significance of the numeric result. So what does “17.2” mean? (Do I care?) Re-read the problem again. Did I use the right formula? Oh, yeah. Write out the answer verbally, because by tomorrow in class this home-work page will have reverted to an unintelligible ant-farm of digits. I really do NOT recall what I did on a math problem from one day to the next.

Congratulations. You have finished the first homework problem. Only fifteen more to go. Um, are we doing problem 56 or 65? Did I get the right answer, or am I practicing doing the problem incorrectly?

In the Final analysis. Of course, in a homework assignment, you know what formula(e) you’re supposed to be using; it’s the one related to that section of the book. Now let’s go to a test, where we’re doing several different kinds of problems.

The test questions written by the professor state the problems differently than the book did, and require using the formulae in different ways than in the homework, to asses our understanding of the concepts. Naturally, this means that the problems on the tests don’t look at all familiar, because they aren’t set up the same way that the problems were on the homework. Before tackling the brute calculations, we have to decipher just what is in front of us. (Where are we going, and what am I doing in this hand-basket full of eraser crumbs and ants?)

“It’s simple,” they tell me, “Just memorize the equation. Then it’s just ‘plug-and-chug’.”