Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Morale Support

A few weeks ago Ariel asked me to come with her to the Math Computer Lab where she had a homework assignment. I wasn’t sure why I had to go, but she was very insistent. When we got there, I noticed that almost everyone had an extra person with them. This seemed really odd. Didn’t these people have other things to do with their time? Or did they know something I didn’t? As I would learn, they were Morale Support.

I know you must be asking yourself why everyone in the MCL brings along morale support. (If you didn’t ask that question, you should.) After all, this isn’t math tutoring. This is where students go to do homework on Maplesoft (Maple is the industry standard for mathematicians, engineers, and scientists). Its claim to fame is that it can do symbolic computation. It can also do palettes, which I thought was an “art” thing, but apparently not.

But we’re still back to the question of why everyone needs morale support. Imagine you’re me walking into MCL for the first time. You notice the people in the room are seated in groups of two. Each group has one person hunched over the computer with a calculator in hand and an angry/anxious expression on his face. (Yes, Ariel and I are usually the only females.) The second person looks extremely bored and occasionally glances at the computer screen and makes comforting noises. You take a seat and break out your book. Then, above the hum of computers, you notice swearing. Not your every day swearing either. These pocket-protector people are mumbling words that would make a drunken sailor blush. So you focus on your book, trying to ignore every other sound. Eventually, I hear growls and murmuring from Ariel. She demands I “look at this.” Being the dutiful mother, I gaze at the computer screen. Nothing looks even vaguely familiar. I say, “Uh, yeah…” Ariel says, “It’s not working.”

Me, noticing her narrowed eyes and flushed face: What’s not working?

Ar, gesturing at the computer: Read it.

Me: Right. (Imagine looking at weird bracket-y things and letters with an occasional number tossed in for fun.) So…this isn’t working.

Ar: No! This is stupid.

Me, deciding it’s best to echo her frustration—though I have no idea what’s wrong: It’s ridiculous.

Ar: This whole thing is wrong.

Me, thinking she’s made a mistake: Oh, did you do the problem wrong?

Ar, shoving the calculator in my face: No. Here’s the right answer. This idiotic Maple thing is wrong.

Me, discovering what my true role is: Maple is stupid!

Ar, 30 minutes later: Argh. My professor input some of the information wrong so Maple spits out the wrong answers.

Me: The professor and Maple are stupid!

Ar, 2 hours later, after she’s fixed the professor’s errors and figured out which Maple functions to use by trial and error (the tutorial’s missing): The printer won’t work—it’s password protected and the system rebooted itself and the math department won’t pay anyone to monitor the lab.

Me: The math department, the printer, the professor, and Maple are very stupid!

Yep, I’ve got my role down pat. Morale support.