Friday, May 10, 2013

No. 391 – Karn Evil 9

Performer: Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Songwriters: Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Peter Sinfield
Original Release: Brain Salad Surgery
Year: 1973
Definitive Version: Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends … Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, 1974

My second semester freshman year at Wabash, I learned I had acquired a reputation in the Math department. Some necessary backstory: When I enrolled at Wabash, as I mentioned, I thought I wanted to be an architect, so I needed physics and math classes.

I quickly transferred out of physics and picked up an English lit class, but I continued with the math. Why, I couldn’t tell you. It was calculus, and the only F I received for a quarter (a D for the semester) in high school—heck, the only grade I got lower than a B in high school—was in calculus.

Thanks to the backs of baseball cards, I had become quite the math wizard in flash-card games in elementary school. The teacher would pit two students, one sitting at his or her desk, the other standing, and flip a math flash card, like 8 x 8 =. The first person to call out the correct answer moved to the next desk. I never lost. Once, I won undefeated, moving around the entire class without sitting once.

I was put in accelerated math in seventh grade, and after Mrs. Goldsmith straightened me out, I never got less than an A until trigonometry my junior year in high school. But calculus did me right in. It was like I couldn’t get my head around the concept of conceptual math.

It didn’t go as badly at Wabash. Because this was my second year in a row of calculus, the concepts weren’t new—some I gathered a bit better; others, still, forget it. I worked hard, but I was a solid B-/C+ student in Math 13. (Of course, I didn’t really learn to study properly until my junior year, so that knowledge might have made a difference, too.)

But the Math department at Wabash had an internal policy (and still might for all I know) that if you got an A on the final exam, you got an A for the entire semester. I got an A for the entire semester—one of six students out of about 80 to do so.

How did I do it? I cheated.

As sure as I am sitting here, I’m sure that’s what the professors thought. The giveaway was at the beginning of Math 14, when my Math 13 professor (whose name I’ve forgotten) made the announcement about how everyone in the department was keen to see whether I could pull another rabbit out of the hat. (An aside: Why I took Math 14, I also don’t know. I suppose I felt obligated to give it another shot.)

One problem though: The exam wasn’t of the supply-the-answer type where if someone pilfered an exam and passed it around, you could just plug in the answers and be done with it. No, in this exam, you had to show your work, which was part of your grade. That probably is why I wasn’t accused of academic malfeasance. I did the work and supplied the correct answers. The only thing they could do was give me my A and wonder how the heck I did it.

So here’s my secret, revealed 30 years later: I cheated.

OK … I didn’t really cheat. I merely used the resources that were available to me—and to every other Wabash student.

Every fraternity and dorm had prep files in the house—previous exams from students in various classes. At finals time, you went to them and looked to see how other students answered certain questions.

Needing all the help I could get for Math 13, I consulted the Wolcott prep file, which had an A-grade Math 13 final. I borrowed and went over it for hours, probably with the live version of this half-hour-long epic droning in the background. (And if not this song, something else from Welcome Back …, which I played almost as much as my suitemate, Paris, played Thriller.)

The exam being what it was, though, memorizing the answers would do me no good. What I did was jot down the answers and work through the problem until I arrived at an answer. If I came up with the wrong answer, I then referred back to the previous exam to see where I messed up. Then I’d run through it again. In so doing, I learned how to solve the problem rather than just supply an answer.

When it was time for the final, I felt confident that my study helped me to understand enough concepts that eluded me all semester that I wouldn’t tank the final. My confidence surged through the roof when they handed the exam, and I quickly realized that it was a carbon copy of the one on which I had practiced for the past week.

Let me clarify that: It wasn’t the identical exam, but it was the same types of questions, in the exact same order, as the prep exam. The only difference was that the numbers had been changed. I couldn’t believe it!

Well, I knew these problems cold and could work through every single one of them step by step, properly. I have almost no doubt that not only did I ace the Math 13 exam that fateful December day, but I also got a perfect score. (I never saw my exam. Apparently, the Math professors figured out about prep files and stopped letting students take their exams, as they did in other departments.)

So, I didn’t cheat. I just learned precisely what I needed to learn, as luck would have it, to excel on the Math 13 final.

Lightning didn’t strike twice. The Math 14 final in the Wolcott prep file wasn’t followed as closely as that of Math 13. I got a B for the semester. Still, that was a good grade for someone who had no business testing the calculus gods a third time.

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