In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

Everyone once in a while, a student might make a careless mistake — or just choose an incorrect course of action — that changes what was supposed to be a simple problem into an incredibly difficult problem. For example, here’s a problem that might arise in Calculus I:

Find if

The easy way to do this problem, requiring about 15 seconds to complete, is to use the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. The hard way is by multiplying out — preferably using Pascal’s triangle — taking the integral term-by-term, and then taking the derivative of the result. Naturally, a student who doesn’t see the easy way of doing the problem might get incredibly frustrated by the laborious calculations.

So here’s the advice that I give my students to trying to discourage them from following such rabbit trails:

If you find yourself stuck on what seems to be an incredibly difficult problem, you should ask yourself, “Just how evil do I think my professor is?”

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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